As Paul imaged the Body of Christ with diverse but united parts (1 Cor 12:12-31), we can picture the workforce as a body. It’s its own ecosystem, a literal economy, wherein each cog functions because of its neighbor. Yet one of our organs has atrophied.
We may have even amputated an appendage.
More than one-fourth of Americans have a 19.1% employment rate. To put that in perspective, if you were to line up 100 Americans, of the 26 that would represent our consideration, barely five of them would have a job. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which calculated the 19.1%, those five are not necessarily gainfully employed.
Who are these untapped people?
People with Disabilities
“Disability” likely conjures a slew of images—and it should. The disability community includes many people: those using wheelchairs or walking assistants; those with mental illnesses; anyone on the broad autistic spectrum; those with Down Syndrome; those who have had a traumatic brain injury; and anyone with a medical diagnosis that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
There are visible disabilities like quadriplegia and hidden disabilities like epilepsy. More impactful than these medical diagnoses is what’s known as the “social model of disability.” This is the attitude society takes toward people with disabilities. It is the largest hurdle to greater integration that this underemployed demographic faces daily.
For reasons both obvious and unconsidered, the world is structured for the general population. This is why cars are not mass-produced for little people; it isn’t viewed as being cost-effective. If our society had complete consideration for blind people, libraries would be more than twice as large to store books in braille and large print. People with disabilities have to constantly adapt to surroundings that haven’t considered them from the beginning.
Even in phrasing sections of this article I had to be prudent to use certain language. “Normal” implies “abnormal,” “different” carries a negative connotation, and “special” can be condescending. Identifier preferences change faster than dictionaries can, so while it’s forgivable to misspeak, it’s another example of how the majority population is catered to regardless of minority groups.
In an interview, Dr. Amy Kenny, author of My Body Is Not a Prayer Request, noted that people with disabilities have been asking for virtual meetings, flexible work schedules, and telecommuting long before it was cool. But it wasn’t until the world shut down and these requests became needs for everyone else that they became both commonplace and popularly accepted.
Thus, self-advocacy is the name of the game for people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was a huge stride in disability advocacy. No longer could people with disabilities legally experience discrimination in the workplace or hiring process. They were also given the right to access any program receiving federal funds. The same rights recognized in people of color and women through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were acknowledged in people with disabilities 32 years ago. Yet, disadvantages have persisted.
There is a shortage of employees and funding in organizations that support people with specifically intellectual disabilities. This prevents potential workers with disabilities from accessing employment specialists and job coaches who would help them find and maintain their jobs.
Also, this underemployed group faces a Catch-22. Per the ADA, job applicants are not required to disclose their disability and employers are prohibited from asking about one. Yet, the effect of certain diagnoses on job performance may become quickly obvious. This is unfortunately sometimes enough to preclude people from jobs and even interviews.
In most cases, though, it’s not deliberate prejudice keeping employers from hiring people with disabilities; it’s for lack of personal experience.
The same self-advocacy that is so often a necessary trait and task for people with disabilities can translate into how they seek fulfillment through work. Also from the BLS poll: 9.6% of people with disabilities are self-employed. Compare that to the 6.4% of self-employed people lacking a disability and one can infer a higher amount of initiative in the first group—a desirable quality in any employee.
Here are other stats compelling the skeptical employer to hire people with disabilities:
- Accommodations (changes made to the workspace to meet a person’s unique needs, like a typed to-do list of tasks) are usually negligible. In fact, the Job Accommodations Network calculated that 56% of those surveyed paid absolutely nothing when hiring an employee with a disability.
- Forbes reported that a business can see reduced turnover because “[p]eople with disabilities tend to seek stable and reliable work when searching for jobs.”
- Finally, from Entrepreneur.com, the Department of Labor found that of companies who hired with disabilities, there was a 72% increase in employee productivity; 45% increase in workplace safety; 28% increase in savings on workers’ compensation and other insurance costs; 28% increased profits; and 90% of consumers “would prefer to give their business to companies that hire individuals with disabilities.”
Profit prospects and diversity quotas are not grounds for hiring someone with a disability. Today is the day to reattach that amputated limb, to rebuild the atrophying organ—to promote flourishing in the individual, the workforce, and ultimately in the body of Christ. Here a few things to start doing:
- Know the individual. Preferred terminology varies by person. In college, I was taught person-first language (“a person with autism”) but have since heard some people call themselves “an autistic.” Also, the first person with Cerebral Palsy you meet does not speak for the next, much less everyone who has CP. That’s easily assented but hard to internalize.
- Assume competence. Better they advocate for assistance in a group project than be passed over indefinitely because they were thought incapable. We cheer when infants do something beyond their months, but it’s patronizing to congratulate an adult in a wheelchair for opening a door. They’ve been doing that for years—Samaritans and door buttons aren’t at every entrance.
- Treat everyone equally. Author Russell Gehrlein recommends the following to recognize the dignity in coworkers who God made different from you:
We notice them. We smile and greet everyone in the morning and say goodbye when we head home in the afternoon. We praise them in public and correct them in private. We engage with all. We ask questions to get to know our teammates and listen to their answers. We never tolerate any kind of negative talk about “those people.”…We let all know on a daily basis that they are appreciated and are valued members of the team… Every member of the team is essential, has a unique purpose, performs a necessary function, and is to be valued by the other members. We need each other.