In my last blog post, I talked about my own story when it comes to finding employment while living with a disability and chronic illness. October was National Disability Employment Month as well as Spina Bifida Awareness Month. I know I’m a little bit behind, but it seems like there is never a bad time to educate, enlighten, and inspire both people with disabilities and potential employers about the need to make employing people with various mental, learning, and physical disabilities much more commonplace.
So, what’s the issue? On one hand, I’ve had some sort of job since I was 11 years old. It never occurred to me that I would not work. Yet many seemed shocked that I work and they assume it is through some sort of government agency that pays minimum wage (or less than minimum wage because that’s actually legal) for people with disabilities. It seems that society assumes anyone with any kind of disability must be on government assistance and doesn’t work. Or can’t work.
I can assure you that most people with disabilities would be actively working if there were not so many barriers in the way. Instead, according to several different government studies, only about 30 to 35 percent of people with disabilities are in the workforce. About 20 percent of the American population lives with a disability (some more recent states say it’s closer to 26 percent).
I know this is going to get long so I will outline the rest of this article:
- Barriers to employment
- Easy ways that employers can improve the situation
- Reasons why you should consider people with disabilities as part of your workforce.
Barriers to employment
Lack of capacity
I will just get this one out of the way. Yes, some people have mental, emotional, or physical disabilities that make them unable to work in any capacity including volunteer work, part-time work, or full-time work. That level of impairment is not as common as you might think and most people who do not work for wages are able to do volunteer work because it allows for much more flexibility.
Health management is a full-time job for many people
Have you ever tried to get away from your job for a doctor’s appointment? Imagine if you have 5-6 medical-related visits each month. Personally, I average 6-10 so I’m grateful for the ability to do work when I need to and not punching someone else’s clock.
Lack of affordable and reliable transportation
If you are on any kind of government assistance, your income is monitored and if you are on SSI, you are not allowed to have many assets, either. Even if you are in a situation where you are allowed to own a car, getting it converted is a major expense. I’m blessed to have a regular sedan and my chair topper, which costs about one-third of what it would cost to own a converted van. But what about public transportation? If it even exists in the person’s community, it is an incredibly unreliable option.
Companies unwilling to accommodate disabilities in a truly reasonable manner
From what I can see, this is the biggest problem. Let’s take a look at the biggest excuses:
“You have to be here to do your job” This excuse was never really valid, at least in the last 5-10 years. COVID-19 blew this excuse right out of the proverbial water. Companies that have denied people the ability to remote work at least part-time were able to make their entire workforce remote in a matter of a week or less.
“You can’t fulfill all the described job duties.” Really? The person who can sit at the desk and do 75-90 percent of the duties and someone else can’t pitch in? Where I’ve worked, people had no problem taking over the “lifting 25 pounds” part of the job description.
Or handing me things on a high shelf. And you know what? I was more than willing to help them with things that were under their job description that I was able to accomplish. It’s called teamwork. Any company that can’t fathom that has no business being in business.
… or consider job applicants with disabilities at all
There is no doubt in my mind that some companies, if not many of them, see that they have two or three qualified applicants and choose the person with no disability. Or, they choose a slightly less qualified person instead of taking what they see as a “risk” by employing someone with a disability. We might get sick, right? Yup. So could anyone else. Our presence might make the company look bad, right? Yes, people think like this. It’s why so many with disabilities are put on night shifts so they are not as customer-facing.
Constant pushback from society
That leads to my next point, which is that society continues to see us as “less than” and act like we have completed a miracle for doing something similar like placing a phone call, loading the printer, or, in my case, writing. What you may see as something kind and acknowledging an accomplishment is insulting and incredibly prejudiced. The sheer fact that those are considered major accomplishments says you would never think of hiring someone with a disability to do anything beyond really basic tasks.
Another form of pushback is the consistent idea that disability is an “other” when it comes to equality. I know the official EEOC statements include disability, but when people talk or write, they usually just include gender, sexual identity, and race when talking about equality in the workplace. Disability is not even considered an option. That is an incredibly loud message of our society’s beliefs, values, and intent.
Discrimination in the workplace
Anyone who is in a marginalized group does not want to work in a place where they are treated badly. Women don’t like sexual harassment, people of color shouldn’t have to deal with racism. Why should people with disabilities be forced to face ableism? Why should they deal with having their bodies violated and spoken to like they are a child without a mind of their own? That is a huge barrier in the workplace.
Easy ways employers can solve the problem
Simply put, put effort into it. That may sound glib and even rude, but it’s the truth. Look at some of the barriers and think through them.
If at all possible, allow for remote work or mixed remote and in-person. I know if the person works in your store, they have to be there. But in plenty of workplaces, that just is no longer the case. Stop using that as an excuse. COVID proved remote work is possible in an astonishing number of different situations.
Many companies are trying to have a more diverse workforce including both gender and race. Make a similar pledge for people with disabilities. You don’t necessarily have to go out and hire a bunch of people with mobility aids or other obvious disabilities. Many people have learning or other invisible disabilities. I would bet some are already in your workforce and they just haven’t felt the need to disclose their circumstances.
Look around your office and see what could easily be adjusted. Does your bathroom make it difficult with someone who uses a mobility aid to get around? That could easily include something simple like a giant trash can in the way. What about the office equipment? My shortest job ever knew I was in a wheelchair yet they refused to move the fax machine low enough so I could use it even though it was a major part of my job duties. They would get very upset when it would jam because I couldn’t see what I was doing. That should have been an obvious and incredibly easy accommodation that I was explicitly denied.
Why you should make this effort
I would start by saying because it is the right thing to do. But as a small business owner, I know people need more answers than that.
In this article from 2019, the reason was pretty obvious: “Hiring people with disabilities is good for business, the economy and your team’s morale.”
They also quote this 2018 study what reports “that businesses that actively seek to employ people with disabilities outperform businesses that do not. Their revenues were 28% higher, net income was two times more, and profit margins were higher by 30%. Additionally, the Department of Labor found that employers who embraced disability saw a 90% increase in employee retention.”
They also point out a reason I firmly believe in. That people with disabilities are adept at looking at the world from a new perspective and finding solutions no one else would consider. We are adept at seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and that skill is vital when working with clients.
A few final thoughts
I think it’s important to see this topic as more than just hiring a few people with disabilities to fill quotas. See our value. I firmly believe that except for that one job with the fax machine, I’ve been an incredibly valuable asset to each of my employers and now my clients. Part of building a team, no matter your industry, is understanding each team member’s nuanced needs. This doesn’t have to be a week-long uncomfortable sensitivity training. I would personally hate that!
But I do recommend learning about etiquette and empathy for all your team members. We are in a very strange but amazing time where multiple generations, races, genders, and, if companies start paying attention, abilities, are working together. Learning these basic soft skills will not only make the work environment a safe place for everyone, it will make it a more productive and quality workplace.