Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Strengthening Employment Outcomes for Rural Women With Disabilities


Martha Carstensen is Director of the Equity Outreach Project, Montana Center on Disabilities, Montana State University, Billings

Women with disabilities who live in rural communities face complicated challenges in obtaining productive employment that pays a livable wage. A high unemployment rate for women with disabilities in rural communities is associated with a variety of factors that remain constant in each rural geographic region. This article will examine some of the difficulties and opportunities particular to seeking small town/rural paid employment, factors in achieving positive employment outcomes, and options for support networks to enhance work opportunities and successful outcomes for women with disabilities.

Barriers to Employment

According to the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL), “decades after the advent of the independent living and disability rights movements, transportation remains the number one issue for people with disabilities living in rural areas.” Transportation funding in rural states is often limited to the population centers of those states. Women with disabilities outside those population centers often rely on family members to assist them with transportation, without appropriate financial reimbursement or effective coordination. This does not result in the reliable transportation needed to maintain employment, intensifying the disadvantages for women with disabilities in finding competitive employment in their rural communities.

An additional barrier to employment can be found in the under-availability of support services. In reviewing support services in rural states, funding concentrates services to the larger population centers, leaving outreach at a minimum in rural areas, with understaffed satellite offices trying to serve high-need rural communities. With current funding limitations, these satellite offices have staff who service large geographic areas and high caseloads. This reality requires women with disabilities to have advocacy skills and reliable transportation to access these support services in rural communities. Absence of these creates accessibility barriers and community isolation.

Women with disabilities who do access assistance despite the barriers do so with the tenacity that is an icon of rural living by connecting with the strong social network of small town living. Interdependence is the foundation of this social network in rural communities. Women with disabilities who are part of this interconnectedness of community get their needs met, while those who are not interconnected live in isolation.

Building Partnerships

Schools, community service providers, employers, and families can enhance work opportunities and successful outcomes for women with disabilities by identifying the barriers and then focusing on solutions in partnership. This partnership connects all support systems within the social network of rural America, braiding and blending personnel and services by using public and private dollars to enhance access to employment opportunities for rural women with disabilities.

Community services such as Independent Living Centers are an ideal choice to take a lead role in the development of this partnership since they are often the hub for people with disabilities in rural communities. Schools are another; mandated through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide transition services to youth with disabilities, their services can be strengthened by partnerships with CILs, businesses, and self-advocacy and other organizations as part of their transition services. Together these partners can create multiple points of entry into the employment support system, and help women develop the skills (including self-advocacy, self-determination, and social networking skills) to access them. For instance, entrepreneurial opportunities abound in rural communities and by establishing a mentor network to help women learn a marketable trade, agencies, businesses, schools and community organizations working together can help women with disabilities make a livable wage by building their own ventures with guidance and persistence. Partnerships can also address the rural transportation barriers through innovative approaches such as mobility management (also called coordinated mobility). This is a model for expanding transportation options that combines the resources of human service, employment, non-profit, business, transit, and other entities in a locale to collaboratively coordinate and deliver transportation services (McLary, 2005; Grande, 2005). And partnerships between schools and service providers can provide training that grows the use of technology such as the Internet by women with disabilities, changing the course of how rural women access work and compete in the global market.

Personal Networking

In rural America networking is a daily activity. Social networks become employment networks, and learning how to capitalize on this connection is essential to building self-determination and employment opportunities for women with disabilities. One example of how social networking can assist women in gaining meaningful employment is the ability to obtain customized employment through job carving or shaping that creates a flexible schedule to meet the needs of the employer/employee relationship. This concept is more acceptable to an employer when they and the employee have an established relationship. Since social networking is an essential component of job acquisition, rural communities provide an advantage by nature for women with disabilities through offering natural opportunities to interact with the same people on a recurring basis and build relationships.


Building organizational partnerships, and assisting women with disabilities to build and participate in interdependent networks, are key to supporting rural women with disabilities to find long-term employment and shift from poverty to self-reliance. Living and working in a rural setting with strengthened community support now is a viable option that can afford economic well-being for women with disabilities.

  • Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL). (2008). Rural transportation. Retrieved from
  • Grande, S. (2005). Creating rural transportation in Maryland: Delmarva Community Services. Impact: Feature Issue on Meeting Transportation Needs of Youth and Adults with Developmental Disabilities, 18(3). Retrieved from
  • McLary, J. (2005). Mobility management: Maximizing resources through collaboration. Impact: Feature Issue on Meeting Transportation Needs of Youth and Adults with Developmental Disabilities, 18(3). Retrieved from