Disability Stigma Alive and Well

Came across this post on LinkedIn the other day, reminding us all about the importance of giving disabled Americans the chance to 512903522-disabilityprove themselves in the workplace.

Included in the general reminder by Amber Fritsch, a talent-management consultant, were other reminders for employers — including  the new provisions regarding leave as a reasonable accommodation — the Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act — released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year. Would be nice to think we’re moving in the right direction toward giving the more than 56 million Americans with disabilities a fair shake in corporate America.

But then I harked back to something I had come across earlier in the year — a mention of a movie I can’t say I’ve seen and can’t say I want to: Me Before You.

According to this recent post by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, the film is “the latest Hollywood movie to end with the assisted suicide or euthanasia of the lead character with a disability.”

She calls it “yet another case of ‘ableism’ — prejudice that people with disabilities are somehow less human, less valuable, less capable than others — and should simply die.”

Pretty grim description, but not too far removed from the stigma disabled job candidates still face, she says. The latest research from Mizrahi’s organization shows the numbers of working disabled Americans is still woefully low.

It cites findings that only one-in-three Americans with a disability has a job today and, of those who do, 400,000 work in sheltered workshops, also known as “enclaves” or “crews.” These institutions literally and legally can and frequently do pay people with disabilities sub-minimum wages, says Mizrahi. She adds:

“The lack of opportunity for people with disabilities leads to poverty, prison and, as we see in the fictionalized true story behind Me Before You, even death.”

In a follow-up conversation, Mizrahi cited a Kessler Foundation study showing 70 percent of people with disabilities are working age and currently striving for work. Only 34 percent have any job, however. From her vantage point …

“There has been NO improvement in the labor-force-participation rate in decades for people with disabilities. Zippo. And because other groups made progress and we did not, the gap in [those] rates between people with and those without disabilities has increased substantially.” 

She thinks a serious, systemic and ongoing communications campaign highlighting the benefits of inclusive hiring and self-employment is needed in this country so “people with disabilities can achieve the American dream, just like anyone else.”

Not sure why this hasn’t happened yet. Also not sure what the underlying problem is. And it’s not like we haven’t probed the matter. This recent HREOnline news analysis shows problems of recognizable bias in the hiring process still in existence at a majority of companies.

As Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness in Silver Spring, Md., says in that story:

“You start with the adherence to the law [i.e., the Americans with Disabilities Act], but until you get to where people can actually work side-by-side with someone who has a disability, it’s going to be hard to overcome some of those deeply held biases that are really unfounded in reality.

“HR needs to send the message that this is a company that welcomes workers with disabilities and then facilitate that process every step of the way.”

HRE Editor David Shadovitz’s more-positive HRE Daily post last year at least cites some evidence that disabled workers and job applicants are starting to overcome some of these barriers.

The post includes statistics from John O’Neill, director of employment and disability research at the Kessler Foundation, showing that roughly 16 percent of those with disabilities say they’ve experienced barriers resulting from supervisors’ attitudes and about the same proportion experienced barriers resulting from co-workers’ attitudes.

But when you ask them about their ability to overcome those barriers, about 41 percent of the former said they were able to do that and 54 percent of the latter said the same.

So there’s hope. But the overcoming efforts shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of disabled workers alone.