“In 2021, nearly 17 percent of all working-age New Yorkers with a disability were unemployed—more than double the pre-pandemic level. These disproportionately steep economic losses compound with structural inequities that led to pandemic-level unemployment for New Yorkers with disabilities long before COVID hit.”
There are nearly 1 million New York City residents today with a self-identified disability. The size and diversity of this population makes few generalizations possible. But one thing is clear: far more city support will be needed to ensure a full and equitable economic recovery from the pandemic for New Yorkers with disabilities.
In 2021, according to a new report from the Center for an Urban Future, nearly 17 percent of all working-age New Yorkers with a disability were unemployed—more than double the pre-pandemic level (7.4 percent). These disproportionately steep economic losses compound with structural inequities that led to pandemic-level unemployment for New Yorkers with disabilities long before COVID hit.
Despite the economic turmoil, enormous changes in the ways people live and work are creating the conditions for a major expansion of economic opportunity: a cultural shift toward acceptance of remote and hybrid work; advances in assistive technologies knocking down entrenched barriers to economic inclusion; and a surging number of unfilled job openings driving some companies to tap into talent long left out of certain workplaces.
Mayor Eric Adams and the City Council should seize on these changes to implement new investments and policy changes that can make New York City a national leader in employment for people with disabilities.
First, city leaders will have to tackle several long standing challenges. As many as half or more of the clients served by leading workforce development organizations citywide have a disability, according to our research, but few organizations have the specialized knowledge or resources needed to integrate accessibility best practices into their programs. New York is home to several disability-focused service providers with decades of expertise and creative approaches to job development, but inflexible rules and a lack of targeted support have made it nearly impossible to compete for publicly funded contracts. And too few city employers have recognized the value of employing people with disabilities or taken steps to make their workplaces accessible.
These challenges are magnified by a lack of public investment. The key source of city funding for contracted programs serving New Yorkers with intellectual and developmental disabilities has plunged 82 percent over the past two decades after adjusting for inflation, from $70.7 million in 2002 to $12.6 million in 2022. And while initiatives from the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) are succeeding in connecting people to living-wage jobs, MOPD’s annual budget is only $820,000, significantly less than the per capita funding for similar agencies in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, and Washington, DC.
The city needs to strengthen and restructure the existing system to foster a more equitable economy. To do this, Mayor Adams should launch the nation’s first Accessibility Training Challenge, a $10 million competitive grant program designed to enable workforce organizations and disability services providers to partner on integrating accessibility throughout existing programs. The mayor should direct every agency responsible for issuing workforce development contracts to incorporate accessibility goals into their requests for proposals and expand city workforce funding to more disability-serving organizations.
The mayor and City Council can also lead by example by establishing a 7 percent hiring target for people with disabilities in city jobs and through city contracts, replicating a key initiative at the federal level. In addition, Mayor Adams can direct the Department of Small Business Services to work with the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities to create mobile small business accessibility teams, with the goal of helping 2,500 small- and medium-sized business workplaces become fully accessible to employees with disabilities by 2025.
New York City should seize this moment to lead the nation in expanding employment opportunities for people with disabilities, building a more accessible economy that works better for everyone.
Melissa Lent is researcher and multimedia specialist at the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) and the lead author of “Access Opportunity.” Eli Dvorkin is CUF’s editorial and policy director.