Work remains to bring equality to those living with disabilities
October is National Disability Awareness and National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a good chance to reflect on how far our nation has come and how far we must go.
Across all ages, genders, ethnicities and educational levels, about 11.9 percent of the U.S. population report having disabilities. Wisconsin has a slightly lower level, at 10.7 percent. The percentage of people with disabilities grows as we age. Fewer than 1 percent of those younger than age 4 have disabilities. Among those 75 and older, 50 percent have disabilities.
Origins of acquired disabilities are diverse, including illnesses and military service. With the appreciative rise in those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the percentages may be changing.
The Americans with Disabilities Act provides the most cited definition of disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Those include daily functions such as caring for oneself, managing major bodily functions, communicating and working.
The problem with disabilities is that a disability is either first in mind or not on the mind at all.
For example, when referring to a successful businessperson without a disability, we might rave about that person’s entrepreneurial spirit or great financial skills. But if a successful businessperson has a disability, we are inclined to refer to the person first by the disability and to consider the person exceptional rather than someone who used talents well.
As a nation, we’ve come far in creating physically accessible space at work and in our communities. Many sidewalks have curb cuts, schools have elevators and some parks have accessible paths. People with disabilities now have opportunities to go places and do things that were unavailable to earlier generations.
But as individuals and as a nation, we’ve not gone far enough.
People with disabilities who are seeking work face unique challenges. While many employers hire people of all abilities, some still cannot imagine a person with a disability fulfilling job requirements. Some people discourage those with disabilities from pursuing the jobs of their dreams. Stereotypes are often tougher barriers to break down than sidewalk curbs.
There are barriers within our public social support structure that keep people with disabilities from seeking employment. We need more government initiatives that remove those disincentives and allow individuals to be more financially independent.
Social barriers are perhaps the hardest to overcome. Most people have social groups at work and in their personal lives. In these groups, connections are made, jobs are offered, advice is shared and sometimes romance blooms. Becoming part of a group requires an invitation and a welcoming atmosphere. Many groups have yet to welcome any person with a disability.
An invitation is meaningful when it’s built on genuine connections. It’s disingenuous when based on superiority and inferiority positioning, pity or guilt. As individuals, employers, elected officials, educators and members of groups or organizations, we can change the face of our country. We will know we have succeeded when disability is no longer first in mind or not on our mind at all.
Marcia Jagodzinske is president and CEO of Riverfront Inc., a private, nonprofit organization helping more than 1,400 people with disabilities realize their hopes and dreams. Its facility in Janesville is at 1107 Barberry Drive; phone (608) 757-0909. Contact Riverfront at 1-800-949-7380 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.