Most of us with disabilities desperately want to work, but face massive discrimination 24 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Today, qualified applicants with disabilities are being discriminated against in the hiring process because employers have become creative in their discrimination tactics, and good employees with disabilities are being unfairly terminated because of their disabilities, but employers are hiding behind lies, little-used laws and other creative reasoning to explain the firing.
Many people with disabilities rely on SSI, SSDI, or other state and government cash benefits programs to survive. With these come medical insurance, such as Medicaid or Medicare, which sometimes pays for medical equipment and long term care needs, such as attendant services. Some of us may have vouchers to pay for some or all of the cost of our housing, but that's not always the case. The downside of these programs is that they keep us stuck in poverty by severely limiting the assets that we can have, or how much money we can make or have on hand or in the bank. If we go over the strictly set limit, even by one dollar, we lose our benefits!
Some groups and lawmakers feel that in order to address the issue of unemployment, there needs to be programs that target and hire folks with disabilities for employment, particularly for the government. That's all fine and well, but that looks and smells a lot like Affirmative Action, which was supposed to help Black folks get hired, but you know how that turned out for us - it was beset with stigma and resentment. It seems that similar programs for disabled folks are just as ineffective, because the rate of unemployment for us has risen, not fallen.
There are also groups that feel that benefits programs for our community needs to be modernized so that we can work and still receive benefits, particularly medical benefits. Though I fully agree with that, I believe that it's more than benefits that should be modernized.
Too many people with disabilities feel that if they work, they'll lose benefits, which often happens. Unfortunately, so many of us are so ingrained (through fear) in our poverty that we'll turn down a good paying job with insurance benefits because we are afraid of losing our Medicaid, not knowing that there are Medicaid buy-in programs if certain services that we need aren't covered by private insurance. Also, some unscrupulous employers are cashing in on this and refusing to pay us livable, decent wages because of this. More on that later.
So, while I believe that benefits need to be modernized, we disabled folks need to modernize our thought processes, imposed on us by the oppressors, and stop believing that we have to live in poverty. If I'm making 30k or 45k a year, with full benefits, there is no need for me to be on SSI/SSDI, which keeps us mired in poverty.
It's not just those of us with disabilities who need to modernize the thoughts that society and the oppressors have put on us. Society, itself, needs to get over the fallacious ideas it clings to about us. We are not burdens better off dead. We are not objects of pity or disdain. We are not cash cows to be made money off of by warehousing us in nursing homes, medicalizing everything we use, even spoons and pencils, by trying to eradicate us with cures and research, knowing that most of the money goes into CEO's pockets, by our slave labor, because we're shut away in sheltered workshops and charity organizations making pennies an hour while CEOs make millions a year. We are not liabilities to be turned away from jobs, schools, restaurants and public places. We are beautiful, with many talents and gifts to offer if you'd just open your minds. We are human beings worthy of life, love, respect, dignity and the human and civil rights that you have, but take for granted. Just as there is no price on your freedom and dignity, there should be no price on ours. We should not be told that it costs too much to care for us in our communities, that it costs too much to provide public accommodations so that we can live and participate in our communities, that it costs too much to educate us, that it costs too much to put us into the mainstream workplace and that it cost too much to protect our civil and human rights.
This humanization of our community needs to start even before birth. Pregnant women need to be told not to abort their disabled babies, but love them and prepare them for a good life. Disabled children need a good, equal education that will prepare them for college or barring that, a good, well-paying job, not a nursing home or sheltered workshop.
The laws designed to protect us from discrimination in the workplace are ineffective, at best. It often takes years or even decades for a case to be resolved and often, we lose. Besides, crafty employers know how to get around a discrimination lawsuit. Also, the fear is often so deeply ingrained in us that we'll suffer injustice, rather than fight back.
Another thing that happens is that some employers have figured out how to cash in on our fears of losing our benefits by not paying us what everyone else gets, citing their "concern" that we'll lose our SSI/SSDI, when all they're really concerned about is their bottom line. What's worse, and I've seen and experienced it, is when nonprofit disability organizations, like independent living centers do it. What benefits we get are none of your business; it's our responsibility to report to Social Security or any other agency that we're working and how much we're making, and take it from there. It is infantilizing, at best and discrimination, at worst, not to pay someone with a disability equal wages because of "concern" about their benefits status - it's the person's concern and their business, not yours - in fact, the question shouldn't even be asked!
