Disability Employment Awareness Month 2019
October is Disability Employment Awareness month! In true Karly fashion, I’m slipping this post in right at the last minute. Anyway, working for me has been a real stressful ride. I have a job, one I really like and am extremely grateful for. But it wasn’t easy to get, and it wasn’t without sacrifices. The same can be said for a lot of disabled people. And for a lot of people, they haven’t been afforded the same opportunities I’ve been. I bring any of this up because it’s important to recognize the many problems that disabled people face when trying to find employment.
Like the fact that there’s a ton of discrimination in the hiring process.
It starts right with job listings, which are almost always filled with random (and usually irrelevant requirements) that essentially take disabled people out of the running before they can even apply. Things like ‘must be able to lift 50 lbs’ or ‘must be able to work long hours standing’. Sometimes they’ll overlook these things if you’re qualified, but they’re regularly used as an excuse to not hire you, too.
People looking for work have to make the difficult decision of whether or not they want to disclose their disability. Speaking from experience, it’s a pretty big gamble either way. I always thought it made sense to just disclose because I mean, they’re going to find out either way. But the problem is that far too often, disclosing means your application gets thrown out automatically. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. If you disclose, there is a more than decent chance you’ll never get an interview.
So, then you think ‘alright, I won’t disclose.’ In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be awkward or surprising to see a disabled applicant show up for an interview. But unfortunately, if your disability isn’t something you can hide, it’s often the very first thing a potential employer notices and it’s often the only thing they remember when you leave. Hiding a disability is an option for some people, but that’s not a great option either. How can you get accommodations if you don’t feel safe to mention the fact that you need them?
Unfortunately, the problems don’t end with getting the interview.
If you can get through the hiring process, you still have to contend with the actual workplace. I’ve written about my previous job before and why I left. In short, it wasn’t accessible. Not for me, for my actual needs. According to the law, sure. It was accessible. But I had to struggle and make myself physically ill just to be able to get through my shifts.
Getting accommodations isn’t easy, because that brings up the debate on disclosing all over again. Plus, a lot of companies would rather fire you and hire an abled person rather than providing disabled employees with the things they need. Which could be anything from a different desk to computer programs or more. There are great companies that are happy to work with qualified employees to make sure they’re able to be successful. But I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s the norm, considering how many disabled people struggle to find work.
And it can be a demeaning process to get accommodations even if the employer approves them. When disabled people advocate for themselves, they’re often met with judgment. And a lot of invasive questions. It’s not an easy thing to go through. I dealt with it in school, and when your income is on the line it only amplifies that stress. Speaking of income, disabled people also face a significant wage gap compared to their abled coworkers.
Another thing that needs to be mentioned: disabled people can legally be paid less than minimum wage. It sounds so bizarre, like something that should have been thrown out long ago. But unfortunately, subminimum wages are still a thing. If that doesn’t tell you how much society values disabled people, I don’t know what will.
I’ve talked about the difficulties of finding work, but something I don’t think gets talked about enough is the right not to work.
For a lot of disabled people, working isn’t an option. Or it is an option, but staying unemployed is the safer choice. Or even the smarter choice. There are a ton of reasons because disability is a complicated thing and everyone’s situation is different but from my experience, it boils down to either prioritizing health or prioritizing assistance from various programs like SSI.
First of all, disabled bodies have different limits than abled bodies.
An 8 hour shift could be a breeze for you and absolute agony for someone else. For that matter, my 5 hour shifts were miserable for me before I was able to work from home. It’s easy to judge and assume that anyone could do an entry level data entry job or be a cashier at a store, but that’s far from the truth.
Invisible disabilities exist and don’t be surprised at how well people can and will hide their pain or illness. When you’re in pain all the time, you get pretty good at dealing with it and pretending you’re fine. Especially when you have no other choice. Abled people love to call out fakers, but the fact of the matter is you can’t spot a faker. Not really.
You can’t see abnormal heart rhythms, migraines, muscle cramps, nausea, dislocations, or inflammation. And no one should have to shell out their private medical history to prove a point either. So let’s just all accept that no, not everyone can work and not everyone should either. Because no one should have to put their bodies and health at risk so they can have a roof over their heads and food on their plates. More than that, no one should have to kill themselves for financial security.
And yes, disabled people have died after losing benefits and being deemed ‘fit to work’ despite their actual needs or abilities.
But let’s talk about receiving government assistance for a minute.
Now I’ve written about my experiences receiving SSI, which is nowhere near the cakewalk people assume that it is. In general, government programs never function the way people assume they do.
There is always a god awful waitlist. Anywhere from weeks to years. You can’t just sign up and get going. Most of these programs struggle to get enough funding, so there are always thousands of people waiting until there is enough money to allow them to get into the program.
It’s also hard to get approved for any government assistance. There are always a million hoops to jump through. The people whose job it is to help you probably usually aren’t helpful, or pleasant. And there are always loopholes to disqualify you, regardless of your needs. Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually not that simple to scam the government.
These programs are usually ‘needs based’, which means you have to be below a certain income level to qualify. Like, really hecking poor. For SSI, I can’t have more than $2,000 in my bank account and I can’t have any savings accounts or assets worth more than $2,000. In a real emergency, $2,000 is barely enough to be considered a safety net when literally everyone I know pays more than half that in just rent alone. To make it even more complicated, the income of those you live with or are married to can also be used against you.
These kinds of restrictions are well beyond unreasonable and make it nearly impossible to break free of the system.
You also have to understand that it’s not just about getting a check. A lot of programs offer things like caregiver services, transportation for appointments, or medical care. I can’t afford to pay for insurance through my employer (I don’t qualify for it anyway) and I would almost certainly never get the same kind of coverage I get with Medicaid. Most people can’t afford to hire a caregiver out of pocket either. I’d love to have someone explain to me how someone is supposed to go to a job that forces them to lose the caregiver that helps them get out of bed to go to said job?
These programs are vital to the lives of disabled people. At times, they’re life-or-death. But there’s so much stigma placed on them and on those who rely on them.
People have value regardless of how many hours they work or how much money they make. A concept that seems to be lost in our capitalistic hellscape.
So, what it comes down to is this: if a disabled person wants to and is able to work, they should have an equal opportunity to do so. And if a disabled person needs to opt not to work, for their health or for any reason, they should have access to supports that will allow them to stay in their home and community. Disabled people are not “drains on society” for needing help. Disabled people are not burdens because they’re unable to work. Having a disability should not be in opposition of having a decent life.
Disability Employment Awareness month might almost be over, but these issues are far from solved. What can you do?
VOTE. Please, for the love of everything that is good and pure in this world, register to vote. Nothing is ever going to change unless we get new people in office who are ready and willing to change harmful policies. Research your candidates. Get involved. Listen to activists. Reach out to your representatives and encourage them to prioritize accessibility, end discriminatory practices in the workplace, and expand health care/services for disabled people. Your voice matters and can make a difference – use it!