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Labour force participation

This chapter describes levels of labour force participation and unemployment among disabled people, and how they vary by demographic factors and the types and causes of impairments.

Demographic differences

The 2013 Disability Survey showed that half (50 percent) of all disabled adults were participating in the labour force – either employed or unemployed (that is, available for and actively seeking work). The participation rate for disabled people increased from 44 percent in 2001. However, it remained considerably lower than the rate for non-disabled people, which stood at 76 percent in 2013 (up from 75 percent in 2001).

Age and sex

The extent of the gap between the labour force participation rates of disabled and non-disabled people partly reflects the older age profile of the disabled population. Among those aged under 65, the gap was smaller, with participation rates of 68 percent for disabled people and 80 percent for non-disabled people.

However, as Figure 1 shows, participation rates were lower for disabled than for non-disabled adults for both sexes and in each of the major age groups, with the gaps being proportionally greatest for those aged 65 and over (65+).

Figure 1

Graph, Labour force participation rate, by disability status, age group, and sex, 2013.  

Ethnic group and region

Labour force participation rates for all disabled adults were broadly similar across ethnic groups and regions. Rates for ethnic groups ranged from 47 percent for Pacific peoples to 53 percent for Māori. Regionally, rates varied from 45 percent in the combined Tasman, Nelson, Marlborough, and West Coast regions to 53 percent in each of the Wellington and Manawatu/Wanganui regions.

Educational qualifications

Educational qualifications made a considerable difference to labour force participation for both the disabled and non-disabled populations, with participation tending to increase with the level of qualification. Among the disabled population, participation rates increased from 36 percent among those people with no formal qualifications, to 71 percent for those with university degrees.

Disabled adults tend to have fewer qualifications than non-disabled adults, which is a contributing factor to their lower rates of labour force participation. In 2013, one-third (33 percent) of all disabled adults had no formal educational qualifications, compared with 15 percent of non-disabled adults, while just 12 percent of disabled adults had university qualifications, compared with 25 percent of non-disabled adults. However, disabled people tended to have lower levels of labour force participation than non-disabled people regardless of their level of qualification.

Type and cause of impairment

Rates of labour force participation vary according to the type and cause of people’s impairments.

Note that when looking at types and causes of impairment, some of the categories have a relatively small sample size, meaning that differences between the categories may not be statistically significant. We should therefore be cautious about drawing conclusions from these figures (see Appendix 2 for more about statistical significance).

Type of impairment

People with lower participation rates included those with impairments related to agility (33 percent participation rate), mobility (37 percent), and remembering (39 percent). These lower rates partly reflect the older age profile of people with these types of impairment, with relatively large proportions in the 65+ age group when labour force participation rates are generally lower.

At the other end of the scale, people with higher participation rates included those with psychiatric/psychological impairments (52 percent); and hearing, sight, or speaking impairments (all 47–48 percent). However, these rates were still well below the 76 percent participation rate for non-disabled adults.

Figure 2

Graph, Labour force participation rate for disabled adults, by impairment type, 2013.

Cause of impairment

The relationship between age and labour force participation among disabled people is also apparent when looking at cause of impairment. Figure 3 shows people with impairments due to ageing (most of whom were aged 65+) had a labour force participation rate of just 36 percent. This was similar to the rate for people with impairments caused by disease or illness (39 percent). On the other hand, those whose impairment had existed at birth had a relatively high participation rate of 59 percent.

Figure 3

Graph, Labour force participation rate for disabled adults, by cause of impairment, 2013.


Disabled people are not only much less likely than non-disabled people to participate in the labour force, but those who do are also considerably more likely to be unemployed. The 2013 Disability Survey showed that disabled people had an unemployment rate of 9 percent, compared with 5 percent for non-disabled people. The unemployment rate for disabled people was the same as in 2001, while the rate for non-disabled people had fallen slightly from 6 percent in 2001. Higher unemployment rates among disabled people may partly reflect the lower levels of educational attainment noted earlier.

Variations in unemployment rates within the disabled population tended to mirror those in the non-disabled population. Among disabled adults, the unemployment rate was higher for women than men (although the difference was not statistically significant), higher for those aged under 45 than those aged 45–64, and higher for those without tertiary qualifications. Reliably comparing unemployment rates between different regions and ethnic groups is difficult due to the size of the survey sample.

Figure 4

Graph, Unemployment rate, by disability status and sex, 2013.

As with labour force participation, unemployment varies considerably by type and cause of impairments. Looking at impairment types, unemployment rates were higher among those with intellectual impairments (17 percent); and those with learning, speaking, and remembering impairments (all 14–15 percent). People with mobility and hearing impairments had much lower unemployment rates (7 percent), although this was still higher than the rate among the non-disabled population (5 percent).

In terms of the cause of impairments, unemployment rates ranged from 6–7 percent for those with impairments caused by accident/injury or ageing, to 15 percent for those with impairments existing since birth.

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