Notes On Employment

Lego figurine with yellow skin wearing a black suit and tie, sitting in a black Lego wheelchair

I got preachy with someone on Twitter yesterday over how disabled people *should* approach the question of employment, and particularly how to handle the flawed programs that are supposed to help us find jobs and get careers off the ground.

I didn't mean be patronizing with that particular Twitter user, who was really just trying to express her anxieties about getting into an employment program. I think I was really venting my long-term frustrations about how vocational rehabilitation and other employment programs work and communicate with their customers. Over the years, I have talked with so many disabled people who deal with employment services in unhealthy ways … suffused with fear, anger, timidity, duress, and a sense of failure even before starting. While we all probably have some personal work to do to adjust our attitudes, I mainly blame the service providers, who mean well, but don’t seem to get how complicated employment is for disabled people. There’s so much more to the equation than just job skills and motivation alone.

So I figure now might be a good time for another “brain dump,” this time on how I see the massive, perplexing issue of employment and people with disabilities. I’m not a rehabilitation counselor. I’m not an expert on employment. Employment wasn’t even my main area when I worked in Independent Living. But I’ve seen and heard a lot of things, and I believe a big part of the problem is that our efforts to address the huge employment gap for disabled people are incredibly complex, yet we rarely sit down and try to sort it all out. Instead, everyone just forges ahead, assuming that their view of the problem is THE view of the problem.

Here’s what I’ve got … for what it’s worth:

Different strategies for increasing disability employment seem to operate in isolation:

- Make disabled people more employable, which presumes that the main deficits are in the disabled people themselves … poor education, lack of job skills and work experience, underdeveloped social skills, and yes, actual disabilities that make everyday work harder.

- Make employers more accommodating and less discriminatory, which presumes that most of the disabled applicants are fine, and are mainly held back by employers’ ableism, their unexamined assumptions about the imagined risk of hiring disabled people.

- Change the incentives so as to encourage employment, which presumes that the problem is mainly structural, not personal. Employers might be willing, and disabled people might be ready, but various benefits and support systems unintentionally hold people back because the systems are poorly designed.

There also seem to be four distinct groups of unemployed disabled people:

- Fully qualified to work, with the proper training and credentials, but can't get hired or keep losing jobs.

- Under-qualified and lacking workplace skills & habits, often among people who have had disabilities all of their lives and didn’t start being prepared for work until much later in life when expectations finally began to change.

- Have certain disabilities that really do make traditional work extremely hard to find and very taxing, even with support and accommodations. This may include people with chronic illnesses, disabilities that can change radically over months and years, and people with mental illnesses that wax and wane.

- Available work is not secure or lucrative enough to justify risking loss of benefits and support services, which goes back to the disincentives problem. These disabled people want to work, at least to some extent, but it just doesn’t seem to make sense financially and practically for them to dive fully into full-time work or long-term careers.

Discrimination really is a factor for all disabled people looking for work … discrimination that boils down to two big factors:

- On the whole, for any given position, employers would rather hire someone who isn't disabled.

- Employers would rather have "low maintenance" workers than deal with workers who might need accommodations, or for sure will need accommodations.

Aside from being unjust and illegal under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the problem with both of these factors is that the negatives are generally very exaggerated. Objective evidence suggests that in general, disabled people are good workers who are less hard to work with than most employers imagine them to be.

Not for nothing, but non-disabled workers have a host of other problems that give employers headaches … problems like absenteeism, poor work habits, and garden-variety toxic personalities. In comparison, disability is often less of a problem for employers than other problems that aren't related to disability.

Hovering over all of this are factors we pretty much all know in the abstract, but that are hard to dismantle:

- Many disabled people presumed to be unable to work actually can.

- Many disabled people make rational decisions not to work, or to work less.

- Disability alone rarely is the only factor determining whether a person can work. Some unemployed disabled people also have poor education, the wrong job skills for the market, and chaotic personal lives that make it hard to be reliable, much less top-notch employees employers really want to hire.

Possible answers:

Make it easier to pursue employment without shaming or punishing those who don't work. Don’t manipulate benefits and support systems to try and force more disabled people into work, reform them to make it an easier, clearer choice.

Stop assuming certain disabilities make it impossible to work, or that other disabilities are no impediment to working. Step back from old formulations about certain disabled people being ready for work, and others not, just by virtue of what kind of disabilities they have or how “severe” they are perceived to be. It’s entirely possible that your average quadriplegic is more ready for work than a person with chronic pain.

We should expand the definition of what we call "work," and of what kind of work can earn a disabled person money. If a bunch of currently unemployed disabled people were able to work part time while still collecting all of their benefits, the situation overall would be much better for everyone.

Everyone needs to acknowledge that different people have different problems. Some are mainly held back by discrimination, while others really aren't qualified, yet. No one formulas explains why any given disabled person isn’t working at the moment, which is also another reason we shouldn’t judge them, or for that matter not judge them for not working.

Some of us do need to do work on ourselves, but not everyone. And sometimes the perfect applicant still won't be hired because of discriminatory perceptions. Some people need job training. Some need to work on their people skills. Some need help outwitting, circumventing, and confronting discrimination.

Two closing thoughts:

1. The person I got preachy with on Twitter yesterday said that disabled people in our society are judged based on whether or not they work. She's right. There really is a philosophical problem with how we deal with disability and the moral dimensions of work, productivity, and worth. This is not only morally wrong, but I also don't think banging on about the work ethic and shaming people for needing benefits helps disabled people find work one iota.

2. If we could take economic necessity out of the equation, through iron-clad benefits and no income or asset caps, would more disabled people work for pay, or fewer? I think it's an experiment worth trying. So, you know ...