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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pity and Unemployment: The Hidden Agenda

As the American economy continues its precipitous decline people with disabilities are becoming increasingly marginalized. With the year ending in less than a month, I am convinced American society is taking a giant step backward in terms of disability rights. Why do I think this? In spite of 20 years of legislative initiative, the civil rights of disabled Americans have never been valued by society. This has been at the forefront of my mind as no news I read tangentially associated with disability is positive. Conservative and liberal news reports may differ in substance and style but all agree the economic crisis has hurt disabled people more than any other group. Major news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. News and World Report have published articles about the rising rate of unemployment among disabled people with titles such as "Recession's Bite Hits Americans with Disabilities Extra Hard". At the opposite side of the spectrum, MOUTH continues its first rate rabble rousing with a "Birthday Shout-Out to ADAPT".

Two news stories prompted me to write the above observations: first an article from the Detroit News about the show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the second about unemployment in the U.S. News and World Report. These respective stories reinforce why disabled people remain marginalized and unemployed in great numbers. In "Foreclosure Possible for Extreme Makeover Family" the Detroit News follows up on what is happening to the Vardon family. Some readers may recall the Vardon's are both deaf and have a blind autistic son. Their home was extensively renovated to meet their son's needs. The episode they appeared on in 2004 was memorable because it set a ratings record and heralded what became a common theme--the presence of disabled children and adults. Fast forward to December 2008 and the Vardon family home may be foreclosed on. If the Vardon's lose their home they will join 9,400 others in Oakland County who have experienced home foreclosure. The Vardon's have not been economically irresponsible. The mortgage has been sold three time in the last four years and their interest rate tops 11% Larry Vardon works for Chrysler, has been laid off, and his future, like that of all those who work for Chrysler, appears grim.

The U.S. World and News Report article referred to in the first paragraph highlights the disparity in employment rates between those with and those without a disability. In 2007 36.9% of working age people with a disability were employed. The overwhelming number of these disabled people had low paying jobs and nearly one in four lived below the poverty level. If previous recessions are any indication, the unemployment rate among those with a disability will increase leading one director of employment services to comment that "people with disabilities tend to be the last hired and first fired". Statistics reinforce this observation: between 1989 and 1992 working age men without a disability saw a 1.4% drop in employment while people with a disability experienced a 5.5% decrease. I could quote more statistics from the U.S. News and World Report article but I think my point has been made: disabled people are unemployed in massive numbers, a fact that has not changed measurably in more than decades.

In my estimation there is an explicit connection between the news stories: the presence of people with a disability in the work force is not common and pity, a central theme in Extreme Makeover, remains a destructive force in the lives of disabled people. Laws such as the ADA that have been put in place to protect the rights of disabled people in terms of employment have failed as has American society. Most work place environments can easily be modified to be inclusive to disabled people. These modifications have been termed "reasonable accommodations" and it is incumbent upon the employer to determine what is "reasonable". As interpreted by the Supreme Court "reasonable accommodation" has morphed into low cost as removing architectural barriers on a national scale is too expensive to enforce. Thus compliance with the ADA is perceived to be an act of generosity not compliance with civil rights legislation. Employing a disabled person on the part of the employer is akin to charity. The disabled employee is not like his peers--he or she has forced the employer to make special accommodations and as such has a negative impact on the bottom line. This line of logic empowers the employer to fire the least productive person. Yes, you guessed it, the first to go is the self absorbed disabled employee that cost the company money. I wish I had a way to undermine this line of thinking on a national scale. Among the many problems disabled people encounter, unemployment and access to higher education are among the primary reasons why we remain disenfranchised from society. The courts are of no help, the Supreme Court in particular, and this is why I remain committed to disability rights. I am less concerned with myself than I am with the scores of disabled people that do not comprehend the reasons why they are forced to struggle to find a job, home to live in, and bus or train to ride to work. In short, the system is stacked against disabled people and must somehow be undermined or at least understood.


Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that many segments of the disabled population, I know I can find stats for the spinal cord injured (SCI), actually take advantage of higher education. I will look for the stat reflecting that if a person after SCI can graduate high school, they are more likley than the general population going to complete college and I believe even advanced degrees.
The problem here, I think, is that the disabled are a very heterogeneous group, and drawing broad conclusions about the situation of each based on some number culled from the greater group is difficult.
Do you agree, Bill? Thanks for the discussion. It is enlightening and a contribution.

william Peace said...

Based on my reading the overwhelming number of people with a spinal cord injury do not go to college. Yes, there are scholarships and programs in place to defray the cost of higher education for people with spinal cord injuries but overwhelming barriers exist. These barriers extend well beyond statistics and are well ingrained. With the dismal state of the economy these barriers are more pronounced. In short, we disagree and yet at the same time have common ground. To me the only way to overcome the needless social obstacles placed in front of disabled people is through higher education. With an adequate education and hopefully economic independence people with a disability can reject dominant sociocultural norms that too often undermine dreams and ambitions.

Becs said...

I worked at a very large company in the mid-80s. The company worked with a local community college to train people with SCIs or brain injuries to work as programmers. Everyone felt awfully good about themselves for awhile.

Then came the fact that some people with disabilities have accompanying health problems that have them out of the workplace for weeks and months at a time. One quad I knew was always getting kidney infections and in the long run, he gave up his job. I'm sure no end of pressure was brought to bear on him by his supervisors and HR.

I don't hear of these programs any more but I have seen more people with disabilities where I work.

How would you deal with the fact that some people have ongoing health problems that necessitate their being out of the office for extended periods of time?

william Peace said...

Becs, You raise some interesting points. Some companies do indeed make it a point to hire people with disabilities. I suspect this effort is driven by a person or people with power that for complex reasons think it is good business to hire a particular type of person with a disability. The problem is once there is a change in the power structure of the company all those disabled people that were hired are fired. This is most evident in the case of people with intellectual deficits. For instance, the Home Depot hired many people with intellectual disabilities for a short period of time. Based on my observations the Home Depot does not do this anymore. I recall being struck that people with intellectual disabilities were once common and then totally absent.

You are correct that some people with spinal cord injury experience chronic health care problems. This point highlights the problem with how "reasonable accommodations" is perceived. For instance, take a person with a spinal cord injury that has a skin sore. There is no reason this person cannot work provided they can relieve the pressure from the skin sore. Can such a person request an employer buy a couch or basic cot for them to work from? This seems a reasonable accommodation to me. A case such as this went to court and ruled that the employer did not need to "bend over backwards" for the person with a disability.

The point I am trying to make is that "reasonable accommodation" is inherently problematic when the people that determine its meaning have little or no knowledge of disability. The best analysis of employment and disability I have read is by Lennard Davis who has published a selection of his essays entitled Bending Over Backwards. One final point, companies all have one thing in common--they must make money. If an employee is productive, well connected, and generates revenue a disability is not relevant. I think the biggest problem in terms of employment for disabled people is getting an employer and employees to look past a disability when they are being considered for a job.