For many people, including people with disabilities, having a job is key to self-sufficiency and social connections. Yet over half of Coloradans with disabilities (52.9 percent) stated that their physical, mental, or emotional condition made it difficult for them to work at a job. An important policy question is whether these people’s problems with working are really caused by the disabilities themselves, or by specific barriers in the workplace and in society.

Overall, people with disabilities in Colorado have better employment rates than people with disabilities nationwide. However, within Colorado, people with disabilities continue to lag far behind those without disabilities. In Colorado, 43.5 percent of individuals with disabilities have jobs, a rate 7.6 percent higher than the national 35.9 percent employment rate for people with disabilities.

The employment rate for Colorado residents with disabilities is 40.3 percent lower than the employment rate for residents without disabilities (43.5 percent compared to 83.8 percent). (1) Across the state, the employment rate for individuals with disabilities living in urban areas is 43.6 percent and 42.9 percent for individuals living in rural areas. (2)

Disability and unemployment have become historically linked, especially since some cash benefits and health care programs required inability to work as a condition of eligibility. There is much evidence, however, that people with all kinds of disabilities can succeed in the workplace if they have appropriate education, training, technology, access, and necessary accommodations.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that college graduates with disabilities are much more likely to be employed at rates comparable to nondisabled people. Assistive devices, such as adapted keyboards, can allow people with sensory or physical disabilities to access computer technology, opening the door to many job opportunities.

Some employment barriers are more complex and intractable. The very benefits that provide people with a financial safety net and essential health care and support services can discourage employment. The primary anti-poverty program for children with disabilities and working-age adults with disabilities is Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Eligibility for SSI also brings Medicaid coverage, which is critical for many Coloradans with disabilities. For the most part, these programs require recipients to stay poor in order to keep their benefits.  Despite some rules and regulations that allow some beneficiaries to work while continuing to receive benefits, people fear losing their eligibility if they earn an income.

Other employment barriers include incorrect assumptions and negative attitudes about people’s ability to work, difficulty with rigid work schedules, and discriminatory treatment. Under onhealthy.net Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to treat people with disabilities fairly, and to make reasonable accommodations to enable them to fulfill their job responsibilities; but in reality, responsibility for enforcing this law rests with individuals experiencing job discrimination, many of whom are unaware of their rights, or unwilling to undertake a legal battle against daunting odds.

A natural outcome of high rates of unemployment is high rates of poverty for people with disabilities. Over the last century, Colorado has experienced remarkable economic growth and development. However, the continued existence of poverty in our state is a stark indicator that some of our fellow citizens remain on the margins of society. Although all kinds of people experience poverty, it occurs more frequently among those with disabilities in our state; clear evidence of a social, economic, and vocational gap between those with and without disabilities in Colorado.

A person with a disability living in Colorado is more than 2.4 times more likely to live in poverty than a resident without a disability.(3) Poverty rates vary from region to region. Likewise, the disparity in poverty prevalence between people with and without disabilities looks very different from one area to the next.

Employment brings increased choices, enabling people to be less dependent on publicly funded services and benefits. Once employed, workers with disabilities strengthen the economy by becoming taxpayers and consumers with greater purchasing power. In 2008, the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) assisted 2,463 individuals with disabilities in gaining job skills, obtaining equipment, and finding competitive employment. This led to an increase in Colorado’s tax base of $33 million. (4)

Colorado has made progress in expanding employment opportunities for people with disabilities.  However, it is crucial that the state and Colorado businesses work together to open more such opportunities. The long-term economic health of Colorado requires the full participation and contributions of all residents of our state. Looking for ways to expand the employment rate of individuals with disabilities is a key component of this endeavor.

(1)Houtenville, Andrew J., “Statistics Describing the Population with Disabilities in Colorado: By County and CIL Catchment Area.” New Editions Consulting, Inc., on behalf of the Colorado Statewide Independent Living Council. National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR, Grant No. H133B080012), September 2009.

(2) Houtenville, Andrew J.,

(3) Houtenville, Andrew J.,

(4) The Colorado State Rehabilitation Council and the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. (n.d.). 2008 Annual Report. Colorado Department of Human Service. Retrieved December 15, 2009, from

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