Disabled workers chase ‘dream jobs’ in tight U.S. labor market

WEST ORANGE, N.J. (Reuters) – Megan Helsel, a kayaking wildlife specialist, has her dream job, and T’angelo Magee is making headway toward his, a commercial pilot. Both say work is central to their identity. Both are disabled.

Americans with disabilities, physical and cognitive, in recent months have been joining the workforce at a faster pace than those without disabilities, according to data collected by organizations that work with the disabled.

Labor Day on Sept. 2 may be the first time the disabled regain an employment rate that was upended by the 2008 Great Recession.

The gains are the result of both technological advances and workplace flexibility that lessens commuting barriers, according to experts on disabled workers. But the gains also reflect the pull of a tight labor market.

With the U.S. unemployment rate at just 3.7% – roughly a half-century low – employers have increasingly considered job applicants they often overlooked in the first stages of what is now a record-long economic expansion.

“The recent uptick is basically ‘the full employment story’ – it makes firms look at other populations they haven’t previously considered,” said Andrew Houtenville, economics associate professor at University of New Hampshire.

Helsel was working in her kayak on bird counts and other wildlife projects for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Jersey in 2016 when a previously undetected tumor burst in her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. When her doctor broke the news about her sudden life altering disability, Helsel’s first question concerned returning to work.

“He said, ‘You’re probably never going to walk again.’ I asked, ‘When am I going to be able to kayak again?’” recalled Helsel, 32.

New technology has helped Helsel and other disabled people to get on an employer’s payroll. Widely-used apps include Venmo, which allows mobility-challenged workers to easily bill customers, and iPhone’s VoiceOver, which lets visually impaired workers conduct business.

More specialized breakthroughs include an electronic-stimulating leg cuff. Helsel wears this instead of a bulkier brace that restricts her to wearing sneakers. The cuff enables her to don thermal boots needed to kayak through frigid winter waters.


Helsel is among the roughly 15 million disabled Americans ages 16 to 64, which represents about 7% of all working age Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey for July…


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