Almost one-fifth of people over the age of 5 in Southwestern Pennsylvania—nearly half a million people—report having a disability, according to a new study by University of Pittsburgh researchers.
“The size of the population with disabilities is rather surprising,” said Ralph Bangs, codirector of the Urban and Regional Research Program in Pitt’s Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR), who coauthored the study with José René Argueta, a Pitt Ph.D. candidate in political science. “It particularly affects working-age and elderly people, and to a lesser extent, children. So the need for services and the need for attention to this group is big.”
“Disability” was defined in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities.” The Pitt study examined six types of disabilities: sensory disability (blindness, deafness, or a severe vision or hearing impairment); physical disability (a condition that substantially limits one or more basic physical activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying); mental disability (learning, remembering, or concentrating); self-care disability (dressing, bathing, or getting around inside the home); going outside the home disability (going outside the home alone to shop or visit a doctor’s office); and employment disability (working at a job or business).
Among the researchers’ main findings:
Fayette and Greene counties and the city of Pittsburgh have the highest rates of disability in the region. Nearly half of the region’s disabled population lives in Allegheny County.
The city of Pittsburgh has much higher rates of people with disabilities living in poverty than any other area. The poverty rate among disabled children in Pittsburgh is almost double the national average.
The disabled population in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, and particularly in Pittsburgh, has lower employment rates than those at the state and national level.
The most commonly reported types of disabilities were physical, employment, and “going outside the home.”
Working-age adults (ages 21-64) and seniors (ages 65 and older) were the two age groups with the highest rates of disabilities.
African Americans and Native Americans have the highest rates of disability among ethnic groups.
School enrollment and education attainment are much lower among persons with disabilities than among nondisabled people and contribute to lower employment and higher poverty among disabled people.
Disabled children have the highest rates of poverty than any other age group of disabled people.
“Among working-age individuals, disability is associated with lower education, minority status, and poverty, suggesting that these individuals represent a highly vulnerable population,” noted Richard Schulz, director of UCSUR. “These data should be of great value in helping us direct resources to this group.”
In the report, the researchers call for a “new approach” with “a positive vision, one that sees the future of the population with disabilities not as a burden but as a large underutilized human capital pool with the potential to greatly contribute to the economic and social development of the region.”
Further research could include investigation into why Pittsburgh has higher rates of unemployment and poverty among disabled people than the rest of the region, state, and country. Argueta said one of the questions remaining is: “Is this a trend characteristic of large cities, or is it particular to Pittsburgh?”
Funding for the report was provided by the FISA Foundation. The report is available at www.ucsur.pitt.edu/publications.htm.