WHY PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES ARE NOT EMPLOYED?
Dr. Nasir Sulman
Department of Special Education
University of Karachi
Employment is a major aspect in the lives of people with or without disabilities. Type of employment, earnings, and advancement opportunities directly affect a person’s self-perception, society’s evaluation of a person, and a person’s financial and social freedom. Meaningful work that pays a fair wage is a key part in the quality of life a person enjoys.
Consider the prospect of a person who is restricted to a developmental program than only serves persons with mental and physical disabilities and does not allow an opportunity for employment. The amount of earned income is another critical factor that can affect the quality of life. If people with disabilities work for free or volunteer their services all the time, their outlook and society’s perceptions of them will be different than if they earn a wage comparable to that earned by workers without disabilities who perform the same job. Generally, the more money a person earns, the more freedom s/he has to purchase desired and/or necessary items in the community and to establish personal independence. Unfortunately, many people with disabilities earn very little money, and this becomes a real problem by lowering their self-perception.
Individuals with disabilities who are not in the labour force are faced with the misperception that they are either unable or unwilling to work. Failure to recognize and address these myths and negative stereotypes results in discrimination and the exclusion of individuals with disabilities from the workplace despite their willingness and ability to actively participate in the labour force.
The employers’ perspective as to why people with disabilities are not employed is probably quite different than rehabilitation professionals would expect. If a survey were conduced of employers across this nation it would result in a myriad of reasons as to why businesses are reluctant to hire people with disabilities. However, a review of all of these reasons would lead to a predominate theme. That theme would be “fear”.
Businesses rarely admit the real reasons that keep them from hiring people with disabilities. But looking behind the excuses given, it will be evident that the primary reason is fear. This section discusses four of the fears that employers face and the approach rehabilitation professionals can take to alleviate these concerns.
Fear of the Cost Associated with Hiring. The first fear that limits employment opportunities of people with disabilities is the fear of potential unknown costs such as accommodations. In reality and with proper planning and knowledge, most job accommodations are simple and inexpensive. Most frequently reported accommodations were changes in job duties and modified hours of work. Accommodations mostly have more to do with creativity, flexibility and sound management practices than expensive structural modifications or specialized technology. Accommodations like ramps, automatic door openers, widened doorways, and wheelchair accessible washrooms make the employers’ workplace more accessible to other potential employees with disabilities. It is therefore misleading to consider the cost of these changes as the cost of accommodating just one employee.
Fear of Additional Supervision and Loss of Productivity. A second fear is the fear of what affect a person with a disability would have on the workplace. This is much more subtle and can be more difficult to overcome than other employment related concerns. The major components of this fear are best viewed as two-fold. First, employers are concerned about the special attention that may need to be devoted to employees with disabilities. They are concerned about the amount of time the supervisor would need to commit to a worker with a disability and subsequently keep them from their other duties. The second component is the concern regarding the productivity of the employee with a disability. The question foremost in the businessperson’s minds is; “Will I need to make productivity concessions for this employee?” The employers concern is often their perceived requirements to have different productivity standards for two employees doing the same job.
The Fear of Being Stuck Forever. The third fear that most businesses experience is likely the fear that causes the most concern for employers and that is what happens if the job doesn’t work out. Will the employer be stuck forever paying a substandard employee? It seems that many employers feel that people with disabilities are a protected class. There is a general feeling that if they hire someone with a disability, it would be difficult to terminate the working relationship even if the new employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job.
Fear of Damaged Goods. Most employers take action on business proposal because it makes good business sense to do so. As a general rule, employers do not look for the charitable side when contemplating a business proposal. Companies do not want to be involved with things that risk the profitability of the business. When businessmen talk about hiring people with disabilities they may mention that they hire from a particular recruitment pool because it’s the right thing to do. They make this statement because they understand the business reasons for hiring people with disabilities, not referring to a noble cause or crusade they have undertaken. It is therefore critical that the placement professionals market the assets of people with disabilities. The potential employer needs to understand that he or she is being offered a qualified candidate that can do the job. If appeals are made to the employer’s charitable side for the placement, the chances for success are limited. A company will not be willing to hire an individual with a disability if they feel like they are getting damaged goods.
In considering the seriousness of the unemployment problem for people with disabilities, it will be helpful to review the costs of unemployment to society, business and, most important, to individuals with all types of disabilities. It is not difficult to see how the impact of this high level of unemployment can affect thousands of people with and without disabilities. The points that follow address some of the adverse effects that occur when meaningful employment opportunities are not made available to capable individuals.
Human Dignity: Human Dignity and self-worth of individuals with disabilities are not enhanced if they are not given the opportunity to seek and gain employment. As previously stated, the opportunity and ability to work in a real job that pays a fair wage is a major aspect of life, not just for people with disabilities but for all people. It is apparent after talking with individuals with disabilities and their friends that sustained employment is a critical avenue to other successful aspects of life such as health, friendship, self-esteem, and a feeling of purpose. Employment is often the key to improving self-perceptions, reducing feelings of loneliness, and moving toward a richer quality of life.
Family Concerns: The concerns and doubts experienced by families and friends of people with disabilities must also be considered. These concerns often center on such questions as, “What will happen to my son or daughter after I’m gone?” or “Will my son or daughter be able to get a job after completing school?” These are legitimate and serious questions that sustained employment can help address. While a job may not solve all problems or erase all concerns and doubts, it will be a major step in the right direction. Families need support assistance in helping individuals with disabilities enter the labor force.
Earning Power: As noted earlier, wages for individuals with disabilities are far below average. Earning competitive, unsubsidized wages would provide the person with the opportunity to have more independence in his or her life. Even at minimum wage levels, the wage accumulation over time is considerable and allows persons with disabilities to have spending money for housing, meals, and other discretionary items. Overall, wages and benefits allow for greater independence on the part of citizens with disabilities and help to improve their quality of life.
Economic Benefits to Society: Wages earned by citizens with disabilities typically flow back into the local and state economy. The impact of this economic benefit should not be minimized. When combined with the taxes, it is apparent that significant reductions in the employment rate for people with disabilities would quickly become a considerable benefit for provincial and federal budgets and the general economy.
Expectations of Family and Friends: The attitudes and expectations of family, friends, professionals, and above all, citizens with disabilities are negatively influenced when people with disabilities are continually denied the opportunity to earn decent wages and have a meaningful job. Society often views others in the context of whether or not they have a job, the amount of money they earn, the longevity of their employment situation, the type of work they perform, and so forth. Chronic unemployment of people with disabilities, when it is frequently not necessary or warranted, casts an unfair light on the capabilities of these individuals.
Employers, for their part, could take a greater role in acquiring and centralizing the necessary information and expertise to better understand disability, appreciate workers’ abilities, and solve accommodation problems. They could also create company-wide procedures, policies, and mechanisms to place less responsibility and burden on individual managers and supervisors and could work to improve corporate culture and better support managers and supervisors who are open to hiring and retaining workers with disabilities. The result might be a more diverse and accepting workplace for all employees, a more flexible approach to retaining skilled workers and hiring new employees, opportunities to increase productivity and take advantage of untapped talent, and a greater focus on job skills and performance rather than fear of potential future problems. Bringing in external experts to help with disability and accommodation issues, furthermore, could not only offer a broader range of solutions, but also demonstrate good faith and ensure fair treatment, and therefore potentially reduce legal liability.