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When is it Our Turn? Achieving Disability Rights

July 23, 2015
Light skinned young man with short brown hair smiles at camera

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette

By Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette

Two recent events have gotten me to thinking about some important issues vis-à-vis the community of persons with disabilities (PWD) in the United States. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and bask in the glorious afterglow of the recent Supreme Court decision extending marriage equality to the LGBTQ community, I wonder where we are in terms of equality for the people with disabilities (PWD) community…

I want to first preface this writing by stating my unequivocal joy and support for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the wake of the SCOTUS decision I mentioned above. I have a personal attachment (in the form of close friends and family) to the LGBTQ community and I could not be happier for them. I am also happy for the United States as a whole as we have advanced irrevocably along the moral arc of history and we have indeed bent ourselves toward justice.

Another catalyst for my state of mind as reflected here was the training and workshops I had the pleasure of undertaking at the outset of my participation in the USICD internship program in May. During that first week I learned about the vital progress that has been made in the area of disability rights and inclusion, particularly since the passage of the ADA. I also identified a rather embarrassing gap in my own knowledge of the disability rights movement when I learned of the herculean effort put into ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2012, an endeavor that fell just a few votes in the U.S. Senate shy of becoming a part of the American legal framework. Prior to the training and work-shopping offered by USICD staff, I had been woefully ignorant of the disability rights movement and all of its energy and effort expended on my behalf.

All of that said, I still have a question: when is it our turn? And by “our” I am of course referring to persons with disabilities. Though we do have the ADA and our circumstances have been improved over the past 25 years as a result, we are still relegated to the margins of society and in particular to the margins of the economy. The following will focus exclusively on the economic conditions (and even more specifically, the employment situation) faced by PWD and will not focus much on the more subtle but no less insidious social, emotional and psychological discrimination and ostracism that PWD must deal with. But if you know me at all then you know that I like numbers and data. It is in the realm of economics and the dismal science’s myriad indicators and statistics that I think the most glaring and visible inequities exist.

To start off with, it is important to note that PWD by and large accept that there are some occupations that we simply cannot adequately perform, depending on the disability in question. As a blind person for example I do not bristle at the fact that I cannot engage in long-haul trucking or taxi driving as a means of gainful employment. I will also never play for the Boston Red Sox (though at this point, I may be able to pitch better than at least half of the current Boston starting rotation) and I will never become a very good fighter jet pilot or police officer. But such disability-specific limitations do not sufficiently explain the massive gaps in employment, income and wealth that persist across the PWD community and the rest of society.

Take for example the labor force participation rate, which is one of the best macro-level employment indicators. Among the non-disability population there is a 72.7% labor force participation rate. Any guesses as to what the labor force participation rate among PWD is at present? It’s 32.0%.

Let me reiterate. Less than one-third of working age PWD is employed while over two-thirds of the working age non-disability population is employed. And according to the “Economic Picture of the Disability Community Project,” a collaboration between the department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it gets even worse: “ Employment levels of people with disabilities are low, and those who are employed tend to be in low-paying occupations. “

So let me quickly unpack that. People with disabilities are not only overwhelmingly less likely to be employed than their non-disability counterparts but when they are employed it is likely to be in low-paying jobs. To add additional insult to injury, note that PWD are overrepresented in 17 of the 20 fastest declining occupations in the economy. This one-two punch of atrocious current conditions and bleak future prospects makes for a daunting and confounding situation overall.

Aren’t we supposed to be the land of equality and equity? Don’t we pride ourselves on being a bastion of opportunity and mobility? Are we not the shining city atop the hill, the envy of people and nations across the world?

I want to pause for a moment to inject some fairness here. One of my biggest pet peeves is reading persuasive pieces such as this one in which inconvenient facts are left out or ignored while items that substantiate or reinforce the point being made are cherry-picked and accentuated. So in the interest of not succumbing to the temptation to employ statistical sleight of hand, I will note here that PWD are overrepresented in the fastest-growing occupation in the economy. But this seemingly positive phenomenon is not without caveat. The sector in question – personal and home care aide – also tends to be lower-paying and possesses little in the way of advancement chances or opportunities to develop professionally. That said however, it is important to point this out as a possible cause for guarded optimism.

In yet another maddening and dehumanizing fact of disability discrimination, note that Section 14© of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay PWD sub-minimum wages without any penalty. I’ll grant that at the time of passage (1938) we may have been an even less enlightened society on the topic of disability than we are today. That is unquestionably true. But the continued existence of Section 14© is a slap in the face to all persons with disabilities and should represent a moral and ethical repugnancy to everyone, irrespective of ability.

One of the standard boiler-plate responses to such startling truths is the panacea of education. Almost without fail it will be said that employment gaps can be bridged through better education and thus there is not discrimination or structural infirmity within the economy. It’s just up to the lazy and uneducated to go get that degree. If that were true however, then the following could not be simultaneously true. Among PWD with at least a bachelor’s degree, there is just a 28.4% employment rate while the analogous cohort of people without disabilities enjoys a 76.1% employment rate. So if it isn’t a gap in education that causes the deep disparities in employment and economic outcomes for PWD, then what is it?

I cannot pretend to have the answers here. There are some things that could be done to improve this suboptimal set of conditions for PWD but it will entail a wholesale reformation of the societal perception of PWD to incite a true paradigm shift. The removal of Section of 14© is a start. The passage of the TEACH Act, which compels educational institutions to provide accommodations and accessibility for PWD, would also help. But even with the ADA in place and even if the two somewhat technocratic changes just mentioned were actualized, much of the above inequity would persist and stems from negative misperceptions about the productivity, potential and fundamental worth of PWD. While not all employers or teachers or average folks are guilty of overt discrimination or abuse, many are guilty of perpetrating the soft bigotry of low expectations. This simply means that PWD are expected to be inferior as a matter of course and thus less viable as employees, leaders and decision-makers. There isn’t a policy or law that can change this. Much like the ongoing project of racial equality, it is going to take generations of hard work and incremental progress to facilitate the change we need. But incremental progress and the steps needed to make it happen – such as those listed above, among others – are critical steps in the right direction.

I guess that the question I began this piece with is a fitting one to end with as well: when is it our turn?

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette is one of the participants in the 2015 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship program.  He and other USICD program interns are writing a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program, to be posted at this blog.  USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette is completing his internship at Legacies of War.  Learn more about the internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257.  Read Dylan’s, and the biographies of other interns in the summer 2015 program, at http://www.usicd.org/index.cfm/news_usicd-mitsubishi-interns-biographies.  The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD or Legacies of War.

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