So, just how hard is it to return workers who have gone out on disability to work at a time when empty cubicles abound?

Pretty hard, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS began publishing employment figures for people with disabilities along with employment figures for people with no disabilities in February 2010.

For U.S. workers with no disabilities, the unemployment rate fell to 8.9% in March, from 10.1% a year earlier. For workers with disabilities, the unemployment rate increased to 15.6%, from 13.9%.

But the majority of people with disabilities who have stayed in the labor market are employed, and the changes have not necessarily had an obvious effect at return-to-work efforts in the private disability insurance market.

Paula Aznavoorian-Barry, program manager for vocational rehabilitation and return-to-work for the group benefits unit at Liberty Mutual Group, Boston, said many employers are struggling with RTW programs because of the state of the economy, but they are trying to bring employees back out of concerns about alleviating strain on the remaining employees.

Longstanding changes in U.S. building codes have eliminated many of the barriers that once kept workers who use crutches or wheelchairs out of their workplaces, and employees who suffer from repetitive stress injuries now find that voice-activated software is inexpensive and readily available.

In some cases, switching to voice-activated software may be as simple as turning on a computer’s built-in microphone and pre-installed voice-response software tools.

In most cases, Aznavoorian-Barry said, what returning workers really need is employers who want them back.

“Return-to-work programs are as effective as the employers’ commitment to them,” Aznavoorian-Barry said.