when will we see the value of disabled workers optimist jenna dot com

When Will We See the Value of Disabled Workers?

Society acts like disabled workers have little value. When will we see that disability is not inability?

My family includes more than one disabled adult. Katie has Down syndrome. “Red,” who wants their real name kept private, is autistic. I am neurodivergent as well.

Many disabled people, inside and outside my family, are skilled. But employment isn’t that simple. Too many disabled workers remain overlooked. And the rest of the world is missing out.

Being Misunderstood

Getting a Foot in the Door

drawing of a sad girl holding a happy mask with the words masking autism is exhausting by optimist Jenna
Faking it comes with a price. (from my Instagram)

It can be hard to get a job when you’re disabled.

One study sent out over 6,000 applications for accounting jobs. They sent out three types of cover letters in equal amounts. The three types mentioned:

  1. A spinal cord injury
  2. Asperger syndrome (a type of autism),
  3. No mention of disability

None of those make it harder to do math. But the disabled applicants got 26% fewer responses.

Of course, most disabled people don’t share that in a cover letter. But it can still be clear early on.

What happens when the recruiter sees the unique shape of your face? Or when they want to shake your hand and realize you can’t see them? How do you get a foot in the door if you don’t have any feet?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that about 2/3 of non-disabled people were employed in 2019. But less than 1 in 5 disabled people had jobs. Areas with more prejudice against disabled people have worse employment rates.

Keeping a Job

Not every disability is visible. But the traits will affect working life at some point. What happens then?

Red has done some job searches within the past few years. They found it stressful. They said they worried about adjusting to a new workplace.

What happens when I can’t act non-autistic? When I fail to read between the lines or when I can’t focus in an open office? Will they help me or will they say I’m not trying hard enough? I try so hard but the beginning takes extra work.

When people see my disability, they often overlook my ability. But both are real. I would like an employer who understands both. But many think the two can’t coexist. And autism is hard to hide.

Adapting to a new workplace may take more time for a disabled worker. Parts of the workplace may not be accessible. Besides learning the ropes in general, they have to figure out how to handle these problems.

But when employers see this, they might think it will always be hard. So they may decide that the disabled worker isn’t worth the effort. They may refuse to give them the adjustments or time they need to figure out how to succeed at work.

This remains a big fear for many disabled workers: that no one will give them a chance.

The Skills Often Outweigh The Needs

But when you ignore disabled workers, you miss out on a lot of value.

Red is a smart cookie. In school, their report card often showed straight As. They have a knack for improving things and coming up with great designs. Other people comment on their talent.

Katie’s IQ is less than 100. But IQ isn’t all that counts. She’s friendly, kind, and hardworking. She loves to cheer people up and she tries to mediate disputes in her friend group. She could do great work cleaning stores, folding clothes, or busing tables. Any company would be lucky to have someone with a work ethic like hers.

I’d like to think I’m valuable as well. At least, I’m a good enough writer to write this. My Instagram filled with artwork has been successful too. I also design websites and write code. I’d argue that my skills surpass my need for a quiet workspace or the fact that I wear a finger brace when I draw.

My family is not special this way. Researcher Silvia Bonaccio and her colleagues fact-checked employers’ concerns about hiring disabled people. They found that many disabled people were qualified and motivated. Also, the cost of accommodations was often small or nothing at all. The experts wrote:

Workers with disabilities should not be cause for concern for employers. Rather, employers would be wise to make use of this underutilized labor pool…

Most disabled workers don’t need anything fancy. A good workspace and a boss who wants to help may be enough. Sometimes, small adjustments make all the difference.

Lots of disabled workers can do good things and great things. They just need someone to give them a chance.

Seeing the Value of Disabled Workers

Some employers are beginning to realize that disabled workers have value. For example, Microsoft has a program to hire autistic workers.

But that’s not enough. Lots of autistic people still struggle to find jobs that use their skills. And many non-autistic disabled people need help too but aren’t getting it. What if you have something less well-known than autism?

Too many disabled people are jobless.

In one study, researchers talked to bosses and HR workers. They asked questions about hiring and keeping disabled workers. Here is what the people said would help:

  1. Better training for managers and bosses
  2. A disability resource in the company
  3. Written guidelines for handling disability issues
  4. A system for handling accommodation requests

These programs need to exist. Employers need to try harder to include disabled workers.

There is so much value out there, yet so many disabled workers struggle to find a place. It doesn’t have to be like this. We can meet disabled workers’ needs instead of casting them out. (It’s not as hard as it sounds.) We need to fight prejudice and see people’s skills.

Do it for Katie. Do it for Red. And do it for me.

8 thoughts on “When Will We See the Value of Disabled Workers?”

  1. This is brilliant. I absolutely agree, a disability does not mean someone is not of value. I say rise above them and make your own fate – like you are doing with your writing and drawing.

    Red’s quote was heartbreaking (they sure do have a way with words). No one should have to feel that way for just being themselves 🙁

    I was hoping the pandemic, and greater acceptance of work from home, would really help disabled workers.

    Love your blog btw!

    1. Thank you so much, Naomi! And yes, the work from home thing is pretty great for disabled people. Choosing my own environment eliminates many of the sensory sensitivities that would interfere with my work at an office. Red is doing well working from home right now, and I’ll make sure they know what they said about their writing. I think that will give them a big smile.

      The pandemic has had a lot of ups and downs, most of them being downs, but the work from home thing is revolutionary for many disabled people. (Though not for my sister, Katie, who’s likely to work a retail-type job. But she can still do online school for now.) My hope is that when the pandemic fades, disabled workers will still be able to work from home if needed. Because I could work in an office if I needed to, but some people with higher needs can’t, and lots of those people are talented too!

      I’m so glad you stopped by. Your blog has a lot of wisdom in it and I love hearing from you.

  2. I love this. I’m on the spectrum and have gotten really good at masking but it’s really tiring and a constant struggle with feeling judged and being overlooked.

    1. It sounds like you’re in a tough situation. You get to choose between being yourself with the social stigma or blending in with the exhaustion. I wish autistic people didn’t have to make such an unfair choice. I hope you’re able to find places where it’s safe to unmask.

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