The World of Work And Disability

By Joshua Blake

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities last year was more than double the average for those with no disability. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this on February 26 of this year.

This means that people with disabilities experienced an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent, just 1.9 percentage points lower than what the unemployment rate was across the country a decade ago, during The Great Recession.

“One of the bigger barriers I find is how the law is presented,” said social worker Eric Dreher, who works with the Suffolk Independent Living Organization in Medford, Long Island. “You can’t be discriminated against,” he adds, “but my question to anybody is, how do you prove you were discriminated against?

Dreher has had interviews for social work positions in the past, where he would disclose that he is legally blind and hard of hearing in one ear. “I wanna know what I’m walking into,” he says. But after he discloses his disabilities, things turn awry.

“I went and sat with a woman, and the first thing her supervisor comes in and says is ‘Hi, let me ask you something. How well do you see? Can you see facial expressions?’ Totally uncalled for. I wish it was an isolated experience, but it’s not.”

Issues with transportation and access to buildings play significant roles with this problem, but they aren’t the only causes. Knowledge and understanding go a long way in how society treats people with disabilities.

Poverty rates of people with disabilities in 2017

© Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at the Cornell University ILR School

A common theme within the world of people living with disabilities centers on work. But people fear filing complaints against their employers, and the process of investigating cases has dropped significantly overall. Vox mentions that only 13 percent of complaints filed last year ended in settlement or some other relief, which was down five points from 2008.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is supposed to handle workplace discrimination cases, but with a budget shriveled down to a size less than it was in the 1980s, and staffing 42 percent less people, they lack resources.

But there’s a bigger issue at play.

Complaints Are In The Tens-Of-Thousands

Complaints are filed constantly by people with disabilities. Over 24,000 just last year.

According to the Americans With Disabilities Act website, many complaints come through, but the process is rigorous and time-consuming. 

First, give general information, like when filling out paperwork at any doctor’s office – name, street address, phone number. Then list the business or organization committing the A.D.A. violation and where its located, with any supporting documents to legitimize the claim.

 The review process after the form is submitted can take up to three months.

The form itself goes to the U.S. Department of Justice, but the complaint may be forwarded to a federal agency more adept at handling a specific discrimination case.

And in terms of employment discrimination, people are instructed to file complaints directly with the  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the agency doesn’t accept complaints over the phone or online, meaning it must be sent to either the closest E.E.O.C. office to the person filing or to the office in Washington D.C. 

Complaints  also have to filed within 180 days of the incident taking place.

A Major Threat Avoided – For Now

H.R. 620, a bill introduced in the United States House of Representatives last year, would have   given A.D.A. violators time to prove significant progress was being made on the laws they broke before a suit could be filed. It failed in the Senate.

“It didn’t pass because the independent living centers were on top of it,” said Delgado. “I’ll tell you the same thing I said back then: ‘Over our dead body.’”

“Any legislator out there who has the gumption to put something like that on the table is not a human being and is in it for the money.” 

Delgado went on to say that people in government who propose legislation meant to undermine the A.D.A. don’t care for their constituents, because anyone – at any time – can acquire a disability.

“So to think that you’re going to take away accessibility to people with disabilities – not only are you being evil and nasty to those individuals – but you’re not thinking ahead of one day that could be you.”

Delgado meets with other CEOs in Albany from the other 42 independent living centers in the state every six weeks.

“What we talk about is about the whole concept of remaining independent in New York State, and about some of the laws that prevent us from living independently.”

The Americans With Disabilities Act is critical to securing rights for people with disabilities, but Delgado says that we “need to put teeth into the A.D.A.”

“The A.D.A. reminds me of a background bass player in a band – the A.D.A. comes from behind, it doesn’t lead in the front. The A.D.A. says ‘our society should be accessible,’ but the only way we’re going to make it accessible is that you’re doing new construction on something that’s not accessible now.”

And if that can’t be done, Delgado gives a simple shrug of the shoulders. “Eh. What are you going to do,” he said. But he still believes society must be accessible. 

“We have to,” he said. 

Hiring Issues Persist, Despite Educational Attainment

The Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation in Wichita, Kansas constantly updates information  about disability and work, even giving examples of why employers don’t hire people with disabilities.

Some of the reasons may seem strange to anyone without one. 

Some employers don’t hire people with disabilities because they are afraid of potential lawsuits, which is ironic given that the Americans With Disabilities Act strictly prohibits employers from deciding not to hire someone simply because of a disability. Other areas of discrimination covered in the A.D.A. are promotions and pay increases.

 Research shows that employers would rather hire novice applicants with no disability than someone who has a disability with years of experience. 

College degrees can be a way to avoid joblessness for many people. But even for people with disabilities who have a Bachelor’s Degree or more, the unemployment numbers still favor able-bodied adults over the age of 25  by more than a 2-to-1 difference. In fact, people who don’t have a disability that only graduated high-school have a lesser unemployment rate than people with disabilities that have a Bachelor’s Degree or higher.

People with disabilities are effectively priced out of entering a high social-status job market

© Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at the Cornell University ILR School

But problems don’t just start at the hiring desk.

Every year, The Department of Health and Human Services releases poverty guidelines, and back in May, the Trump Administration was seeking to change these guidelines.

These changes would’ve been dire. More than 250,000 seniors and people with disabilities would lose or receive less help from Medicare’s Part D Low-Income Subsidy.

Another reason this is important is due to health insurance coverage for working aged adults.

Medicaid is a big insurer of people with disabilities. But, if too much money is made, coverage is lost.

© Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at the Cornell University ILR School

The Trump Administration also cut food stamps for 700,000 Americans – significantly hurting people with disabilities, as they experience poverty levels double that of their non-disabled peers.

Teaching Others About Disability Can Help

“Many people who are not disabled are terrified of being disabled – and would rather be almost anything except in a space where that is the primary discussion,” Diane R. Wiener, Research Professor and Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at Syracuse, said. 

“It’s [disability] associated with loss, lack, absence, illness, aging, death – instead of uniqueness, variability, nuance, strategy.”

Wiener gravitated toward social work, believing in the idea that no one is a monolithic representative of a group of which they are a member.

 One way Wiener describes this complexity is through disability identity, or a cross-disabilities perspective – a concept not too different from intersectionality in feminism, where those with disabilities can have a multitude of simultaneous identities.

As people age, disability becomes more prevalent

© Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at the Cornell University ILR School

 In other words, the experience one person has within a disabled community can be or is itself different from others, and because abled-bodied people don’t understand this as much as they could, ableism is persistent in our society – which is one of many reasons why ableism exists.

 “I don’t think children grow up thinking it’s wrong to be disabled, being afraid of being disabled, thinking disability is terrible, or should be overcome or avoided at all costs,” Wiener said.

Wiener went on to explain that as children get older and live within an ableist, racist, homophobic society – among other affected minority groups – the progenitors of mainstream cultural values can become absent-minded and oppressive toward minority issues.

“I don’t think it’s human nature to be ableist,” Wiener said. “I think it is learned, taught and socialized. It’s so pervasive that it seems natural, but it’s not.”


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