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Stuck at the bottom rung: Occupational characteristics of workers with disabilities

Introduction The proportion of workers reporting disabilities varies tremendously across occupations. Although differences in the occupational distributions may partly explain the large disparities in earnings and job security between workers with and without disabilities, little is known about the reasons that workers with disabilities are underrepresented in certain occupations and overrepresented in others. Methods Using a large, national survey of the US population combined with official data on the skill and experience requirements and occupational risks of 269 occupations, a multilevel regression analysis was performed to identify occupational and individual factors that influence the representation of workers with disabilities across occupations. Models of overall, sensory, mobility, and cognitive disability were constructed for working-age labor force participants, as were models of overall disability for younger, in-between, and older workers. Results At the occupational level, reported disability is negatively associated with occupational requirements for information and communication skills and with the amount of prior work experience that is required, after controlling for individual factors such as age and educational attainment. Little relationship is found between disability status and a set of occupational risk factors. These findings generally hold true across disability types and age groups. Conclusions Even after taking into account their lower average educational attainment, workers with disabilities appear to be disproportionately relegated to entry-level occupations that do not emphasize the better-remunerated job skills. Underemployment results in lower wages and less job security and stability. Possible reasons include employer discrimination, low expectations, deficits in relevant skills or experience, and work disincentives.