By Brooke Ellison
There is a profound need to deconstruct and actively reconstruct the interpretation of disability as it is currently understood.
The current framing of disability as inability — whether an inability to be employed or otherwise — has utterly failed not only people with disabilities, but also the communities in which they live.
This perception of disability is a relic of attitudinal and policy structures put into place by people who do not live with disability themselves: people who may have been ignorant to the virtues that living with disability engenders.
Current calls for attention to a disability bioethics or a disability epistemology have heralded not only highlighting, but also actively promoting, the qualities, leadership skills, and valuable character traits associated with surviving and thriving in a world fundamentally not set up for one’s own needs.
Before any meaningful movement can be made when it comes to the employment of people with disabilities — whether in the form of workplace accommodations, flexible work settings, recruitment practices, or limitations on earnings — the underlying assumption about the value of their presence in the workforce needs to change.
Disability as a proxy for unproductivity
For as long as capitalism has been the dominant form of economy in Western cultures, one of the primary ways that disability has been understood is as an inability to perform labor.
Throughout the 17th century, when the age of colonialism brought the ravages of disease and treacherous conditions, thereby creating a wide variation in body morphology, less attention was paid to bodily norms, and significant attention was paid to the ability one had to contribute to productivity and providing for the community. That characteristic, much more than any physical one, denoted disability.
For centuries since then, the image of disability in the U.S. has been contextualized in just these terms: it is not simply a physical or mental status that designates “disability,” per se, but also how this status implicates one’s ability to produce. This mercantilistic, utilitarian view of disability and of humanity has had immeasurable consequences on how we have come to value — or fail to value — disabled people’s lives and their contributions to the economy.
This view can be seen as a mechanism and justification for the unchecked marginalization of people with disabilities; the implementation of insufficient social policies; and the dearth of opportunities for disabled people.
Current disability policy
The historical relationship between disability and productivity has been the very vertebrae supporting the more modern presumption that people with disabilities are unable to work, do not want to work, or that their work is implicitly inferior to that of their nondisabled counterparts.
This false perception has had multiplicative effects on disabled people’s ability to be educated, to pursue employment, and, ultimately, to be visible or prominent figures in society. The argumentation is straightforward: if a subset of the population is, inherently, believed to be unfit for work or education or community participation, there is no need to provide the structure necessary for this population to engage in these things.
This logical progression has been codified in public policies that have been resistant to updating or evolution in thinking. There has been a consistent presumption among employers that people with disabilities do not belong in the workplace. Their presence as employees, then, has been incentivized through public policy and workplace practices that inherently undervalue their contributions.
For instance, section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 allows employers to pay certain people, including the disabled, less than minimum wage, citing the potential impairment of their “earning or productive capacity.” While the legislation states, “the fact that a worker may have a disability is not in and of itself sufficient to warrant the payment of a subminimum wage,” the implications of the policy are no less striking: the presumption is that people with disabilities may very well be less productive than those without disability, and employers, thus, do not need to adhere to federal employment standards in order to retain their employment. Such an assumption is not made for others who, for reasons entirely unrelated to physical impairment, may demonstrate a lower level of productivity.
The perception of disability as a proxy for unproductivity is not simply a relic of a bygone misunderstanding associated with it, and much more contemporaneous policy measures resonate with these same ideas. With its origins in debates taking place decades earlier, the creation of the Social Security Administration’s Social Security Disability Insurance of 1956 and Supplemental Security Disability Income of 1975 embraced an austere and similarly productivity-oriented definition of disability: “an impairment of mind or body which continuously renders it impossible for the disabled person to follow any substantial gainful occupation.”
The motivation behind this restrictive and productivity-driven definition of disability was, ostensibly, to limit the number of people who might be eligible for the benefits; it would have been difficult to foster political will for legislation supporting supplemental income if it included people who could otherwise work. However, the unintended consequences of this definition have been both implicit and explicit in nature: people with disabilities have had to choose between seeking employment or collecting the benefit to which they ought to be entitled by virtue of their disability, thereby reducing their presence in the workforce, while the workplace structure has been built without the expectation of people with disabilities being present in it.
