THE employment difficulties of Americans with disabilities deepened during the 1980s, according to new figures from the Census Bureau. This occurred despite the increased efforts and partial successes of Americans with disabilities to assert their rights to equal treatment in transportation, employment, voting, and society in general. According to the new Census Bureau statistics, workers with disabilities saw their earnings fall further below the income of able-bodied workers as the decade progressed. In 1980, workers with disabilities earned 77 percent as much as the able-bodied; but by 1987 they earned only 64 percent.
And a smaller percentage of men with disabilities were working as the decade neared an end than in 1981: 30 percent in 1981, but only 23 percent last year.
A proposed law now making its way slowly through Congress would make it much easier for the disabled to obtain both employment and public transportation. Proponents of the bill see it as a substantial civil rights measure. Called the Americans with Disability Act, it would prohibit discrimination against disabled workers throughout much of the American workplace, among other features. Existing law already prohibits discrimination in government employment.
The measure won unanimous Senate committee approval early this month after two months of negotiations between Senate Democrats and the Republican White House. It is headed for a vote by the full Senate and presumed approval next month. But the road to passage in the House may prove to be long and rocky; there it is liable to be considered by four committees and seven subcommittees.
Specialists in disability issues are surprised by the negative implications of the new Census Bureau statistics. And they are not certain how to explain the figures, although they offer theories.
``It really irritates me that we haven't a better answer,'' says Philip Calkins, of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
Yet there are a number of good working hypotheses, and Mr. Calkins offered several:
``Health-care costs have really skyrocketed in the 1980s. The costs of health care, and of health-care insurance, are a major reason why people with disabilities face discrimination in the work force.''
``The number of employees in government at all levels has declined'' relative to the US population. ``Therefore, the number of places available in that protected areas has declined.''
With the decline in government jobs, which offer legal protection against discrimination, workers with disabilities increasingly may have been kept in lower paying jobs, experts theorize. This may be a partial reason for the growing income gap between American workers in general and those with disabilities.
As America's budget squeeze has tightened during the decade of the 1980s, some of the trims in spending for social programs have cut back on programs that aid people with disabilities, and help prepare them for employment.
Calkins has worked in the disability field for 10 years and uses a wheelchair himself. He says discrimination against people with disabilities does exist among private employees.
In part, that discrimination explains why an estimated ``two-thirds of working-age people in the US with disabilities'' who could hold jobs are unemployed, Calkins says.
During the 1980s, the Census Bureau did not revise in any substantial way its basic measure of disability, a spokesman says. Thus the bureau believes that the trends the statistics report cannot be attributed to a different definition, but rather to changes in the workplace.