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Unemployment in the U.S. is at a near 50-year low. People who couldn't find work in the past are suddenly in demand, and that includes people with disabilities. For a generation, the number of people on the federal government's disability insurance program grew steadily, but now for the first time in decades, that number is shrinking. NPR's Scott Horsley reports as part of our series on the ripple effects of a tight labor market.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Dani Izzie works as a digital and social media marketer for a company called Spinergy.
DANI IZZIE: The main thing they do are wheels - high performance wheelchair wheels.
HORSLEY: I say is not just a salesperson for the company. She's also a customer. A decade ago, Izzie slipped in the shower and suffered a spinal cord injury that left her unable to walk. For five years, she collected disability insurance from Social Security, but she was determined to go back to work. When Spinergy hired her, she says, they did have to make some changes in their Carlsbad, Calif., offices.
IZZIE: The bathroom door was extremely heavy, so I wasn't able to, you know, enter and exit the bathroom. It was a very easy fix for them. I don't think it cost a lot of money.
HORSLEY: In today's tight labor market, more employers are willing to make that kind of adjustment, allowing more people with disabilities to go back to work or stay on the job. Spinergy also welcomed Izzie's service dog, a yellow lab named Zandra. She's able to retrieve things when Izzie drops them. She's also a great social icebreaker with people who might otherwise be awkward talking with someone in a wheelchair.
IZZIE: I've noticed that people are more interested in the dog, you know? Oh, what's your dog's name? I love labs. I have a lab at home. So she helps a lot in that way.
HORSLEY: These days, Izzie works remotely from a house in rural Virginia where she lives with Zandra, her husband, Rudy, and another, more talkative dog named Blue. It's still unusual for people to leave the disability program and return to work. Less than 1% of recipients do so each year. But the numbers have been growing as the job market's improved. At the same time, aging baby boomers are moving from disability into retirement, and the government has made it harder for new people to qualify for disability.
ABBEY HERRIN CLARKSON: People typically approved in 2010 may not necessarily be approved now.
HORSLEY: Abbey Herrin Clarkson is a lawyer who helps people apply for disability in Alabama. When jobs evaporated during the Great Recession, many people turn to disability as a kind of de facto unemployment insurance. By 2013, there were parts of Alabama where nearly 1 out of 4 workers was collecting a disability check. But since then, the state's disability rolls have shrunk by about 15 percent. It typically takes more than a year to qualify for disability, and Clarkson says these days, more of her clients are finding work during that period as employers have grown more willing to make allowances.
CLARKSON: You know, like, someone, like, into their 50s, someone who's - maybe has a medical history with some surgeries. Maybe they need some sort of accommodation. More employers now because there is a demand for labor are more willing to kind of accommodate to that sort of thing.
HORSLEY: Of course many people on disability are simply unable to work, Clarkson says, but not everyone.
CLARKSON: Ninety-eight to 99% of all the people I run into would much rather work than collect a disability check, and that's just the truth.
HORSLEY: Clarkson says many people who become disabled suffer from anxiety and depression when they can no longer work. Angel Salva felt that way six years ago when a bad back drove him out of the Air Force after a dozen years in the service. He and his wife had just had their first son.
ANGEL SALVA: It was scary. You know, now I'm not able to provide for my family. I had a ton of challenges.
HORSLEY: Salva still suffers from chronic pain, but a couple of years ago, he found a job doing IT work for a defense contractor. He still has trouble sitting for long periods, but his boss got some ergonomic furniture, and he allows Salva to work flexible hours.
SALVA: I'm no longer sitting home thinking about what's going to happen tomorrow. I take it one day at a time.
HORSLEY: Giving up the guaranteed income and health benefits that come with disability is a huge decision. Salva took advantage of a program designed to make that leap back in the job market a little less risky. It allowed him to keep his disability benefits for a trial period when he first returned to work. Making the move was still a bit of a gamble, Salva says, but he's glad he did it.
SALVA: It was always a dream to serve my country. I joined the Air Force at 18 years old, and I was intending to have a 20-year career. But that was cut short and not on my terms, but I've discovered that it can be done. There is a market for every skill set out there.
HORSLEY: The Trump administration wants to encourage more people with disabilities to work both to meet the demands of a growing economy and to save the government money. One of the president's economic advisers, former Cornell professor Richard Burkhauser, has long had a personal interest in the disability program.
RICHARD BURKHAUSER: My dad was a steelworker. And when the plant closed down, he was out of work and in his late 50s.
HORSLEY: Burkhauser encouraged his dad to apply for disability rather than looking for another job. But he later came to second-guess that advice. He thinks being out of work may have contributed to his father's death just a few years later.
BURKHAUSER: And I think in part because his whole life was work. And, you know, I think it affected him. So I've always felt as a last resort, I think it's fine to be on these rolls. But if we can get people with disabilities to - into the workforce, it will be much better.
HORSLEY: Burkhauser believes a hot economy has done more to move people off disability than any policy changes dreamed up here in Washington. Wheelchair marketer Dani Izzie agrees a tight job market is opening doors for people with disabilities, but she warns many still face discrimination. She says if employers can look past that, they'll be rewarded with workers who are adaptable, flexible and persistent.
IZZIE: The can-do attitude, the creativity involved in living a life with a disability. Honestly, that attitude is an asset to an employer.
HORSLEY: As the number of disabled workers grows, more employers are finding that out. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
CORNISH: And you can find more of our full employment coverage all this week on the radio and at npr.org.
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