As of August of this year, the unemployment rate of disabled people was twice that of nondisabled people (14% to 7%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Senator Tom Harkin, a champion for his disabled constituents, wants to change that with an initiative to increase the representation of young disabled people in the workplace, mirroring a push on the part of the federal government to equalize hiring practices. Is he going to be successful, and what might stand in his way?
One of the first problems he’ll need to overcome is the idea that being disabled means you can’t work or don’t want to work, a common misconception. When most people think of “disability,” they imagine an impairment that prohibits someone from engaging in activities of daily life, barring that person from the workplace; in fact, people may file for disability benefits or “go on disability” when they’re injured at work, underscoring the idea that disability means you can’t work.
In fact, of course, disabled people can and do work, and many passionately love their jobs. Some, however, may require accommodations, and this is a significant issue barring people from the workplace. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates that workplaces comply with reasonable accommodation requests, many workplaces don’t accommodate employees, or single them out and make them feel uncomfortable when they ask for what they’re entitled to by law.
Accommodations can include ramps, wheelchair-accessible desks, screenreaders and magnifiers, adjustments to lighting levels and other measures to allow people to work comfortably, safely and efficiently. Many are very low-cost, and can sometimes even be implemented for free. In a workplace where supervisors aren’t familiar with disability needs, a consultant can come in to help — and this could be one way the government supports disabled workers, by providing free or reduced-cost consultations for employers who want to support increased employment in the disability community but don’t know how to start.
Another issue is concerns about balancing disability benefits against wages. Many disabled people want to work, but are effectively barred from doing so because they’ll lose their benefits — their share of cost will eat up any wages they receive, leaving them back at ground zero. This creates a state of enforced poverty as well as an active disincentive to work, and is something that must be addressed in the Federal code: while it may have been originally designed to prevent exploitation by people working high-paying jobs and getting free benefits (for health care, personal care attendants, and other needs) at the same time, it’s clearly no longer working as intended, and is in fact harming disabled people.
There are also limitations on working ability to consider. Depending on the disability, some people might need reduced hours or changed job descriptions to accommodate their ability levels; for example, someone with fibromyalgia might excel at her job, but only be able to work 15 hours per week. She’d need a part-time position with flexible hours so she could work when she’s at her best, but not all employers would be willing to offer that. Welcoming disabled people into the workplace may require rethinking workplace policies, attitudes about workers, and beliefs about disabled people.
Finally, of course, there’s disability discrimination. Many employers don’t want to hire disabled people because of ingrained ableism, worries about liability, and other concerns, which means that visibly disabled job applicants are at a profound disadvantage when they apply for positions, even if they’re highly qualified and well-suited.
Overcoming discrimination isn’t as simple as passing a law or putting out a public relations campaign: it requires exposing nondisabled people to disabled people, and providing environments for nondisabled people to learn about the disability community and the fact that members of that disability community aren’t so different as society seems to think.
Photo credit: Ed Yourdon.