Frontline Initiative: Direct Support Professionals Supporting People's Employment
Employment for All: Dismantling Myths of Disability and Employment
Bethany Chase, author
According to the most recent statistic from the United States Department of Labor (2022), only 21.3% of people with disabilities over the age of 16 are currently employed, compared with 67.1% of people without a disability. Additionally, people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, are overrepresented in low-wage positions that lack job security, basic benefit packages, and have limited prospects for career advancement. People with disabilities have reported that ableism and stigma related to their disability are one of the major barriers to employment (Sundar et al., 2017). What’s more, even among employment advocates in the job seeker’s circle of support, including job coaches and direct support professionals, there remain insidious myths regarding employment for people with disabilities. These myths have proven very stubborn to root out.
Today, we face a nationwide labor shortage, while employers are re-thinking their diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives. This includes people with disabilities of all racial groups and cultural backgrounds. The result is a workforce that is ripe with opportunity for people with disabilities. It is the perfect time to dispel the common misconceptions functioning as barriers for a person with a disability seeking a rewarding career.
We are in a unique moment in history. Today, we face a nationwide labor shortage, while employers are re-thinking their diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives. This includes people with disabilities of all racial groups and cultural backgrounds. The result is a workforce that is ripe with opportunity for people with disabilities. It is the perfect time to dispel the common misconceptions functioning as barriers for a person with a disability seeking a rewarding career.
Myth: Hiring a person with a disability is a financial or legal risk to the employer.
Truth: Hiring a person with a disability does not cost more than hiring a person without a disability (Graffam et al., 2002). Wages are the same for all employees who are doing the same or similar jobs, and employment benefits do not cost more for a person with a disability than for any other employee. Just as an employer need not take out a “special policy” when they hire someone who, for example, wears glasses or has high cholesterol, there is no additional “liability” the employer needs to plan for when they hire a person with a disability. Additionally, according to a recent Job Accommodation Network survey (2020), most employers report that the accommodations they have made for employees with disabilities were low- or no-cost to the organization. In fact, workplace modifications put in place to support employees with disabilities have increased productivity for all workers, resulting in improved morale throughout the entire company (Graffam et al., 2002).
Myth: Individuals with disabilities are “charity hires.”
Truth: All employers have unmet needs; all people have something to offer. Regardless of disability status, if a job seeker does not have the skill set for a particular job, they would not be an appropriate hire for that employer. The role of a job coach is to partner with the job seeker to highlight that individual's skills and capacities. Simultaneously, the job coach learns about the specific, unmet needs of local businesses. Regardless of disability status, a new hire is to benefit both the employer and the job seeker.
When a worker with a disability secures a job that is the right fit, the worker is anything but a “charity hire.” In fact, individuals with disabilities have been found to be more reliable than non-disabled workers (Graffam et al., 2002). Specifically, many workers with disabilities use less sick time and stay in their jobs longer than workers without disabilities. The result is lower training and recruitment costs for that employer. Employers look out for their own bottom line, and those who have hired people with disabilities will tell you: these hires are simply good for business.
Employers look out for their own bottom line, and those who have hired people with disabilities will tell you: these hires are simply good for business.
Myth: The world can be so cruel to people with disabilities. Employment is an additional stressor that they don’t need.
Truth: Just as it does for people without a disability, employment brings many life-improving benefits. This includes increased self-agency, social capital and self-esteem, enhanced financial independence, decreased isolation, and a greater sense of purpose (Schur, 2002). Being employed also increases civic engagement. People with disabilities who are employed are more likely to advocate for a wide range of political causes than their non-employed counterparts (Schur, 2002). And when it comes to dismantling ableism and stigma, few things are more powerful than regularly seeing individuals who use supports working at jobs in their communities, showing us all what is possible.
Myth: People with disabilities can’t work because of their Social Security benefits.
Truth: Of all the myths regarding disability and employment, this one remains the biggest barrier. It just isn’t true. Individuals with disabilities who are competitively employed will always take home more money than if they just collected benefits alone. For every dollar they earn, their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are only cut by about fifty cents (World Institute on Disability, 2022). Additionally, many people wrongly assume that if they no longer receive their SSI cash benefit, they will also risk losing their Medicaid coverage. The specifics vary from state to state, but there are many options for workers with disabilities to keep their Medicaid coverage if their earnings mean that they are no longer eligible for SSI cash benefits. Lastly, it is often said that relying on SSI benefits just feels like a safer, more reliable bet than employment. This is a dangerous assumption to make. SSI is a government benefit and government benefits can change, sometimes quickly. We can rest assured, however, that in our society, honest work will be rewarded with honest pay. Reporting income and managing one’s Social Security benefits is tedious, but not impossible. The financial, social, and emotional benefits of a rewarding career are worth the effort. People with disabilities can, and should, dream big dreams for their careers.
Myth: Employment is only an option for “some” people with disabilities. It’s not possible for people with significant disabilities.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1986, and its subsequent amendments in 1992, specifically state that supported employment services, that is, the use of a job coach to assist a person with a disability with their employment prospects, is designed to support individuals with “the most significant disabilities.” In other words, the whole point of supported employment services is to ensure that people with more complex support needs are not left behind. Further, 40 states have adopted an initiative referred to as Employment First, which affirms that integrated, competitive employment in the general workforce is the first and preferred service option for people with disabilities, including those with complex or significant support needs. Employment First acknowledges that it is simply assumed that people without disabilities will be employed. This challenges the notion that people with disabilities need to prove that they are ready or capable of work (Association of People Supporting Employment, 2022). Additionally, in 2011, the federal Office of Disability Employment Policy defined the term customized employment to describe a scenario where job responsibilities are customized and individually-negotiated, based on the skills and needs of the person with a disability. Customized employment is an effective approach when partnering with people with significant disabilities to secure employment (Callahan et al., 2011). In sum, the policies that guide our work are clear: All people with disabilities can be successfully supported to find and maintain integrated, competitive employment.
When it comes to employment and disability, it is time to retire outdated myths and misconceptions that hinder job seekers with disabilities. We have made some progress as a society, but many people with disabilities are still not included in all aspects of community life. We still have a lot of work to do. People with disabilities still face legitimate barriers and challenges in their employment journey that people without disabilities do not have to consider. But it is precisely this reason why we must be sure that we are fighting the real challenges. We need to finally put the myths and misconceptions to rest.
Association of People Supporting Employment. (2022). APSE fact sheet: Employment First. https://apse.org/legislative-advocacy/employment-first/
Callahan, M., Griffin, C., & Hammis, D. (2011). Twenty years of employment for persons with significant disabilities: A retrospective. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 35(3), 163–172.
Graffam, J., Smith, K., Shinkfield, A., & Polzin, U. (2002). Employer benefits and costs of employing a person with a disability. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 17(4), 251–263.
Job Accommodation Network. (2020). Costs and benefits of accommodation. https://askjan.org/topics/costs.cfm
Schur, L. (2002). The difference a job makes: The effects of employment among people with disabilities. Journal of Economic Issues, 36(2), 339–347.
World Institute on Disability. (2022, August 19). New Jersey frequently asked questions. https://nj.db101.org/nj/programs/income_support/ssi2/faqs.htm
Sundar, V., O’Neill, J., Houtenville, A. J., Phillips, K. G., Keirns, T., Smith, A., & Katz, E. E. (2018). Striving to work and overcoming barriers: Employment strategies and successes of people with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 48(1), 93-109.
United States Department of Labor. (2022). Disability Employment Statistics.