Using Advocacy to Remove Barriers to Independent Living: Employment

Published May 1, 2022

Though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) just celebrated its 30th anniversary, people with disabilities still face significant barriers to finding and maintaining employment. This directly impacts their autonomy and independence. As of November 2021, 33% of people with disabilities of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 70% of people without disabilities. This isn’t due to a lack of willingness, but rather a lack of access. This population faces barriers such as inaccessible buildings, lack of technological accommodations, and deeply ingrained cultural stigma, all of which make it significantly more difficult to find sustainable employment.

These physical and social barriers prevent people with disabilities from experiencing the independent, productive lives they deserve. The inability to work affects people’s finances, community participation, and their mental health. Businesses also lose out on a valuable pool of talented workers, which is especially pertinent during the employee shortage crisis of 2021.

Advocacy, on both an individual and systemic level, is the only way to make the changes necessary to remove these barriers. People with disabilities have been fighting this fight for decades, but employers, Centers for Independent Living (CILs), and members of the community must join in to ensure long-term improvements.

Advocacy at a community level

Advocacy begins with education. Educating employers and workers is the most essential step towards equitable employment conditions for people with disabilities. When surveyed, many employers reported that concerns about a lack of necessary skills were some of the top reasons they hesitated to hire people with disabilities. The other reason was that they thought accommodations for these employees would be too expensive. Data shows these assumptions to be incorrect; One study found that 92% of managers who had employees with a disability found their work just as, or more satisfactory than their non-disabled employees. Much research has also consistently shown that most workplace accommodations cost about $500 or less.

Since these significant barriers are centered around stigma and misinformation, workshops and training are one of the most productive ways to advocate for increased employment. CILs can be part of the advocacy efforts by facilitating disability awareness workshops and sensitivity training for local businesses where their clients might seek employment. These workshops would allow CILs to advocate for their clients while also making connections with local businesses that might later become advocates themselves. Employers will have an easier time becoming part of the solution when they are educated about the quality of workers with disabilities.

Individuals can participate in education efforts as well. Employers who have hired people with disabilities should speak to other businesses to share their experiences and suggestions for inclusivity, along with the benefits of hiring people with disabilities. And employees should learn about their coworkers so they can speak to their strengths from a personal perspective. Misinformation plays a huge role in societal stigma, so if someone wants to be an advocate and ally, they must be a part of changing the narrative. Effective education happens on an individual level, so coworkers and community members must be vocal about their support for their colleagues. This way those colleagues don’t have to advocate alone.

Organizational advocacy

Some organizations are already working with employers and people with disabilities to increase education and make positive changes in the work environment. Able SC, a CIL in South Carolina started a program to help high school students with disabilities acquire work experience. They also started a social media campaign under the hashtag #HireMeSC, where young adults with disabilities share pictures and stories of their work experiences to encourage local businesses to hire them. And the Georgia Tech Research Corporation Created a Mobile Application to help employers estimate the actual cost of workplace accommodations to increase employee support and participation.

At a governmental level, CILS and legislative bodies are advocating for Employment First policies. The Labor Department's Office for Disabilities defines Employment First as a "[commitment] to integrated employment as the priority option for youth and adults with significant disabilities. …integrated employment means work paid directly by employers at the greater of minimum or prevailing wages with commensurate benefits, occurring in a typical work setting where the employee with a disability interacts or has the opportunity to interact continuously with co-workers without disabilities, has an opportunity for advancement and job mobility and is preferably engaged full-time." This systemic change will ensure that employment policies and wages are fair for people with disabilities, so they can find supportive and nondiscriminatory workplaces that will appreciate their contributions.

Conclusion

Employment is one major factor in the Independent Living Movement. When people can contribute to their community's workforce, they have access to financial independence, increased control of their environment, and drastically improved mental health. Centers for independent living, people with disabilities, and community members can ensure equitable access to employment by strongly advocating for education and resources, which is the best way to make long-term change.

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