Disability and Work

For those disabled people capable of working full or part time, there are a lot of reasons to want to work. One, of course, is the simplistic — to survive. People who are able to work may not get benefits, and even if they are eligible for benefits, the amounts on offer are so pitiful that they’ll be forced into poverty. Thus, many disabled people prefer work to the alternative, in the interest of having a functional lifestyle and accessing more of the things they need; work doesn’t automatically confer a high socioeonomic status, but it’s typically better than staying on benefits.

There are also, of course, other reasons to work. Many people experience a sense of internal reward or pleasure from working. They want to contribute skills and talents to society in a particular way. They enjoy socialising in a workplace environment. They don’t want to be stuck in the house, feeling isolated and trapped. They’re outgoing and friendly and see work as an excellent opportunity to channel that for their own uses, and for the benefit of others; a disabled person might work in disability services, for example, to help fellow disabled people get what they need from a system they may have trouble understanding and navigating on their own.

So and thus, a disabled person arrives at a workplace. First, she has battled her way through the waves of discrimination and ableism that keep disabled people out of the workplace in the first place. While employment discrimination is banned in the case of disabled job candidates, and the EEOC has very strict guidelines in terms of the kinds of questions employers may ask job candidates, and in terms of the kinds of accommodations they can reject (very few), even the most casual of observers can see that disabled people are not well-represented in the workplace, and it’s not because of inability to work. It’s because employers turn up their noses at disabled job applicants, and find excuses not to hire them, preferring even less talented nondisabled people if they have a choice. As though disability is catching.

Here’s where the real kicker for disabled people in the workplace comes in, though: After having fought so hard to be there, many find themselves more or less immediately wishing they were not there. Because many nondisabled people seem to take the presence of a disabled person on the job as a personal challenge — how quickly can they drive the person out? The motivations for workplace discrimination are, of course, complicated, but many of them are rooted in fear and intimidation, and, of course, the structural inequalities that heavily influence the way we think about and interact with the other. Disabled people are strange, alien, and terrifying, and thus, nondisabled people push back in the workplace.

It’s not just the refusal of accommodations, or the endless hoops people need to jump through both for accommodation and for the right to be treated respectfully. It’s the disdain and discrimination from supervisors. Maybe it’s in subtle comments and snide sights (especially surrounding accommodations). Maybe it’s in pointed notes in emails, whether sent to specific employees or the office as a whole. Maybe it’s in being passed over for promotions, and having to fight for raises. Maybe it’s in being made to feel unwelcome in many spaces, and in the gossiping and snark that goes on where nondisabled supervisors and other employees think disabled employees don’t notice; it’s in the determined convincement that it’s perfectly all right to not invite disabled people to gatherings other people in the office are going to, to ‘forget’ to let disabled people know about office functions, to ‘forget’ the birthdays and other life events of disabled people even when similar events in the lives of other employees are celebrated.

It’s also in the way disabled people are treated by their coworkers, and sometimes even by the people they supervise. Not just the insubordinance and failure to recognise and respect the authority and experience of disabled employees — the person who requests that something be done, for instance, or tries to contact another employee about a project to see what’s happening with it, or, on a more simple level, contacts another employee to see if something integral to a project has been done. Communication tends to fail around a disabled person and not because disabled people are magical wordsinks, but because disabled people aren’t respected, and that equates to a reluctance to provide them with information and to take the information they provide seriously. This can force disable people into the position of having to give up and do work for themselves, without support.

But coworkers and the like are also fond of an even more indirect form of ableism. Instead of attacking people on the grounds of their work performance (or just refusing to cooperate with them on work-related matters), nondisabled people settle for discriminatory and nasty comments in the workplace. People who haven’t endured discrimination of this nature may not realise how pernicious and frustrating and unendurably awful it is, how it can be the thing that drives disabled employees to the breaking point when other forms of discrimination don’t have the same effect. There is something deeply and intensely demoralising about being around people who make their disdain for you apparent constantly.

It’s the snide, nasty remarks about ‘special treatment’ in reference to accommodations. The slurs quietly used in your wake. The comments doubting your capability and suitability for work. The nasty, insidious suggestions. In the face of that, it can be difficult for disabled employees to feel like they have any sort of footing in the workplace — and it can be harder to ask for accommodations, related to disability or not, because everything becomes about the disability. Need to leave work early for a family matter? ‘Special treatment.’ Coming in late because your flight was delayed? ‘Special treatment.’

This is also one of the hardest forms of discrimination to identify and act upon. Hostile workplaces can be difficult to bring up with HR, and in the event they make it to court, judges often have difficulty understanding the nature of what makes a given workplace a problem. This holds especially true with disability issues, as a judge may not realise the impact of a comment or event and could be confused about why a disabled person ‘takes it so seriously.’

We wonder why there aren’t more disabled people in the workplace: It’s because discrimination is an issue, from top to bottom.

Image: ‘Work,’ Klaus Wagensonner, Flickr