Almost everyone with disabilities can work in some fashion, but we are told to our faces that we cannot work, yet society believes that we are shiftless and lazy. This double-think is mind-boggling and must stop! You can't have it both ways. You can't tell us what we can't do, and when we accept this, call us lazy, shiftless scammers intent on living off of society. If you politicians care about our country and our economy, you will truly include people with disabilities into all of your equations, your plans and your political platforms, with comprehensive and effective planning on how this will be done, not just mention us in a speech just to gain points with us, or make some long-winded, ineffective gesture on ADA or Olmstead Day that you know won't be fulfilled.
People with disabilities are a vast, untapped resource begging to be utilized. How, then, do we make it so that more of us are employed and employable, making decent, livable wages? Modernizing benefits will help. Getting rid of laws and loopholes that allow people with disabilities to be paid subminimum wages and stipends is another. Intensive training and education programs inside and outside state vocational rehabilitation programs can help, as well, but care must be taken not to skim off the easiest folks or shunt people with disabilities into certain career paths simply because it's easier to place them there. There also needs to be widespread, intensive, effective and mandatory training for employers about the value of having employees with disabilities. Human resource people and others who train people and write books on how to get a job need to factor in people with disabilities into that training and rethink the tips that they are giving job hunters, because some of those tips, by their very nature, excludes people with disabilities. Also, the laws that protect us from discrimination needs to be strengthened and the lawsuit process must be streamlined. Employers must know with certainty that they will face real, severe reprocussions if they discriminate against us based on our disabilities.
However, these are short-term, now or near-future solutions. What is really needed are long-term solutions that begin during childhood. Children with disabilities need to be integrated into classes with nondisabled kids, and not resented or seen as distractions. If they cannot be integrated, they still need to be given a real education, not special education, because it is neither special, nor education to spend your day drawing, coloring and playing when your intellectual abilities indicate that you can be educated and/or trained to work and live independently with services and supports. Students with disabilities who have an IEP, but who take and complete the same courses as nondisabled students must receive the same kind of diploma at graduation as their peers. Further, colleges should not be allowed to discriminate against students with intellectual and learning disabilities, and should have more programs designed for them, so that they, too, can achieve gainful employment when they graduate.
One final solution is this: The criminalization of Black children in particular, as well as other children of color with disabilities via the pipeline to prison must end. Now. Today. A child in the throes of an autistic or mental health meltdown is not committing a crime. Teachers and school officials must be trained in how to de-escalate the situation, not call the police. Police have absolutely no place in our schools - when they are present, Black kids and other kids of color with disabilities suffer! They gain a criminal record, which is a serious deterrent to their education and their ability to get a job.
The extremely high unemployment rate for people with disabilities in this country is a national tragedy, catastrophe, and shame. Sadly, it doesn't hold enough importance in the minds of the powerful and the powers that be, for them to create and implement bold, powerful and effective solutions to counter this. Since I cannot fathom what the reasons are that they refuse to address this, I can only imagine that there is some unknown benefit to keeping our community mired in poverty.
My people with disabilities, it's time for us to rise up! We need to rise up in a nonviolent revolution for jobs and dignity, just like Dr. King was planning when he was assassinated. We should do marches, protests and sit-ins, just like the Freedom Fighters did for Black people because otherwise, nothing will change. Yes, voting is of the utmost importance, but that is only one tool in our toolbox, besides, politicians will promise the moon to get your vote, then, give you nothing when they get elected - then, it's another two, four, or six years before they're out. Besides, with the new voting laws, it's becoming more difficult to vote if you aren't part of the dominant culture, belong to the wrong political party, or don't have government issued identification. Because we are poor and perceived to be powerless, direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience are our most powerful tools and the only thing the powers that be will pay attention to when you don't have money. We should not be afraid because we'll be doing this not just for ourselves, but for those who cannot do it and those who will come after us. Never forget that our great nation was founded on protest, and that protest was the only way that many of us get our civil rights. Having a job is not a privilege, having a job, if you are able to work, is a right and a responsibility. We must fight for that right and responsibility because nobody is going to give it to us!