Any month has different themes associated with it. One of the themes for October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Whenever I hear overall unemployment statistics reported, I tend to go to something called "Table A-6" which gives the employment numbers for people with disabilities alongside those without disabilities, to see if things are getting better. Note this has nothing to do with politics - it has to do with culture, people with disabilities, and their acceptance into a world that used to separate them completely.
In October, there are efforts at showcasing what people with disabilities can and do offer toward the workforce. There's a theme out there called "What CAN you do?" to emphasize the abilities of people with disabilities.
Unemployment statistics tend to be reported for various minority groups, but an exception is people with disabilities. I wonder how many people know, that of all the minority groups, the "prize" for highest unemployment rate goes to people with disabilities. People with disabilities not only have the highest unemployment rate, but they have, by far, the lowest participation rate. What does this mean?
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in September was 13.5 percent. For those without disabilities, it was 7.3 percent (note this is different than the 7.8 reported because it took out people with disabilities - I assume). But we are doing better. A year ago the rate was 16.1. This seems easy enough to understand. But what is the participation rate?
The participation rate is those who are actually engaged in the job market. So a person with a disability who is not able to work at all is a "non-participant." But if someone with a disability is actually looking for work, then they are participating. The participation rate for those without disabilities is almost 70 percent. The participation rate for people with disabilities is only 21 percent. One might look at this number and think perhaps most people with disabilities are not able to work. Sometimes this might be true. Part of the intent of this month is to change the stereotype of people with disabilities being unable to work. Part of the intent of the work many people do surrounding people with disabilities is to change cultural perceptions, like the perception they can't work, or the perception that they don't want to advance in their career.
These are some things people have asked me or said, mostly because I have a disability (and I am pretty sure of this because I then watch them interact with others and not ask the same questions).
- You work?
- I guess you need something to do.
- I guess you need some money.
- How do you ger to work?
- That's nice that you get out of the house.
- So, you do typing stuff?
- Oh, you are going to school. Are you trying to get your Associates degree then? It would be nice to have something beyond high school.
So if someone just happens upon this post and has no idea who I am, then they should know these statements and questions are annoying. I actually went back to school for my Masters, to prove, mostly to myself, that I could get a Masters degree. I want to use my degree as well, and didn't go for it just for fun. I have nothing against an Associates degree, but I find it annoying that my educational level is assumed. Yes, I work. I work full-time, I am married, have a 9 year old daughter, a dog, 2 cats, and a guinea pig. As a sidenote, our house is a mess - I don't know if it's because of my disability or having too many pets or something else. I get out of the house other times too! I am actively part of a church, I drive my daughter seemingly everywhere, and yes, I get out of the house to work, but that's not why I work, nor is that we need the money (we do need money, but doesn't everyone?). I am also a geek, so I do type, but I have a brain and like to think what I do is utilizing my brain. Sidenote: I wouldn't win any typing awards - definitely not a strength of mine.
These kinds of stereotypes, for those who have disabilities, are common. I talk to others and we laugh at the questions we get. Once employed, people with disabilities can have great careers. But people with disabilities can struggle with misperceptions of others, to the point that if they lose their job somehow, they may think it is not worth working. Misperceptions include that a person has a job and therefore, they are set! Put them in a box and happiness is achieved. The reality is that people with disabilities want more. The upcoming generation doesn't necessarily know people may think this way, and they may be in for a shock. Other wrong perceptions are that because a person has a physical disability, they can't think as well, or if a disease like MS causes some people to have memory problems, people may look for memory problems just because someone has MS. If you say you can't find your keys and you have MS, people may assume you have memory problems. Knowing this, I don't misplace keys. If it does happen at some point :), I'm not telling.
This month is a celebration of what people with disabilities CAN do, while at the same time being realistic and spelling out reality, the reality of a culture that used to put people with disabilities on the sideline. Changes have happened, culture has shifted. But are we where we want to be yet? How will we know?
We will know when we can look at companies and see 1 in 5 (the number of people with disabilities) of employees having a disability, and disclosing disability (many with mental disabilities like bipolar or traumatic brain injury do not say they have a disability for fear of stereotyping). We will also know when we look at leadership and see the same 1 in 5 leaders with disabilities.
We will know when there aren't daily email feeds of 10 lawsuits about companies breaking the law.
We have this month and celebrations behind culture change. For the upcoming generation, let's hope that culture change continues, so a person is truly not known by their disability, but for what and how much they can bring to the employment world.