I’ve never been one to rest on my laurels. Jed Bartlett, American’s greatest fictional President, would ask “What’s next?” to let his staff know he was ready to move on. Whether following a triumphant political success or a crushing defeat “What’s next?” was his unwavering refrain. Yesterday I wrote an autobiographical narrative punctuated with the frustration of seemingly perpetual unemployment for myself and far, far too many others similarly situated; that is to say, people with disabilities. Should I sit here and write for time and memorial about this plight? No, I should play a role in fixing, or least substantially improving, the problem.
I am a lucky man. Lucky to have the family and friends I have in my life. Lucky to have grown up in an upper-middle class environment in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world at a time in history where my maleness, whiteness and even Jewishness provide me with indisputable privilege. I have had a top notch education and been surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds of two or three generations. I have an absolute obligation to make positive use of those opportunities and my visual impairment does not exempt me from that duty. In many ways my disability only enhances that obligation when combined with the myriad privileges I enjoy.
I don’t always feel lucky. Not when I get another rejection email. Not on the third of every month when the Federal government reminds me I’m unemployed with an SSDI check. Not when I read a LinkedIn update telling about so-and-so’s new job that I’d applied for and not even gotten an interview even though I know I am more qualified. But when I’m having those tough days I try to never allow myself more than twelve hours or so to really feel that anger/upset/disappointment. Then I ask myself “What’s next?”.
Anger is good, it motivates better than most things. Sadness is good, it compels you to find a way out of it. As I said, I am angry about the unemployment numbers for people with disabilities (“PWDs”). I am sad about those same statistics. So what am I going to do to change it? As all lawyers are fond of saying “That depends.” I’m a damn good talker, always have been. I’m not sure i’m quite as good at writing. I suppose that’s really for you all to decide. I know I need concrete data. I have anecdotes aplenty and am sharp enough to use Department of Labor statistics to extrapolate certain reasonable estimates. But I need irrefutable empirical evidence to compel either policy makers or non-profit funders to help me address the issue. I need a ground-swell of grassroots support. I need the average person to internalize the fact that in the next twenty years six in ten people in the American workforce will have a disability requiring an accommodation. I need a strategic plan to form partnerships with trade organizations and service providers to help build systemic change. I need Don Corleone those politicians you carry around in your pocket like so many nickels and dimes……….Sorry, got distracted, one of the greatest movies ever made is playing in the background.
Most importantly. I need an audience. I need my voice and those voices of those I write for to be heard. This isn’t a one man show. This fight is for, and alongside, every PWD who strove to overcome every challenge put before them, earn that MA or PhD or JD or MD and still finds it far too hard to find full time, permanent employment.
People seem genuinely shocked when I explain to them that People with Disabilities and any sort of post-Bachelors level degree actually have substantially higher unemployment or underemployment rates than People with Disabilities writ large. Why is that? Good question. There are three reasons I’ve been able to identify so far.
- Incentives: Federal and State governments, along with some not-for-profit organizations offer employers significant subsidies to hire (and I loath this term so if you have a less offensive nomenclature let me know) “low skilled” workers. No such financial incentives or tax credits exist for hiring PWDs in higher wage/skilled roles because it is assumed that Title VII laws provide enough incentive not to discriminate and therefore higher skilled workers shouldn’t have difficulty getting a job without needing other incentives for the employers
- Opportunity Cost: Less skilled workers are easily replaceable. If one employee doesn’t work out there is no significant harm to productivity or morale to replace that employee with another. As one rises further up the corporate ladder the opportunity cost of replacing one employee with another escalates. Practically this means that an employer is less likely to “risk” hiring the PWD out of an irrational assumption that they are somehow less likely to work out long term than an person who doesn’t have an identifiable disability at the time of hiring.
- Financial Cost: As the complexity of the role increases, so do assumptions about the cost of accommodation. For example I am writing this article on a laptop equipped with Windows 8 and a Chrome browser that has screen enlargement capabilities. Those accommodations would cost an employer no more than any other employee. But a potential employer will often assume the worst possible financial scenario; in my case very expensive braille translation software and/or printers. I would note here that whatever the financial expense, such considerations should be irrelevant if the applicant is the best person for the role. My point is that, because of the restrictions of the Americans with Disabilities Act on pre-offer questioning of applicants related to their disability, employers tend to assume the highest financial burden and not make the hire in the first place rather than allowing them to address the elephant in the room and easing their concerns.
- I’d also add one other piece. Self employment. The percentage of PWDs and advanced degrees who are self-employed is staggering. This seems great on its face. You’re your own boss, set your own schedule, answer to no one. But there are also many negative implications. It wipes out any tax benefits PWDs are entitled to by having to pay personal income tax and self-pay all the applicable business taxes. More over it exacerbates the Benefit Cliff. As you’re ramping up your business you work long hours, often not making much, if any, profit. But if you cross that hours threshold in the Social Security statutes you lose access to the SSDI/Medicare benefits you loathed getting but needed. It creates a perverse disincentive.
Now that I’ve identified at least some of the major obstacles People with Disabilities and advanced degrees are facing when trying to find employment I can focus on the things I need to do to help a. prove my hypothesis and b. work to make systemic change so that generations from now kids with disabilities will know that their efforts to overcome the challenges the universe has put before them by accessing education and becoming anything they want to be won’t be for naught when they enter the job market.
So, what’s next?