America is a place where your job determines your worth. It is shorthand for your personality, your motivation, your education, your skills. What you do equals your values, your interests, and your plans. In America, you are what you do.
We are one of the only places on earth where “what do you do” comes up in the first 30 seconds of almost any conversation.
Part of my passion is rehabilitation of people with disabilities. Jobs are an extraordinarily helpful part of recovery from mental health concerns. Working decreases hospital stays, increases medication compliance, increases community inclusion, and increases self-esteem while reducing acute mental health symptoms.
Working saves all of us money – it’s less people on disability, welfare and food stamps. It’s less people in the emergency room. It’s fewer police calls to deal with suicidal behavior. It’s fewer beds in the psych ward because people didn’t take their medication. Working is the key.
Working is super important. If you’re not working, you don’t have a purpose, don’t have a strong self-concept. You’re not contributing anything, you have little to do on a daily basis. Is it any wonder that retirees maintain their mental and physical health better if they’re doing some sort of work, even volunteer work? It is fundamental to our functioning as human beings.
People with disabilities have it especially tough, for three major reasons that all go together. We’ll list them, then discuss how they interact.
For our purposes, workers/people with disabilities encompass a huge diversity of issues, including developmental delays (eg. Down’s Syndrome, Intellectual/Cognitive Delays), mental health concerns (e.g. Schizophrenia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and/or physical disabilities (i.e. Multiple Sclerosis, limited mobility). It’s important to recognize “people with disabilities” is a huge range of people, not all of whom need the same level of accommodation!
- Stigma. People with disabilities are viewed as less capable, less intelligent, less motivated. People struggling with mental illness are viewed as crazy, unreliable, and dangerous. We might accept someone with a developmental delay bagging our groceries, but it’s harder to accept someone with schizophrenia as our bank teller, our manicurist, or our IT person (even though 1 in 3 people will deal with a mental illness in their lifetime). Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia – they can be managed, the same as diabetes and heart disease can be managed – with medication, lifestyle changes, and consideration.
- The economy. Since the great recession, it’s been more difficult for everyone to get a job. Productivity standards rise while wages remain stagnant, and there aren’t many jobs being created. Especially here in Michigan, it’s tough for ANYONE to get a job, and employers can be frightened of spending more money on an employee.
- The hiring process. Most hiring, at least the beginning steps, is done online, and this automatically places those with disabilities at a huge disadvantage. If you self-identify as a person with a disability, you’re 26% less likely to get an interview, and most online applications now have a space for identification. Applying online can be like throwing your resume into a black hole, and if you’ve been struggling with depression and now have a 10 year employment gap, or if you’re getting into the workforce after learning to manage your MS, it’s almost impossible to explain that on an online boilerplate form. It doesn’t matter if you can do the job if you can’t get an interview to prove it.
Not hiring people with disabilities is actually hurting our economy, and allowing online hiring practices to be the main source of candidates perpetuates systematic inequality.*
Delaware governor Jack Markell, when chairing the National Governor’s Association, made employment for people with disabilities one of his foundational issues, and issued guidelines for each state to increase their hiring of disabled workers. It was controversial then, but it shouldn’t have been – people with disabilities make up almost 58 million adults in America, but you’re still much more likely to be poor if you’re disabled.
This isn’t something that can be fixed through law – if it could, the Americans with Disabilities Act (which was written and passed back in 1990) would have solved this problem. We need a cultural shift.
Employers, at least in my experience, tend to assume people with disabilities will be a net loss for their bottom line. They anticipate extra money for training and supervision, because we figure ‘those people’ are stupider and less competent. They anticipate more sick days. They figure people with disabilities won’t be able to stick it out, that their turnover will be too high to justify hiring costs. They worry accommodations will be cumbersome and expensive.
Data does not support these claims. People with disabilities stay at companies longer, take fewer sick days, increase productivity, and can actually make your business eligible for lots of great tax breaks and incentives. Defining a job’s essential functions and duties can streamline hiring and decrease unnecessary overhead…and this is the first part of accommodations. Something your business should be doing anyway.
This shouldn’t be something a business does out of charity – hiring workers with disabilities can make your business thrive.
Walgreens, McDonalds, Marriott, Home Depot – these are billion dollar corporations, all of which have a policy inclusive of those with disabilities. Coincidence?
Diversity is our strength. How many great ideas are we missing out on because they’re from a person who used to suffer from major depression? How much turnover could be avoided if employers took on workers who were motivated to work, because no one had yet given them a chance?
Not only does the hiring of those with disabilities make good business sense, it can increase your company’s profitability. If almost 60 million Americans have a disability, there are a lot of people with friends and family members who can’t get a job. How many customers could your business gain by hiring these workers? How much good PR are you missing?
Ignorance is no excuse for losing business. Isn’t it time we started taking advantage of this untapped potential, and fixed our economy?
*People with disabilities are overwhelmingly people of color, as well, but those interactions are a long subject for another post.