The Economic Equalizer: How the Current Economic Struggle Could Improve Prospects for PWDs

Happy Labor Day, readers!

Most disability advocates who write might use today as a platform to talk about how “labor” relates to persons with disabilities, and how those persons are often not expected, or given the opportunity to, participate in meaningful work. Therefore, what do they have to celebrate on Labor Day? If you remember, this blog featured a post like that last year (see “Another Cinderella Story” in the September 2012 archives). But this Labor Day, I have something else in mind.

One of the common responses to the fact that PWDs can’t seem to get, or hang onto, meaningful work is, “Yeah, but everyone’s struggling right now.” As in, PWDs, particularly twenty-somethings, are not the only ones still living in their parents’ homes, doing menial or unskilled jobs part-time, and in general, not feeling fulfilled. I completely get that. When everyone is struggling, it’s hard to focus in on one specific group. When everyone is hungry, the last thing on anybody’s mind (usually) is whether somebody is a vegetarian or needs a gluten-free diet. We ask ourselves, shouldn’t everyone be willing to put up with a little gluten? Shouldn’t PWDs stop whining and just wait like the rest of us?

I say no, for a couple of reasons. One, PWDs are not “whiners,” no matter what certain individuals will say to the contrary. Asking for reasonable modifications, and reaching out for a better life than you have, is not “whining.” Two, maybe we need to reexamine our view of the fact that everyone is struggling economically, and let that influence the way we treat those who, too often, struggle even when the economy is great. What do I mean? Let me explain.

Plenty of twenty-somethings are graduating college, moving back home, and only finding unskilled, part-time work right now. Plenty of thirty- and forty-somethings are worrying about being laid off or “demoted” to part-time status, and the fifty-somethings and sixty-somethings must honestly ask if their retirement–the fruits of their labor, if you will–is going to be there in a few short years. The entire labor force is in dire straits. I would venture to say that for the first time since the 1930s, we all know what it’s like, in some form, to be the worker with a disability!

Think about this. Go back and pull up all the knowledge you have about “job services,” “transition,” and other hoops people with disabilities are expected to jump through. Too often:

1. Their dreams and career desires are considered unrealistic and/or ignored.

2. They are “placed,” by another person (who allegedly knows better because he or she doesn’t have a disability) in jobs they don’t really want

3. Those jobs are often unskilled, menial, or inadequate (for example, they are done for low pay or even no pay)

4. People with disabilities are, too often, expected and in some cases required, to work with a “job coach” looking over their shoulders. That person–not the worker–decides when their work is adequate.

5. People with disabilities are frequently “let go” from these unskilled jobs because the modifications they need or ask for are considered “too much,” because their work is considered inadequate, or for any number of other reasons.

Compared to that scenario, the temporarily able-bodied workforce does have it pretty good. Most of us don’t work with job coaches watching our every move. We’re given opportunities to move up the ladder, even in jobs we don’t want. We know, somewhere in the backs of our minds, that our under-employed state doesn’t have to be permanent. But have we:

1. Left what we really want to do–our labors of love–on hold, as unrealistic?

2. Accepted jobs we don’t really want, or been pushed into them out of a sense of obligation?

3. Accepted that the under-employed work we do, is the best it’s going to be? Have some of us even given in to the phrase, “I don’t like to work unless I have to?”

4. Felt inadequate in the jobs we have, or been let go because somebody said we were inadequate, overqualified, or some other “negative” adjective?

In their own way, I believe the entire workforce is getting a taste of what workers with disabilities have endured for decades, even when the economy was wonderful. So, what do we do with that knowledge? First, we do all we can, as the peers of workers with disabilities, to help them find meaningful work–because they know what it’s like to wait endlessly for the “American dream.” And then we do everything we can to persuade ourselves, our coworkers, even our governments, that every person, with or without a disability, needs and deserves a piece of the American dream.

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