Still ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’: Labor and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Michelle Chen

A generation ago, a wheelchair or chronic illness could mean a social death sentence for many Americans. The Americans with Disabilities Act, riding the political momentum of the civil rights era, aimed to change that by committing the government to empowering and ensuring access to jobs for workers with disabilities. But beyond concrete ramps and benefits checks, the struggle for self-sufficiency and visibility is today more nuanced, and no less urgent.

In a country where social advancement is rooted in the ability to work, the challenges that workers with disabilities must endure to earn a decent living is a measure of how inclusively America defines equal opportunity.”

According to the Government Accountability Office, the estimated workforce participation rate of people living with disabilities stands at about 40 percent; officials believe it should be higher. According to a Mathematica survey of disability beneficiaries between age 18 and 64, Overall, 40 percent indicated that their personal goals included getting a job, moving up in a job, or learning new job skills.”

So if we know that a physical or mental impairment doesn’t take away people’s desire, or need, for self-sufficiency and independence – what keeps people with disabilities out of the office or off the factory floor?

Recent research indicates that the barriers are cultural, technical and structural. Yet the setbacks tied to disabilities often mirror those facing the long-term unemployed generally: a cycle of diminishing prospects due to economic disadvantages and self-perpetuating alienation from the labor market.

According to new GAO study, based on interviews focusing on employers’ and workers’ perspectives, sometimes the biggest problem posed by a disability is all in our heads:

Current concepts of disability also suggest that perceptions held by employers and physicians and the individuals themselves may create unnecessarily low expectations about individuals’ abilities to participate in the workforce, and can affect whether an individual finds or retains employment.

The Mathematica study outlined various structural, not individual, obstacles:

About half of all beneficiaries (53 percent) have been on the rolls for 10 years or longer, and therefore may have lost whatever attachment to the labor force they might have had. Other potential challenges to successful employ­ment are evident: a large share (42 percent) have less than high-school-level education, possibly limiting their employment opportunities; about half (49 percent) are living in poverty, suggesting that they and their fami­lies likely rely on public programs for which eligibility could be jeopardized by earnings; and many report a variety of obstacles to getting and keeping jobs, such as a lack of reliable transportation (18 percent)¸ inacces­sible workplaces (28 percent), and discouragement from work either by others (27 percent) or through their own experiences (30 percent).

Similarly, NPR recently reported on the deeper challenges that people with disabilities face in communities of color, in terms of obtaining both sustainable jobs and social services.

The ADA put the federal government at the helm of critical, but flawed, programs like workers’ compensation and SSDI, as well as special vocational training and rehabilitation initiatives. Some GAO interviewees said that conflicting rules for government benefits ended up actually deterring people from working. Some study participants complained that SSDI beneficiaries may be hesitant to return to the workforce if their wages will eventually disqualify them from continuing to receive Medicare health benefits and if they believe they will be denied or not offered coverage by a prospective employer.”

So some may be unable to access, for example, employer-supported disability insurance until they drop out of the workforce, meaning they might have to jump through hoops just to prove your supposed helplessness, in order to get the tools you need to rejoin the workforce. GAO suggested that policies could be restructured and better-coordinated to decrease the tension between aid programs and policies that foster self-sufficiency.

Another way to open doors for people with disabilities is through strengthening tailored incentives for private employers, such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. A long overdue overhaul of the Family Medical Leave Act, which is especially critical for women in the workforce, would make it easier for people who have lost their positions due to a disability to reapply for jobs at their former workplace.

GAO interviewees noted that employers might actually need less convincing than expected to look past a disability: Retaining individuals after the onset of disability could decrease staff turnover costs and allow employers to retain those with important skills, abilities, and institutional knowledge.”

But workers would benefit from a carrot-stick approach that compels employers to pay a cost in payroll taxes for failing to retain a worker with a disability – so they see the benefit in installing a ramp instead of laying off a newly wheelchair-bound employee.

Though it’s yet unclear whether health insurance reform will lead to major improvements for disability-related care, an expansion of public health care services could also make it less expensive for firms to keep those workers on the payroll.

Some state policies have gone further than Washington. One program in Vermont evaluated by Mathematica has linked vocational rehabilitation and welfare programs so that poor people with disabilities – who have the fewest resources to deal with their physical or mental challenges – have access to comprehensive planning services to track them into decent work. Mathematica concluded that the targeted clients were especially likely to suffer from gaps such as low formal education, or added hardships due to undiagnosed and untreated impairments, or children with serious disabilities. The research also showed a large overlap between aid programs for the poor and psychological or physical impairment:

Results from a common survey fielded in six states found that the fraction of TANF recipients reporting a mental health condition ranged from 21 to 41 percent, a learning disability ranged from 8 to 18 percent, and a physical health condition ranged from 16 to 26 percent. Across the six states, recipients with physical and mental health conditions were significantly less likely to be employed than those without these conditions.

Disability and poverty are linked in both their causes and effects. Twenty years on, the Americans with Disabilities Act remains a profound reminder of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. For the growing community of people with disabilities, work is a path to empowerment and economic self-determination, but their everyday struggles show that the drive for self-sufficiency can and must coexist with policies that provide a guaranteed basic standard of living. Without that, no matter what our individual capabilities, we’re all getting held back.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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