Finding Suitable Employment with a Disability

An Apple keyboard with a blue key that reads "jobs" in capital letters.

Finding employment as a disabled person can be challenging. From asset caps to maintain benefits, to exclusionary language on job applications, barriers abound. There are a number of national and local resources available to people with disabilities who are looking for employment, but they don’t cover everyone. According to the United States Department of Labor, only 60.1% of men and 51.4% of women with disabilities are employed, and many disabled people are paid subminimum wages for their employment. We need to raise these numbers. Every disabled person who wants to work should be able to find suitable employment that pays a fair market wage.

Disabled people often face assumptions during the interview process that we aren’t as capable as non-disabled people, and that’s if we can even get to that stage.

Many job applications use language that overtly excludes people with disabilities, such as requiring walking, standing, lifting, verbal communication, or the ability to hear or see as a required part of the job. “I have seen some applications with tricky questions, such as ‘Will you need accommodations or assistive technology to perform these job tasks?’ and sometimes people won’t apply if the answer is yes,” says Sharon Rosenblatt, an accessibility technology specialist and disability rights advocate in New Haven, CT. “It’s illegal to ask outright if an applicant has a disability, but those questions do seem discouraging, even if only meant innocuously.”

Elizabeth Roderick, an author, editor, and neurodiversity activist in Washington State, also points out the issue that employment programs for the disabled aren’t always designed to be accessible to differing needs. “You have to be able to act like a non-disabled person: get up on time every day; show up when and where you’re supposed to, with reliable transportation; communicate in a socially-acceptable manner; pay attention, follow instructions, and remember what you’ve learned; and maintain focus and energy throughout a regular workday,” she says, all of which can be barriers for many disabled people.

When Erin Hawley, a writer and digital content producer in Keyport, NJ, first started looking for work after college, she used the Department of Disability, which found her a data entry job at the local county clerk’s office. But the work was not equivalent with her skill set or educational experience, which is all too common for disabled applicants using vocational services. While vocational rehabilitation and other programs designed to help disabled people find work are useful, they don’t work for everyone.

Elizabeth Roderick, an author, editor, and neurodiversity activist in Washington State, says, “If we do find jobs, we’re often paid subminimum wage through various employment programs for the disabled.”

Meg Watson, a technician working in Wisconsin, had better luck in finding a job through a disability employment resource. She attended a college that participated in the Workforce Recruitment Program, a federal program that helps qualified disabled students and recent graduates find work opportunities within the government and private sector businesses. Watson believes the opportunity she had should be available to all people with disabilities – not just young, college educated disabled people. “We need to keep people in the workforce once they have found jobs and make sure their jobs are meeting their needs,” she says.

Aside from earning a living wage and sustaining employment, access to health care and supplemental security income (SSI) or social security disability (SSDI) is also a major roadblock for many disabled people seeking employment, since earning income over a certain amount can leave people cut off from these necessary supports. Hawley uses the NJ WorkAbility program so that she can work while maintaining Medicaid.

“If I ever take a promotion,” Hawley says, “I have to worry about losing my medical care. My insurance through work doesn’t cover my in-home nurses.”

The existing systems aimed at helping connect disabled people with employment are useful, but need to be continually improved so that disabled people are being paid fair wages for labor that matches our skills and abilities. We also need sustained access to health care and workplace accommodations while we’re employed. Hiring disabled people isn’t simply checking off a box for workplace inclusion. We deserve the same access to employment resources and opportunities as all other jobseekers. 

Click here to pitch a blog post to Rooted in Rights.

“Bottom Dollars,” a Rooted in Rights original documentary that exposes the exploitation of people with disabilities who are paid sub-minimum wage, is now available to rent or purchase.

Alaina Leary is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, The Oprah Magazine, Healthline, and more. She lives with her wife and two cats in Boston. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @alainaskeys.