The Reality of Employment for Wheelchair-Using Disabled People

National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Two disabled people using laptops

By Dom Evans

I have a friend who is in her 40s, who just got their first permanent teaching job within the last year.

It’s great they are finally teaching in an elementary school like they always wanted. They have had their master’s degree in education for around a decade, but they were hoping to find a permanent job at one of the schools in the area where they live.

My friend is a long-term power wheelchair user. Now, working as an elementary school teacher, I have to wonder what role their visible disability has played in all of this.

My friend got hired amid record lows for employment.

There is a dire need for teachers and, until they were at their most dire, they still wouldn’t consider a highly trained, physically disabled, wheelchair-using teacher.

A person wearing a red sweater using a wheelchair and typing on a laptopSure, my friend was able to work as a substitute teacher and also held down other jobs, but they never stopped holding out for a teaching position — a job I personally believe was withheld from them because of their visible disability.

Until the 1970s, many states around the country had what were known as the “ugly laws,” which made it illegal for people with visible disabilities to appear in public.

You may have heard about disabled people being kept in family back rooms. Up until recently, and even today in some families, visibly-disabled people (those of us particularly with disabilities that seem unsightly to those who are not disabled) are the family’s shame/secret. Sometimes these individuals were/are literally hidden away to protect the family’s “image.”

During the disability rights movement of the 1960s, it was these highly visible, often wheelchair-using individuals who started demanding we be allowed to have access to not only exist in public, but to schooling, employment, education, love and relationships, housing, and so much more.

Sadly, society has not gotten to a place where the vast majority of people are comfortable with visible disabilities. Part of this comes from a fear of becoming disabled themselves.

It’s a cyclical thing that feeds itself. Nondisabled people are afraid of becoming disabled, so media is created that depicts this fear. The media that depicts this fear feeds the misconception further because that’s what people see and think this is what being disabled is like.

This is part of why representation of disability matters and is so important. We must have accurate information to prevent more mistreatment. We can see the connection between causation based on lack of proper representation and continued mistreatment and exclusion of wheelchair-using disabled folks.

We are still at a place where seeing disability makes nondisabled people uncomfortable.

It is still difficult for many disabled people to leave their homes without getting inundated with comments about their appearance, questions about the validity of them leaving their house, and/or having access to the outside world, and even open proselytizing.

For some visibly disabled people, this is an experience they have every time they leave the house. They can’t go anywhere without being gawked at, laughed at, talked about, pointed at, or called names.

This same principle of mistreatment, exclusion, and othering extends throughout every aspect of the disabled person’s life, including access to employment. It creates a system where wheelchair-using disabled people are not even considered for jobs they are often overqualified to have.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to prove that discrimination is occurring at all. Employers don’t have to disclose why they won’t hire someone. It is essentially the employer’s word against the potential employee, and if there’s no clear verbiage that distinguishes the reason was because of a disability, the disabled person has no recourse.

Instead, we know it’s occurring because physically-disabled wheelchair users continue to have these experiences over and over in nearly every field. We can look at the employment rate of disabled people and see that something is happening to keep disabled folks from getting jobs.

A person wearing business attire and using a wheelchair, going down a hallway in an office buildingIt’s been known for years that only about 20% of disabled people are employed compared to about 65% of nondisabled people. The rate of unemployment for disabled people versus nondisabled people is also nearly double.

Sure, there are other factors that contribute.

If you depend on things like Social Security Disability, Medicaid, or other programs, it may actually be disadvantageous to get a job. These programs are means-based, and if you make too much money, you can lose these often life-saving and essential services. This often means that disabled people who depend on them for survival have no choice but to live in poverty.

Job prospects are already hard, but disincentivizing disabled people from making money greatly reduces the kind of jobs disabled people can have anyway. So when a disabled person is willing and/or able to take the risk of having a job that can actually pay them money, to have that job denied because the individual is disabled is highly distressing and not fair.

Back to my friend though. They clearly could’ve had a teaching job long before they got one. They are in their early 40s like I am and have been searching for a job since they were in their 20s.

Sure, they might’ve limited their prospects by wanting a job that wasn’t too far from home, but teaching jobs have been in high demand for a while, and it really feels like the only reason they got their job is because the school was desperate.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m incredibly happy for my friend. They’ve been dreaming of a job like this for ages. But I can’t help but feel like it’s a bit exploitive to hire disabled people when nondisabled people refuse to work for you because of things like lack of pay, lack of protection, and possible harm as a result of gun violence — something teachers must consider more and more these days.

This is not my only friend in this situation either. I know multiple disabled people that have high-level degrees in things like science, education, politics, the arts, and medicine, and nearly all of them that are power wheelchair users have struggled to find any type of employment despite their level of education.

Does my friend deserve the job? They deserved the job once they were qualified. So why did it take all of the non-disabled teachers quitting for them to be seen as valuable enough to hire in the first place? That’s the question we must be asking when it comes to disability and employability.

Disabled people are often natural problem solvers. We often have unique skills that nondisabled people don’t have. We often have talents and abilities that people don’t even consider because they dismiss us because of our disabilities. Getting the chance to show everything we have to offer remains elusive.

Employers need to consider disabled people as viable contributors to their businesses. As physically disabled wheelchair users, many of us are living longer. Many of us are going to school and want to work. We deserve the chance to try.

Dom Evans is the founder of FilmDis, a media monitoring organization that studies and reports on disability representation in the media. He is a Hollywood consultant, television aficionado, and future showrunner. His knowledge and interest on disability extends through media, entertainment, healthcare, gaming and nerdy topics, marriage equality, sex and sexuality, parenting, education, and more.


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