September 21, 2023

Disabled Representation in the Workforce

Woman standing next to a man in a wheelchair outside

Growing up, many of us disabled children, now adults, did not see ourselves in the workforce. There was no disabled teacher, actor, political figure, or medical professional; if someone in the workforce around us was disabled, they certainly did not talk about their disability. There were no disabled role models for us. Throughout history, disabled people have been viewed as incapable of working and, until not that long ago, had no right to work. This stigma still exists today. Despite the passing of rights-granting laws, accommodations continue to be denied and disabled people continue to be discriminated against in the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 31 years ago with the intent of providing disabled people with an equal opportunity to gain employment. Despite this, the unemployment rate of the disability community in the United States has not decreased and continues to be twice as high as the general public. The employment rate for the disability community, 33.5% of disabled people ages 16 to 64, continues to be vastly different from the percentage of the general population of the same working-aged group at 58.7% in July of 2021. As of July 2021, the employment rate for the disability community is 33.5% for individuals aged 16 to 64, which is vastly different from the 58.7% employment rate of the same working-aged group in the general population.

The working gap for the disability community could stem from the ADA simply being a law; to change mindsets, we need education and understanding. One misunderstanding with ADA may be the term “reasonable accommodations” in its definition of protected rights. However, “reasonable” is relative in that what one employer considers reasonable may be deemed unreasonable by another. When we examine working conditions through the lens of disability, we find that accessibility is not “one-size-fits-all”; what works for one person may not work for another. The ADA is just one document, it is the minimum standard and cannot cover every need. It needs to be viewed with the essence of the law rather than the letter of the law so that the most people can have the best accessibility possible.

The ADA was passed to improve employment opportunities for the disability community but over time this has not been achieved. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities did decline from 13.7% in 1990 down to 12.5% in 2020, possibly due to the pandemic creating jobs where people with disabilities were finally given the opportunity to work from home. Yet still, this is double the rate of able-bodied people.

Another discriminatory act the ADA does not protect people with disabilities from is being paid a sub-minimum wage. In many states, it is legal to pay people with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. Treating people with disabilities as less than is unjust. If we are to continue to build on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion model on which our society is currently focused, we must include every aspect of diversity, including disability.

Beginning to increase the visibility of disability in the workplace, with eliminating hiring bias, and providing equitable access and equal pay, will continue to break down the stigma that people with disabilities cannot work. Let’s make the workforce more accessible and inclusive to the disability community!

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