Removing Barriers to Employment for People With Disabilities

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by Hawken Miller |

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As a journalist and person with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, I have a dual purpose. I want to inform people and hold those in power accountable. I also want to show that having a disability doesn’t detract from my career goals. 

U.S. National Disability Employment Awareness Month is the perfect opportunity to discuss the topic of jobs. I’ve realized the privilege of being able to work with a disability does not extend equitably among my peers or the broader disability community. While the number of employed people with disabilities is growing and the Americans with Disabilities Act is celebrating its 30th anniversary, there’s still more work to do.  

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from July 2019, 47.5% of people 16 years or older with a disability said they faced at least one employment barrier. The most common barrier was their own disability.

These statistics don’t surprise me. Each person’s disability is unique, and while some jobs may accommodate one symptom, they may not accommodate another. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve been interested in, but the description includes lifting boxes or doing activities any non-disabled person might overlook. I’m more than capable mentally, but any physical requirements add a barrier. 

One simple change that may make a world of difference for potential applicants: Employers should add another sentence to applications: “Physical requirements will be waived if you have a disability.”

Obviously, a job in construction wouldn’t be the right fit. Nevertheless, it encourages more people with disabilities to apply and also makes companies more productive and creative. If my experience counts for anything, navigating life with a disability requires ingenuity, tenacity, and discipline — all factors employers look for. 

The second biggest barrier to work for people with disabilities (excluding “other”) was lack of education or training. I’ve been blessed with an incredible education. Teachers went out of their way to accommodate me, and my mind rather than physical circumstance was valued.

That’s not always the case, unfortunately, and we need to do a better job of including children with disabilities in education. When they aren’t hidden away from the rest of the world, we’re going to see an improvement in disability employment numbers. 

As of 2019, only 19.3% of people with disabilities were employed. While that number is trending upward, there are still problems for us when we are employed.

According to section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law in 1938, employers can pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage. Thankfully, the number of those employed by “sheltered workshops” is receding, but about 320,000 people are still paid below minimum wage because of their disability.  

Until writing this column, I had no idea such a law still existed. That’s the point of making October National Disability Employment Awareness Month for the past 75 years. It’s up to us to act, because having a job should be open to everyone, regardless of disability. 


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