By Ed Heaton
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. According to the latest statistics, 79% of persons with disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed. The reasons are many and varied, but let’s bring it down to a personal level, so we can all understand what it means for a disabled person to have a job, especially a disabled person with cognitive disabilities.
Recently, I met with a mother whose adult child had just gotten a job working 25 hours per week for a major retailer. According to the mother, her child’s last job was working 10 hours per week for a major shopping chain. To paraphrase the mother, “After 6 PM, there wasn’t really much for my child to do.” Working 25 hours per week has expanded her expectations in working to a whole new level.
To those without cognitive disabilities who work, this sounds like standard operating procedure: a person gets a better job, and then their life goals and expectations increase. For those with cognitive disabilities, I would dare to surmise that it is even greater than that. It gives people the chance to work and function in the real world just like everyone else.
Before you say, “Duh,” the reason I wrote the above paragraph is because, due to changes in how the employment world functions, more people with disabilities in general and cognitive and mental health issue in particular, are now facing higher barriers of entry into the job market. An article in the Wall Street Journal of September 30, 2014, lists a number of questions that employers seeking to fill customer service positions now ask job seekers online. For example, at Radio Shack Corporation, the candidate is asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: “Over the course of the day, I can experience many mood changes.” If one has cognitive or mental health impairments, how might they answer this question? Furthermore, according to the article, these tests allow employers to predict with 80% accuracy which employees will get the highest performance scores on the job. All well and good for the employer; not so great if you are the employee.
The problem is two-fold. First, if you are disabled, you are already fighting a negative bias by most employers, and even some customers. For example, in my current job, I have had a customer come through my line on two different occasions and say to me, “They make you work here?” The second time, I asked the customer who he meant by “they.” He replied, “Oh, you know, the people who give you your disability check.” Ignorant, certainly, but definitely that is still the presumption of members of the public, including, to an extent, employers. I have always been blessed to work for forward-thinking companies where that is not the presumption. Not everyone is so lucky. Second, humanity is being removed from all stages of life, including the employment sector. When you hear people complain about automated systems that they can’t get through, just think about automated hiring systems that major companies are using to screen applicants. Now, add into the equation cognitive or mental health impairments. How you answer the questions designed to assess the probability of your being a good employee may remove you from even being considered for employment.
This is where the disability community fails miserably. While we have made significant strides in my lifetime toward improving life for people with disabilities, unfortunately, we have fallen down on the sales front. We can throw all kinds of statistics at employers, saying what kind of employee we are, will be, that our rate of absenteeism is far less than other employees, etc. etc. Until we actually personalize the story to employers of what employment actually means to people with disabilities, sad to say, there will need to be many more National Disability Employment Awareness months.
The community should come together as one and make it a national priority across all sectors to achieve this goal. That way, when they have a Disability Pride Parade, they can actually have something to take pride in, instead of just patting ourselves on the back for the fact that we survived daily living with a disability. Like we had a choice? Until we refocus our priorities on what’s really important, the part of the “Pledge of Allegiance” about “liberty and justice for all,” especially in the world of employment, will remain unfulfilled.