Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2004, Volume 24, No. 3
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


David C. Stapleton and Richard V. Burkhauser, Editors. The Decline in Employment of People with Disabilities - A Policy Puzzle. Kalamazoo, Mich.: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment, 2003. 427 pages. $22. Paper 088099259X.

Reviewed by Alan M. Dinsmore, Senior Governmental Relations Representative, American Foundation for the Blind.

At the Mad Hatter's Tea Party: Alice had been looking over his shoulder with some curiosity. "What a funny watch!" she remarked: "It tells the day of the month, and doesn't tell you what o'clock it is!" "Why should it?" muttered the Hatter.

"Does your watch tell you what year it is?" "Of course not," Alice replied very readily: "but that's because it stays the same year for such a long time." "Which is just the case with mine," said the Hatter. Alice felt dreadfully puzzled.

 --- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

I mean no disrespect to the editors and authors of The Decline in Employment of People With Disabilities — A Policy Puzzle. Having spent about 25 years in the world of Congressional and Executive Branch policy, as a member of the staff of the United States Senate and as a governmental relations representative, perhaps it is inevitable that Alice's adventures in wonderland come readily to my mind. However, after digesting the extensive, well-documented consideration of the validity of current data for measuring trends in employment of people with disabilities, and related causes and consequences of their declining rate of employment, I must say that I do feel right at home with the Mad Hatter and Alice. I also feel dreadfully puzzled.

Here is my problem. The editors cite several national surveys that have been repeated over many years to compare employment rate of people with disabilities and those without disabilities along with labor force participation rates, health insurance data, prevalence of reported work limitations, and relevant employment rate trends. The listing of data sources and related analysis provides a significant and valuable contribution. However, the policy analysis, especially the certainty of the last pronouncement of the editors that: "The bottom line of this book is that the unprecedented fall in the employment rate of working-age people with disabilities in the 1990s was a direct effect of the unintended consequences of public policies" (p. 402).

This analysis is very much like the watch analysis of Alice and the Mad Hatter, quite elegantly explained but not strictly reliable when you consider the data presented.

Public policy seldom moves with the grace and precision of objective data measurement. Working at their level best, policy makers, whether they are legislators, regulators, or policy managers will try to base policy on the best available information and will try to carry the policy out in such a way as to manage accountability to performance. When the measurement instruments are reliably constructed to reflect the finding, purpose, and policy of the framers of legislation, that is when adequate resources are available to construct, administer, and analyze policy relevant data. That's when we can expect valid analysis of public policy. This is not often accomplished. Even when these goals are attained, valid policy analysis can be made more difficult by inadequate funding, regulations which may inadequately administered, understood, or just badly written.

Equally problematic is the concept of legislative time. Here, the inability to make legislators and regulators behave in such a way that events happen in a reliable and predictable fashion can defeat even the most robustly constructed data bases. The Americans with Disabilities Act may provide an instructive example. For one thing, conclusions regarding the ADA provided by Thomas DeLeire, Chapter 7 "The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Employment of People with Disabilities" will incite comment by advocates among and for people with disabilities. However, I cite it because I think it represents the weakness of the data base and policy conclusions relating to employment of persons with disabilities.

DeLeire states: "This chapter summarized the empirical evidence on the labor market consequences of the ADA. It will show that, to date, the ADA — as well as similar state-level Legislation that preceded the ADA — has reduced employment opportunities for those with disabilities. This evidence is consistent with the argument that accommodation and employment-protection costs can reduce the employment of the individuals these actions are meant to protect" (p. 259).

Sadly, we do not have data showing that Title I of the ADA has dramatically improved the employment of people with disabilities. We also do not have clear and convincing evidence that Title I of the ADA has had the deleterious effect stated by this author. Relevant measures are missing from this analysis, which would explain variations in employment status such as work-history/career-stage at onset of employment. To be fair and accurate, this chapter does point to basic data problems such selection of a proper population for study or whether the labor market experiences of selected samples are or are not typical.

There are two more confounding issues.

First, returning to the concept of "legislative time," everything does not go out of the legislative, regulatory, and policy management gate at the same time. Implementation of Title I regulations, interpretive guidance by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, provision of technical assistance, employer and consumer awareness and education did not move in a graceful, serial fashion. In order to more clearly understand policy implications, we need to look much more carefully at very difficult processes such as the timing of information, its penetration into the relevant arenas, and the very subjective issue of how seriously each sector of the covered entities engaged in a good faith effort to understand and comply with the law, its regulations, and interpretative guidance.

Second, not everything that can fairly be interpreted as having relation to the labor force participation of people with disabilities can be exclusively related to the ADA or even to Social Security Disability, or health insurance, three main focus areas for the authors' analysis. In preparing to engage in employment, individuals with disabilities look to a number of factors such as the quality of transition services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, accessibility and routing of public transportation, proper training in the use of assistive technology either through the Rehabilitation Act or, when appropriate, the Workforce Investment Act, and increasingly, access to and use of telecommunications equipment and services. Federal and private sector support for the development and marketing of assistive technology are probably also important determinants of successful entry and participation in the labor force.

Burkhauser and Stapleton in their concluding chapter cover some of these issues, accurately directing our attention to other significant laws like the 1999 Ticket to Work and Work Incentive Improvement Act and the New Freedom Initiatives and their potential for change. I hope that, rather than engaging in a public policy wrangle about whether or not our good intentions have the right consequences, especially when these findings are based on data which is subject to so many qualifications, we can turn our attention to refining the ongoing methodological work, and giving sustained attention to developing relevant measures that are currently missing from analysis, those which might be more sensitive to the aforementioned laws and others.

If we are to accurately measure the outcomes of our best efforts in public policy, we need to carefully examine the many theoretical measures which are absent from the data sets used in this book such as education, work history, career-stage at onset of disability, access to and use of assistive technology, access to transportation, extent of involvement in rehabilitation services including private sector services and services provided to people with disabilities who already hold a job.

It is regrettable that our employment analysis and much of the theoretical work of the authors is rooted in individual, medical model characterizations of disability instead of focusing on the environmental barriers to employment such as transportation and other community level barriers or facilitators to employment which are important factors in determining the effectiveness of employment policy. I hope this changes. It will if disability policy advocates join in an effort to support the development needed and the funding for its implementation.

Copyright (c) 2004 Alan M. Dinsmore

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