According to the United State government, disability is “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Or, in non-regulatory terms, disability is when a physical or mental impairment will last at least a year and will make someone unable to work. The ability to work is right there in the definition. A person who cannot work is disabled. If that person can work, they are not disabled. Disability and employability are mutually exclusive states of being.
That definition comes from the Social Security Administration and is applied to people applying for disability benefits, basically a wage replacement program to compensate for the salary the person cannot earn – so the focus on employability makes some sense. But more and more, I see this framework for defining and evaluating disability applied outside the benefits context, in deciding if someone is “‘really’ disabled.” It’s also notable that these wage replacement programs are the most commonly known and discussed form of disability-based benefits – while I’m used to seeing articles about how to handle the Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) program, I rarely see coverage of programs from the Department of Rehabilitations, which provides vocational training and support to PWDs. And the false equivalence of disability and unemployability is problematic for a lot of reasons.
- There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who are not employed due to problems with the economy and with employers who discriminate against PWDs when hiring or fail to sufficient accommodate PWDs while employed. Assuming that unemployment is due solely to a person’s disability status, rather than systemic stigma and discrimination, places the responsibility for finding and keeping a job solely on the shoulders of the PWD. This shifts focus entirely away from the employers who have ultimate power over whether an individual is going to have a job. Take a look at employment statistics for the federal government itself, where “the severely disabled represent 0.94 percent of the government’s workforce.” And despite those low numbers, the government has no problem telling people that unemployment is a disability issue.
- When disability is defined as an inability to work, that overlooks an enormous segment of people with disabilities. About 37% of PWDs in the United States are employed – 8,581,869 people. But their ability to work does not negate or erase their disabilities. Those disabilities continue to exist and implying they do not lets employers off the hook for acknowledging and accommodating those disabilities in the workplace. It is already easy for an employer to overlook an informal request for accommodation or demand overbroad access to private medical files to “prove” whether or not the requesting employee “actually” has a disability in response to an accommodation request. It’s impossible to say how many employed PWDs have successfully requested and received needed accommodations relative to those who have been too intimidated to ask or had employers unwilling to fulfill their legal obligation to provide accommodations. But I would venture to guess that it’s quite difficult and involves risk for the individual employee. The stereotype that people who can work are not disabled and do not “really” need or deserve accommodation only encourages this behavior.
- In our society, employability is often equated with worth and value on a fundamental level. In the current bad economy, lots of people have been losing their jobs, and half of them feel that being unemployed has changed their lives for the worse. Being unemployed is seen as shameful, humiliating, a sort of failure to grow up and develop into a “real person.” Obviously, having “disabled” be seen as a synonym for something with those negative connotations does a disservice to people in both groups.