October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this observance matters to me deeply this year because I have obtained my first professional employment opportunity outside of the advocacy work I do (which is for my disability rights organization Ramp Your Voice!). This fall, I accepted the offer to be the Project Manager for the CareerACCESS Program created by the World Institute on Disability (WID). In this role, I will be responsible for managing a pilot program that aims to increase employment opportunities and independence among disabled young adults who are disability beneficiaries. As a disabled Millennial who has been a part of the disability benefits system my entire life, I know personally the struggles of being on benefits and navigating a system that seems to want to keep you from achieving your employment goals by demanding that you jump through disempowering hoops.
For example, one of these hoops starts with the definition of employment itself. One of the key definitions of employment for disabled people have been defined by Social Security, which has regulations as to how much a disabled person can earn and enforce penalties if a beneficiary earns too much. “Penalties” can include lowering the monetary value of disability benefits, as well as possibly losing benefits (monetary and healthcare) altogether if one earns more than is what allowed. In other words, it’s possible for a disability beneficiary to make enough money to lose disability benefits, but not enough to also pay for all the lost healthcare. It’s clear that these kinds of prospects are not very encouraging to someone whose life may depend on affordable healthcare.
Though I am grateful that disability benefits do exist because I have had a need for the system, I am vocal about how the system does minimal to empower disabled people to work without fear of losing healthcare coverage, as well as failed to update the archaic definition of disability and employment to increase the employability of the largest minority group in America.
My story as a disabled American and my ability to work is not uncommon: 8 in 10 disabled persons were not a part of the labor force in 2015
Personally, I have always desired to work, but I ardently knew that in order to do so, I would need to find employment where I could successfully get off the disability benefits rolls AND retain healthcare coverage. Being someone who graduated college during the recession and went to graduate school after President Obama took office, I know firsthand the struggle of seeking employment during stressful economic times. Add to that being a person with a disability with limited transportation options in your town and job opportunities – it felt almost impossible to accomplish.
My story as a disabled American and my ability to work is not uncommon: 8 in 10 disabled persons were not a part of the labor force in 2015. This disproportion is a prime example as to why focusing on disability and employment matters – we are sorely absent from the workforce, a circumstance that many of us do not want to be in. This profound absence is why unemployment and underemployment are great challenges faced in our community. It astounds me that there is not enough attention given to our low participation rate in the workforce and the societal attitudes that affect our abilities to be viewed and heavily considered as ideal, competitive hires.
Here is the reality by the numbers that disabled people face when it comes to gaining employment. For 2015, the unemployment rate for disabled Americans was 10.7%, which was twice the rate when we compare the unemployment rate of non-disabled Americans (which was 5.1%). Disabled people made up only 17% of the labor force participation in 2015; that number pales to the 65% participation rate for non-disabled people. This inequality affects our ability to have stronger buying, economic, and political powers as a group, as well as impacts the quality of life and opportunities we desire for ourselves. I state the latter because for many of us, getting a job is out of reach due to the fact that we are forced by the current system to choose between gaining employment at the chance of possibly losing our Medicaid/Medicare. For those who are on disability, the worries of losing one’s healthcare benefits because we attain a job or may earn too much are real, and can truly mean life or death if we require comprehensive services and supports to live and thrive.
These fears were why I had to be particular about what kind of jobs I sought. As a person with a physical disability, not having healthcare benefits was not an option. Though I do not require comprehensive services and supports, I still needed to be able to go to the doctor when necessary, and to watch my health in the way that was appropriate for my livelihood. There are many disabled persons who can work and would give anything TO be able to work, but this barrier holds them back – do we choose to work and consequently lose healthcare benefits, or not work and live in poverty to retain benefits and healthcare? That is the question millions of us who are on disability benefits ask, and must make the hard decision about.
This reality gets even worse when we take an intersectional look at disability and employment. Though the unemployment rate in 2015 did not vary much based on gender, there were stark differences between racial groups. Black disabled Americans had the highest rate of unemployment at 17.4%, followed by Latinos (13.3%), Whites (9.6%), and Asians (7.4%). The unemployment rate for Black disabled Americans was almost twice that for non-disabled Black Americans (which was 9.3%).
To deny the implications of being of color and disabled, and one’s ability to gain employment, would be absurd; we cannot tackle our employment issues if we fail to recognize how the combination of ableism, racism, poverty, and the archaic disability benefits laws impact those of us with multiple marginalized identities. I used Black disabled Americans as the example for this piece because I am a Black disabled woman and I focus on intersectionality within my advocacy work – I am intimately aware as to how possessing these identities greatly influence my ability to gain employment and to be seen as a competent and worthy employee. The combined racist and ableist employment discrimination I could have been exposed to are my realities, and is the reality for millions of Americans who look like me.
Observances like National Disability Employment Awareness Month signifies that more has to be done to ensure that disabled people are fully included in our workforce and create the life they desire without barriers. There is tremendous work that has to be done to fundamentally change the system if we want a stronger workforce that disabled people are prominently involved in. This prominent involvement would mean that our country would be stronger when all of us have an equal opportunity to participate to the highest potential possible.
About the Author
Vilissa Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) from Winnsboro, SC. Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among people with disabilities. Being a Disability Rights Consultant, Writer, & Advocate affords Vilissa the opportunity to become a prominent leader and expert in addressing and educating the public and political figures about the plight of people with disabilities, especially women of color with disabilities. Being a disabled woman of color herself, sharing her life experiences, and tales from the women she has encountered during her advocacy work, has empowered her immensely because it validated the struggles and successes she endured in her young life.