Undeniably, SSI and similar social safety net measures have been essential for people with disabilities and the creation of a humane society. Without question, there is a percentage of unemployed people with disabilities who are, indeed, not able to work.
However, policy measures, no matter how well intended, can have unanticipated consequences. Most notable among these consequences are the lack of employment of people with disabilities (in 2020, only 18% of persons with disabilities were employed, compared to 66.3% of people without disabilities), and a subtext of sanctioned marginalization of these people.
Impairment vs. disability
U.S. disability policies place the locus of the problem on the individual — they problematize the person with the disability, such that a lack of productivity is a normative outcome of living with a physical disability. These policy measures — whether wittingly or unwittingly — imply that unemployment and other social disparities are merely the inevitable consequence of physical impairments.
These measures fail to understand the distinction between “impairment” and “disability.” While impairment ought to refer to the physical limitations placed on human ability, disability — or disablement — as a construct, involves physicality placed within an environment that either does or does not provide the resources, support structures, infrastructure, or opportunities that enable individuals to lead meaningful lives.
People with physical impairments can be enabled or disabled by the world around them. To whatever modest degree, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was a step toward decoupling “impairment” and “disability,” placing the responsibility to provide accessibility for people with disabilities on society: the education system, urban designers, and employers. However, this piece of civil rights legislation has been slow to alter public opinion and societal perception.
Even since the passage of the ADA, accommodations made for employees with disabilities have been fraught with disparaging or unfortunate implications: that accommodations are more than what an employee deserves; that accommodations that need to be made are not worth the investment; that it is preferable to hire a nondisabled applicant over a disabled applicant, so as to prevent having to make accommodations at all. Workplace accommodations are often met with resistance, or seen as investments employers are disinclined to make, and these beliefs can foster an organizational culture within which people with disabilities can feel unwelcome. Efforts to bring people with disabilities into the workforce are seen either as undesirable or as acts of charity.
The result is detrimental and manifold, perpetuating the belief that disability and employment are incongruous concepts, reducing a disabled individual’s likelihood of requesting accommodations, as well as the likelihood of her success on the job, and instantiating the marginalization that people with disabilities have experienced throughout history. This dynamic creates a barrier to work, as well as a barrier to a fair and just environment within which to work.
A mindset shift
It is time to put into place policies and infrastructure necessary to operationalize the opportunities that have existed for many, but have remained far out of reach for people with disabilities.
Employers must not only learn to, but also be incentivized to seek out these individuals, through recruitment efforts on college campuses and through working with employment opportunity offices. Working hand-in-hand with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, employment offices, themselves, should be encouraged to actively promote the job opportunities well-suited for people with disabilities, so that there is a support structure in place for their transition from the school environment to the work environment. In addition, institutions of higher education must begin to provide to their students with disabilities the knowledge and resources necessary to engage in the recruitment, interviewing, and hiring processes, so that they can compete successfully.
But it is not enough to simply provide work opportunities to people with disabilities. Just as recruitment is not enough for typical employees, it ought not to be enough for disabled employees. Instead, just as frequently and expectedly as their nondisabled counterparts, people with disabilities also need to be given opportunities for advancement, and the chance to take on leadership roles within the organizations. The skills implicit in living life with disability — those found in the epistemology of disability — are the very same skills that ought to be desired in Boards of Directors, C-Suites, management offices, and positions at every rank. The skills and talents that people with disabilities embody need to be fostered and encouraged, with an eye toward the virtues precipitated by disability rather than any detriments created by it.
This is the mindset that needs to shift. This is the cultural belief that is currently anachronistic and in dire need of updating. This is the change that must take place before true inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace can ever be expected to happen. The strategies are complex and manifold, but they are necessary if we are to build back, post-COVID, in a way that is truly inclusive. As a matter of fact, building back in a way that is truly inclusive should be the only way to do it.
Brooke Ellison, PhD, MPP is an Associate Professor of Applied Bioethics at Stony Brook University.