RTC:Rural’s presentation at the 2017 American Association of Geographers annual meeting generated enthusiastic conversation about the values and challenges of using big data to address rural issues. Andrew Myers, Research Associate at RTC: Rural, recently returned from this conference, held in Boston, MA. There, he presented RTC:Rural research on current disability patterns in rural America with a focus on employment rates. His presentation, titled “Current Disability Patterns in Rural America,” was part of the Geographies of Disability 1: Mapping and Accessibility session. Coauthors include RTC:Rural Research Associate Lillie Greiman and University of Montana graduate student Kourtney Johnson.
The AAG’s Disability Specialty Group brought international researchers together to share the latest geographical research about disability. Myers is a board member of the AAG Disability Specialty Group, and helped organize the “Geographies of Disability” track at the conference.
Using data from the American Community Survey, Myers, Greiman, and Johnson found that the national disability rate in the United States is 12.5%. When they looked at the county level, they found that disability rates were higher in rural counties, at 17.7%, than in urban ones, with rates of only 11.8%.
Overall, employment rates for people with disabilities are lower in rural areas, which follows the national trend of lower employment rates in rural areas. However, said Myers, “It would be misleading to say that rates of employment [for people with disabilities] always go down as you get more rural. In fact, in some rural communities employment rates of people with disabilities are higher than the national average of 33%.”
Myers, Greiman, and Johnson have a number of hypotheses they are investigating, and are currently writing up their findings for publication.
RTC:Rural’s presentation instigated discussion about the challenges of analyzing big datasets to characterize rural environments, as well as the importance of such analysis, said Myers. Large datasets, such as the American Community Survey, provide researchers, policymakers, advocates, and others with valuable information about the state of rural communities on a large scale. This information shapes local programs and informs planning for services and allocating funding. For rural areas, with their unique challenges to providing adequate services and supports to people living there, this data is especially important.
“Lately, rural America has been described as this monolithic geographic area,” said Myers. “But we must be careful about what we mean when we talk about rural areas, because rural America is heterogeneous and contextual. Where you live in rural matters, and it seems likely that different factors explain these trends in different areas.”
Conference attendees also discussed how big-picture research is only one piece of addressing rural issues. Big data needs to be complemented with qualitative, individual knowledge from people on the ground in order to work for people in specific areas.
As an example, Myers cited RTC:Rural’s Resilience Study, which focuses on the skills, strategies, and supports that people with disabilities in rural areas harness to thrive in their communities. These qualitative results, combined with insights from census data, will allow researchers and service providers to create more effective services and policies.
RTC:Rural continues to explore both big-picture and individualized data through their current research.
For more information on RTC:Rural research on Geography, see the Geography and Rural Disability project page on the RTC:Rural website.
To see maps illustrating other nuances of disability, visit Maps on the RTC:Rural Resources page. There you will also find the Disability Counts Data Finder, a way to easily view and download data on disability rate and rural status of any county in the United States, and Defining Rural, a guide to the different definitions of rural used by government agencies.