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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Employment Situation Bleak

One person who I can always count on for a sober assessment of the social and economic conditions people with a disability find themselves in is Joseph Shapiro. Author of Nothing About Us Without Us, Shapiro often makes astute points about the economic plight of people with a disability. When I was driving yesterday I heard Shapiro on NPR commenting about an ever present and worsening problem for people with a disability--employment or more accurately rampant unemployment.

In October the national unemployment rate hit 10.2% Economists and the mass media freaked out. The grim unemployment figures made headlines nation wide. The national news led off its programing with stories about what this means to the country and the Obama administration. When I saw these reports I yawned, bored in the extreme. Was I being selfish? I suppose but what I immediately thought of when I heard about the national unemployment rate was the fact that the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor Surveys estimates that 21 million out of 26 million people with a disability are not even in the work force. 21 million people do not simply give up. The vast majority of these people want to work but after years and even a decade of looking came to the only logical conclusion: people with a disability face an uphill struggle to enter the work force. One could even make the case the struggle to find work is hopeless. Here I am not referring to a job of choice but any job at all. Combine the overwhelming odds against finding employment with the fact many people with a disability rely on government health care in which there is a disincentive to work (they lose health care if they earn too much). The net result is that the vast majority of people with a disability are only marginally attached to the work force in this country. This creates not only economic hardship, a loss of self worth, but further isolates people with a disability socially. Like it or not, we often judge others by what they do for a living and economic resources dictate one's lifestyle.

I wish I had a solution to the unemployment problem people with a disability routinely encounter. If I did I would not be marginally employed as I am now. My marginalization is directly related my disability yet also has much to do with the fact I am in a field, anthropology, that, like many other social sciences, is no longer valued in the form of tenure track positions. Universities have learned from large corporations and scaled back the number of people they hire full time (benefits are a pipe dream). Hence about half of all college professors are part timers like me and I consider myself a highly educated day laborer. But unlike my peers I encounter significant obstacles--social, economic, and architectural. The result is jobs are harder to find and employers do not want to hire people with a disability. Based on my observations and personal experience people with a disability are not represented in the work force. I rarely if ever encounter a person with a disability and I make it a point to ask students I teach if they have ever had a professor that used a wheelchair. Not once in the last 15 years has a student answered yes. This is a real problem and the utter absence of people with a disability in the professorial work force signifies something more significant is taking place. The same can be said for dozens of other professions.

I have repeatedly been told that employers fear making work place accommodations will be costly, require expensive technology, or worry the person with a disability is not capable of doing a given job. These misconceptions are hard to eradicate. Department of Labor figures estimate that 56% of accommodations cost nothing and if any money is involved the cost is less than $600. I for one have never had an institution make any work place accommodation in spite of the fact they were required to do so. For example, when I teach if the table is too low I take an eraser and stick it under the legs of the table. Problem solved. But what happens if I want to use the bathroom? I am often out of luck as I know to not even ask because the answer is always a resounding no. In contrast to many others with a disability, I have been able to scrabble a series of dead end jobs together and, with the support of my family, somehow make ends meet. I do not take my struggles to heart as I know much is going on well beyond my individual qualifications. There is a social, economic and institutional bias that makes entry into the work force exceedingly difficult and impossible for some. This is grossly wrong and I do not know how to force society to change. All I can do is go to work, demonstrate that I am a valuable employee and a competent if not dedicated teacher. In shot, I do my best every day. Most days this seems to be inadequate at best for I know there are millions of people with a disability that would love to have the chances and opportunities that I have had. I am a lucky man and can only hope with time others like me will get a chance to demonstrate their abilities as well.