Does a College Degree Close the Disability Wage Gap?

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  • Workers with disabilities statistically earn significantly less than their peers.
  • While a college degree can help narrow the wage gap, it is still not enough.
  • The ADA has also leveled the playing field for disabled Americans, but there's more to do.
  • Many different strategies may help close the disability wage gap.

While most people are aware of the gender wage gap, many may not have heard of the disability wage gap. However, for workers with disabilities, the wage gap is real, persistent, and severe.

Americans with disabilities earn only 66 cents for every dollar earned by their counterparts without any disabilities.

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There have already been some attempts to close the disability wage gap — one of the most foundational being the Americans With Disabilities Act — commonly known as the ADA. However, many more steps can be taken to close the wage gap and provide more and better opportunities for workers with disabilities.

Workers With Disabilities Earn Less Than Their Peers

The disability wage gap is caused by various factors and impacts everyone differently. The wage gap for disabled workers varies depending on educational attainment, chosen professional field, and even location, with the wage gap varying significantly state by state. Gender is also a relevant factor, with the disability pay gap being wider among men than women.

In fact, the states with the widest disability wage gaps for those with a bachelor's degree are the District of Columbia, Minnesota, and Washington state, according to the American Institutes for Research (AIR). In Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Utah, workers with disabilities who have a bachelor's degree actually earn more than their non-disabled peers. These disparities show how the disability wage gap is not inevitable but is the result of different factors that can be remedied if approached carefully and tackled deliberately.

An Uneven Playing Field, Even With a Degree

According to a 2014 study by AIR, the effect of higher education on the disability pay gap tells a complicated story. The wage gap between disabled and non-disabled workers was most significant for those with master's degrees — workers with disabilities earned an average of $66,900 per year while non-disabled workers earned $87,770. While wages for both groups increase with educational attainment, the gap between wages is widest for those with postgraduate degrees.

$66,900
Annual Salary for Disabled Workers

$87,770
Annual Salary for Non-Disabled Workers

Higher education beyond an associate degree widens the disability pay gap, something only compounded by the higher costs of living Americans with disabilities may face due to medical expenses or the need for specialized accommodations. The surprising relationship between higher education and the disability pay gap may have a variety of causes, including systemic discrimination in the world of higher education and the workplace.

Where Does the ADA Come Into Play?

The ADA is a landmark piece of legislation that first came into effect in 1990 and has been crucial to expanding employment opportunities for Americans with disabilities. Under the provisions of the ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. Furthermore, the ADA made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on disability, just like it's illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

It's important for employees with disabilities to know their rights under the ADA — not only in case they may have been discriminated against, but to ensure they receive accommodations that may make them more comfortable and successful on the job.

Ways to Close the Disability Inclusion Gap

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    Efforts to not only accommodate but also actively include students with disabilities in undergraduate and postgraduate programs can help them succeed and set them up for career success. This can be achieved via disability studies programs, disability awareness on campus, and a greater understanding of academic accommodations.
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    The power of legislation can be used to help close the disability pay gap. In addition to the ADA, the Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA) was designed to promote greater inclusivity in the workplace and increase transparency in what organizations are doing to create better environments for employees. Changes to WIOA in 2022 aim to make it even stronger on disability inclusion in the workplace.
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    Efforts to educate employers about not only the needs of their employees with disabilities but also the advantages of an ability-diverse workforce can encourage them to hire and center employees with disabilities. For instance, many employers may not be aware of the benefits to an organization that come from neurodiversity in its talent pool, including hiring autistic employees.
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    The rise of remote and hybrid working policies can help create more employment opportunities for disabled workers to close the pay gap. In particular, remote work opportunities can expand employment opportunities for those with limited mobility or who require a specific environment for sensory reasons.
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    Educational and employment organizations, such as nonprofits, can help students and job applicants access opportunities that will benefit them. These businesses can help them apply for their first jobs and internships at inclusive organizations.

Bottom Line

The disability wage gap remains a persistent problem and one to which there are no simple solutions. While education has often been a way to increase opportunities for historically marginalized groups, it is clear that education is insufficient in this case.

Rather, it will take a multi-faceted approach to tackle the disability wage gap, with legislation, education, and employer policies all playing their part in bringing about lasting change.