Working Women With Disabilities

BlogHer Original Post

October is Disability Employment Awareness Month. Let's look at blogs out there by women about disability and work! Patricia E. Bauer hits right on target as usual: President urges employers to welcome workers with disabilities. I'm all for that. Here's a quote from President Obama's Proclamation:

In the past half-century, we have made great strides toward providing equal employment opportunities in America, but much work remains to be done. As part of that continuing effort, we must seek to provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Only then can Americans with disabilities achieve full participation in the workforce and reach the height of their ambition.

My Administration is committed to promoting positive change for every American, including those with disabilities. The Federal Government and its contractors can lead the way by implementing effective employment policies and practices that increase opportunities and help workers achieve their full potential. Across this country, millions of people with disabilities are working or want to work. We must ensure they have access to the support and services they need to succeed.

Right on. Well, how do we get to that culture of fostering and encouraging employment opportunities? What's blocking people with disabilities right now from having jobs?

How about all the disabled people I know who are working incredibly hard. Doing fantastic, great work.

Who's paying them? Often, no one. I'm a wheelchair user and have a full time job. Universally, people are surprised to hear that, even people I know as colleagues in social media.

As I wrote and deleted drafts of this post -- mostly angry, despairing, bitter , soul-searching rants -- I asked myself, "Who do I know who's disabled, and has a job?"

Not a lot. I know few people, mostly online. My friend Haddayr, a advertising copywriter and science fiction author. Denise, for example, from Dreamwidth. Rivka from Respectful of Otters. Katja Stokley from Broken Clay. Mel Chua. They're bloggers and writers who represent as well as doing their day jobs. And people I don't know, but hope to meet someday, like Laura Hershey and Kathleen Martinez and Simi Linton.

But who do I know who's doing fantastic work? I can name so many.

We can't work, often, because working risks our benefits that are essential to survival. Working denies us health care. We can't own more than $2000 of assets, or we don't get Medicare or Social Security benefits. We are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Programs that promise to help or employ end up tickets to exploitation. So we end up working for free.

I look at this grant to Cornell University and you know what? Great. But I'm not holding my breath. They just got 1.6 million dollars. How much of that is going to actually go into the pockets of people with disabilities? NOTHING ABOUT US, WITHOUT US. I hope they hire some people with disabilities, with that grant, and that, when they interview disabled people about their actual experiences working, that they pay them for their time.

You want to know what would help people with disabilities get jobs? How about asking them what they think would help?

My message back to President Obama is to look for some of the people doing amazing work. Then, ask why they're not being paid. And pay them. Change the policies of health care and benefits so they can be paid without risking their lives or their already precarious ability to live independently.

Hire them. Don't exploit their labor.

If you can't hire them without screwing up their benefits and health care? Get in there and navigate the maze of policy and bureaucracy that blocks them. How about this radical idea. Hire people part time, and give them insurance. Enable all people at your company to live a life in balance that doesn't drive their health into the ground.

Better yet, you as a company, as an employer, can say, "We want everyone in this country to have the health care they need to survive day to day, without it being tied to their employment."

Here are some of the people who are not just working, but who are great writers and thus, advocates who benefits all of us with disabilities. They mean a lot to me and have made a huge difference in my life. The solidarity I've found in their keeps me going in my own daily work.

Wheelie Catholic, advocate, thinker on human rights and social justice, and a fantastic writer.

Glenda Watson Hyatt from Do It Myself blog.

Jen Cole and Alejandra Ospina who run GimpGirl, an organization with a 15-year history, for women with disabilities.

Wheelchair Dancer writes about performance and physically integrated dance.

UberGeekChick, who does a podcast about computer programming and self-expression, is an open source contributor, and who takes Twittering to great heights.

CripChick, a fierce outspoken activist and talented writer!

Eva from The Deal with Disability who shares her point of view of how people see her in daily life and the assumptions they make.

FridaWrites who argues beautifully for universal design, access, and human rights.

Book Girl from Falling off my Pedestal.

Nick Dupree who is an advocate for Community Choice.

Barriers, Bridges, and Books talks about some of the complexities behind work, life, and disability. Now for example, if you have a disability , you may need some extra health care. But to get Medicare, you cannot own more then $2000 in assets. This is part of what traps people with disabilities into a cycle of poverty.

In Falling, Terri describes her fears for her teenage daughter's future.

Gayle DeVilbiss 's video of her story of misdiagnosis, chemo, and then being denied Social Security benefits, on Disability Information and Resources blog.

Wheelie Catholic reports on the Sears discrimination case.

Katharine Ganly on Global Voices Online talks about people with disabilities trying to survive, get an education, and work in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Read on into a great analysis, in Disability and Employment in Argentina: The Right to Be Exploited?

Being disabled, physically, may mean being deaf, having mobility impairments, being blind, being exhausted or in pain, having a chronic illness or mental illness, and so on. Those are differences or impairments. Personally I use the word disability as a cultural and political affiliation. But being "disabled" doesn't mean we can't work. It means we might need to work differently. And it means we have a harder time defending our own rights and asking for accommodations.

What can you do as employer?

- Don't make assumptions. Ask what you can do, and mean it. Don't then subject your disabled employee to a backlash.

- Provide deep information. A map of your office complex with elevation changes, level or ramped paths and handrails marked, elevators, bathrooms, and parking. That will be useful, and appreciated, by more people than you would predict. We might have to plan. We might have limited energy. Deep access information gives people what they need to make informed decisions.

- Work out technological solutions. Telecommuting!

- Try to educate yourself. Read some blogs, some books, and so on. I'm a little skeptical of diversity training. I recommend the WisCon feminist science fiction convention's guide to disability access at events. It applies to many physical environments and events.

- Be flexible. You know what helps me most - beside telecommuting half the week - in my work at BlogHer? This:

A couch! Thank you, BlogHer, for the glorious, amazing, couch in my cube. And for not minding too much when I'm lying on the couch on my back, computer on my stomach, my back and my leg experiencing awesome pain relief.

- Be inclusive socially. Plan your office social time with everyone in mind. (I swear, many places, they might as well have had special events underwater. Oh, there's no ramp and you just realized and "wouldn't mind carrying me up the stairs"? Thanks for the pain and loss of human dignity. Now let's party. Or get to work. Or now that I'm completely pissed off and discombobulated, how about I give an hour long public speech.)

- Don't be a jerk. I mean this nicely. Joking about a person's disability is rarely cool. Pressure is on that person to get along, to be a supercrip, to show they can "do it all" and can tolerate whatever gets thrown at them.

- Actually help people with their paperwork situations. Defend your employees. Help them fight their fights just as you might help your employee from outside your country with a visa situation.

Thanks for listening.

What do you think about my suggestions for employers? Do you have thoughts as a person with a disability or impairment? What work do you do? Do you get paid? Are you self-employed?

Or, as a friend, family member, ally, co-worker, or employer of a PWD, what in your opinion could be helpful to remove obstacles, and to decrease the huge unemployment rate for people with disabilities? We have a lot of moms of kids with special needs here on BlogHer and in the network. I would challenge all of you in particular to radicalize politically beyond support groups or cures, to connect with adults with disabilities who are advocating for social change, to look ahead to the future.

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