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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

The Future of Employment of People with Disabilities

By Melissa Carney, NCIL Policy Intern

From a very young age, we are taught that the main focal points of our lives are education, employment, extracurricular involvement, and continuous self-growth. We are pushed to receive stellar grades so that we may land the perfect job, or climb a metaphorical ladder until we obtain success. We are expected to put the money we earn towards our future endeavors, whether that be housing, transportation, insurance, or food on the table. If you cannot meet certain societal standards, you are often thought as lazy or unproductive. However, what many fail to realize is that there are systematic barriers in place that infringe upon one’s ability to secure employment, particularly in regards to people with disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 65.7 percent of nondisabled people are employed, while only 18.7% of people with disabilities are employed in 2018. Why is this the case? Don’t certain laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act level the playing field and prohibit discrimination?

While the above laws have granted people with disabilities copious opportunities to receive adequate education, prioritized accessibility, accommodations, and greater participation in the workforce as a whole, the lack of supported education to career paths, accessible professions, and segregated employment continue to hinder those with disabilities. It is not enough for people with disabilities to be employed out of a set of federal guidelines or pity; greater quality should be ensured as well. There is a common misconception that people with disabilities are not able to compete as equally in the workforce as their nondisabled peers due to the extra support they may require. For this reason, thousands of people with disabilities are placed into sheltered workshops. These workshops support segregation and subminimum wages. Pay rate is often based on how much an individual is able to produce per hour, which discriminates against those who require accommodations or slower working speeds. Some receive only a handful of pennies per hour.

In general, the tasks that they are assigned do not usually account for individual skillsets, disability-related needs, or interests. A one size fits all approach is neither practical nor realistic; people naturally excel in different ways, and it is grossly unfair to assume that, because one disabled person can complete a specific task, every disabled person can manage similar projects in the same way. In other words, sheltered workshops are essentially a setup for failure. Some people are better suited for certain tasks than others. Specific skillsets should not be devalued; Individuality is perhaps the primary key to successful employment.

An astounding number of American citizens are still under the impression that people with disabilities must be controlled and monitored for their own safety. However, communities around the country continue to suffer under this mind-set. Nondisabled peers remain ignorant towards the capabilities of people with disabilities, while people with disabilities remain barred from reaching their full potential. Integration is key for knowledge, networking, stepping stone progressions, and individualization. Not all people have the same interests or abilities, but they should all at least be given the chance to build on their skills and take chances as readily as their colleagues.

Society tells us that we should fear the unknown and live by a specific set of expectations. This psychological trap is especially prevalent for people with disabilities. Some are vehemently opposed to leaving behind sheltered workshops and being on their own because they have been made to believe that they must be dependent on others. It is not enough to develop the law to account for the importance of competitive and integrated employment; the attitudes of communities at large must be changed as well. Low societal expectations must give way to programs for confidence-building and empowerment. Fear must give way to receptiveness to education. Half the problem with sheltered workshops and subminimum wages is the sheer motivation behind them. Nondisabled community members must be informed about discrimination issues just as much as the disabled community. Confrontation is in order, and it does not need to be restricted to Capitol Hill alone. Society must be taught that we can all benefit from integration, equal opportunities, and open mindedness.

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