It’s May Day, which means it is both Blogging Against Disablism Day and a day of global labour action, and in that tradition, every year I unite these two issues in one glorious post, because labour and disability have a tremendous number of intersections. Whether we’re talking about subminimum wage or attempts at pitting caregivers against disabled people through wage exploitation, there’s a lot to explore. This year, I want to take another look at a layered intersection when it comes to disability and work: Racialised unemployment rates.
Across the nation, about 35.2 percent of disabled people are employed, drawing upon data from the American Community Survey. There are a lot of reasons that number is so low, starting with the fact that yes, some disabled people are unable to work. Others are able to work but can’t because of discriminatory employment practices. Others would love to work but can’t risk losing their government health care, so they stay in a state of forced poverty.
But there’s more to that rate than just the national level. Around 36 percent of white disabled people are employed — just over the national average — in contrast with 27 percent of Black disabled people, who overall have the lowest employment rate of any racial group. This is not a coincidence or a happenstance, and it’s layered with issues that have to be addressed. If we want to fix poor disability employment in general, we need to talk about racial disparities. If we want to improve outcomes for the Black disability community, we need to talk about the disparities they’re living with.
People of colour are more likely to experience disability because environmental racism plays a role in the development of pregnancies as well as in acquired disabilities, like asthma for children living in communities with heavy manufacturing. In addition, occupational segregation increases the risk of occupational injury that could develop into disability, such as chronic back pain caused by repetitive manual labour. These disparities are especially pernicious for the Black and Latinx communities, and it is also worth noting that the Black community is also at a much higher risk of gun violence, another cause of disability.
From the start, we have a community that is more likely to be disabled, and more likely to live in poverty regardless of disability status. We also find that Black people of all genders, and especially women, are more likely to be unemployed and have lower wages, again regardless of disability status. When the deck is stacked against you from the start, adding disability to the situation is not going to increase the chances of a positive outcome.
Black disabled people experience disablism, but they also experience racism, and the two can be bound up in each other. Let’s not forget that less than 200 years ago, perfectly rational responses to slavery were pathologised as illnesses, while Black slaves were treated as ‘lazy.’ Those attitudes carried through to Jim Crow and beyond, in a culture that makes value judgements about the Black community and work, and compounds those with disability in settings where people who have disclosed disabilities — or who cannot avoid disclosing them — are seeking work.
The treatment of, for example, a Black wheelchair user who’s partially paralysed due to a bullet wound is different than the treatment of a white person in the same position. That carries through to all aspects of society, including employment. And while racial discrimination is purportedly illegal, subtle, slippery methods of discriminating against people are everpresent, making it challenging to create a legal case (for those who can afford it and have the wherewithal to report).
These things come into play when employers look at job applicants, preferentially selecting (assumed) nondisabled people in the belief that they will work harder and be a greater asset to the organisation. That’s compounded when they’re looking at disabled applicants and gravitate towards familiar, white faces, locking Black visibly disabled people out of the employment market.
Everyone’s going to rush to tell me about exceptions, but the problem here is that we need to stop exceptionalising them. We need to take a look at why the employee mix in some companies is more diverse than others, and what’s driving that. Clearly, diversity and inclusion up through the chain of command is important, as all white, nondisabled executives and managers are going to hire people who look like them.
A company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is also important, determining who applies and how applicants are handled as they move through the company. People must recognise that it’s easy to solidify and bask in the comfort of positions of power, and that creates a homogenous employee landscape. This isn’t about diversity quotas or hiring to satisfy whiners or settling or compromising, but about building a better, stronger company.
Conversations about diversity and inclusion often focus primarily on gender, and sometimes step down into race as well, with companies admitting that a 50/50 gender mix doesn’t mean much if it’s all white. Sometimes people tiptoe into LGBQ, or even further, into the world of the T. Very few are willing to specifically take on disability. And even fewer admit intersectional factors at play here — why it is, for example, that in companies that do care about disability, a lot of the disabled people are white. This is a situation that comes in complicated layers that cannot be teased apart.
One thing Keah Brown did with #DisabledAndCute was not just celebrating disabled bodies, but specifically confronting people with a reshaping of what ‘disability’ looks like. It’s a reminder that even as we pressure employers to address their disability deficit, we white members of the disability community also need to pressure the community itself to redefine the appearance of disability, to ensure that representations of disability and the community aren’t uniformly white. This is necessary to fight discrimination, for equality, for the outside world to see, but also for the white disability community to acknowledge and take on its racism. Being confronted with disabled people of colour and Natives means that the issue can’t be dodged any longer, and makes it harder to dodge questions about racialised disparities in the disability community.
Image: Rasheeda Page Muir at TEDx EastEnd, TEDx EastEnd, Flickr