A Guest Post by Lynn Keltz, executive director of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers Association and project director of the Stigma Project, a multi-year effort funded by the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council to change negative societal attitudes toward people with disabilities.
Among the unintended victims of our current lagging job market – the longest stretch of abnormally high unemployment since the Great Depression – are persons with disabilities.
At the height of the current recession, when overall joblessness in Pennsylvania rose towards 9 percent (it’s 7.7 percent range now), unemployment among Pennsylvanians with disabilities was 14.8 percent. The gap, proportionally, still exists between the overall work force and those with disabilities.
Because October was National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it was an appropriate time to raise awreness and to urge employers to make a special effort to weigh each applicant on the basis of his or her individual ability to perform the job at hand, despite the strong temptation in the current “buyers’ market” for employment to give preference to those without apparent disabilities. Notwithstanding the fact that such discrimination is against the law for businesses and organizations with 15 or more employees, there’s a human tendency to opt for job candidates with what some think of as “bonus qualifications.”
The result is a jobless rate that’s 60 percent higher among persons with disabilities.
While most people are predisposed to the idea of providing a level playing field and maximum employment opportunities for people with disabilities, a huge gap seems to exist between this basic concept and any real understanding of the extent of the law or of what constitutes a disability.
There are five basic federal laws addressing the employment rights of persons with disabilities:
- · The Americans with Disabilities Act
- · The Rehabilitation Act
- · The Workforce Investment Act
- · The Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act
- · The Civil Service Reform Act
There’s a good “cheat sheet” on what these laws cover on the federal Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) website.
Note that we’ve included military veterans in our discussion of persons with disabilities. So many return from combat and combat support deployments with serious physical or psychological impairments. Most people understand the debt we owe the men and women who have placed themselves in harm’s way to protect us but, in practice, vets often get shortchanged when returning to the civilian workforce. At the height of the Great Recession, an estimated 35,000 Pennsylvania veterans were on the unemployment rolls. An additional 45,000 unemployed were persons with disabilities who were not vets.
During Disability Employment Awareness Month, it’s a good idea to include a minimal primer on what constitutes a disability under the law. It can be broken down into four basic categories:
* Physical disabilities including hearing and vision disabilities basically involve physiological, functional or mobility conditions.
* Mental health issues ranging from schizophrenia and depression to mood or personality conditions. (The good news is that virtually all mental illnesses are treatable and people do recover.)
* Intellectual disabilities, when a person has a permanent limitation in the ability to learn.
* Learning disabilities when people learn and process information in a different way.
Often, when I review this list with people outside the disability community, I get the reaction that “this list can pretty much describe everybody at some point during their lifetime.” And that is a valid point that underscores the need to show sensitivity and awareness of persons with disabilities who are job applicants. A company wouldn’t (and couldn’t, under the law) automatically fire an employee who broke a leg in an auto accident or was diagnosed with a chronic disease.
Now, just recalibrate that criteria to apply to a job seeker as well as an incumbent job holder, weighing only the ability to do the job.
That would truly help to ensure a level playing field for people of all abilities.
The Triadvocate is a publication of Triad Strategies, LLC, a bipartisan lobbying, public affairs, strategic communications, grassroots advocacy, issue management consulting firm located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh