January 28, 2014
People with Disabilities: To Work or Not – The Choice is Yours
A Real-Life Story
One day in Kansas, a man who had quadriplegia for 30+ years went to the doctor. He took off his clothing for an examination. When the surgical resident, who had never met the man, came in, he did not see the man’s expensive clothing. All he noticed was the power wheelchair. The doctor started a conversation by asking. “So, do you work or are you just disabled?” The doctor did not know he was talking to the director of a state agency — a person who had worked all his life. He saw the disability and lowered his expectations about the man’s ability to work. His personal bias or perceptions were colored by the myth that people with disabilities can’t work; that they are unable to provide for themselves or contribute to the community.
Adults are expected to work to provide for themselves, their families, their community and others. Psychologists and philosophers include work or contributions to community as a critical part of what it takes for humans to be happy. Work gives meaning in the world and contributes to one’s sense of self and self esteem.
Unless you have a disability … then society’s expectations change.
This is another way people with disabilities experience oppression and discrimination. Society gives disability cash benefits (although not nearly enough to live on) to those who are the most significantly disabled. While having government cash benefits for the short term may be necessary, Social Security data on disability and employment, examined by the Disability Statistics Center in 1996, showed that for 99.5% of recipients it becomes a long term trap – a poverty trap.
However, other approaches are taking hold. Bryon MacDonald, program director of the California Work Incentives Initiative at the World Institute on Disabilities puts it this way, “People with disabilities are shifting their view of government benefit programs from “early retirement mode” to the concept of ‘employment supports.’ In other words, health and benefit programs, from both the government and the employer, can create a better quality of life … that is clearly a paradigm shift. All the reforms are not in place, but many are.”