People choose to work for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, work provides a main source of income for most working-age Americans. Unfortunately, a large majority of people with disabilities are unemployed/underemployed and are reliant of government cash benefits. These cash benefits, along with food and housing subsidies, barely cover basic necessities for individuals. As a result, people with disabilities generally live below or near the poverty level.
Living below or near the poverty level impacts negativity individuals’ health, well-being, social status, freedom, and opportunities for full participation in their communities. People who experience unemployment have lower levels of psychological well-being, higher rates of long term illness, and higher rates of premature death.
Another benefit of working is people with disabilities become integral parts of their communities through work settings. Inclusion is more than integration. It means that individuals are active members of the work environment; they are a "part of" the work place. Of course, all jobs and work environments are different in terms of the amount of interaction that occurs but inclusion involves such things as having friends, going to parties, chit-chat with co-workers at breaks, and partaking in everyday activities at work. It means doing things that everyone does and being like everyone else.
Supporting individuals with disabilities to work real competitive wage jobs is crucial. Historically, people with disabilities were “placed” in institutions and forgotten or moved to a segregated day program in the community. The segregation of people with disabilities continues even today in spite of evidence that these supports are more costly, inefficient and inhumane. We must redirect resources across funding systems to support real homes, real jobs and quality outcomes.
As laws change to encourage life in community settings and to assure that people with disabilities receive equal treatment under the law, there is a fundamental need to change the ways in which supports for people with disabilities are provided. People with disabilities should not be subjected to sub-minimum wages simply because of a label, or because professionals are not trained in the best-practice employment supports. In addition to the personal benefits of integration and inclusion, research demonstrates that each person with a disability that goes to work in a real job returns an average annual benefit of more than $3,000 to taxpayers and generates a benefit-cost ratio of $1.46 for every dollar spent.
We must change the attitudes and low expectations that distort our relationships and interactions with people who have disabilities. These attitude and low expectations are forms of prejudice, which can become devastating and act to reduce economic opportunities, including the areas of housing, employment and quality healthcare.
Negative attitudes, low expectations, and traditional service delivery models lead us to isolate and segregate people with disabilities. Such beliefs and actions are more disabling than any disability. These beliefs and actions interfere with an individual’s actual ability to perform at work, to socialize, and to live as independently as possible.
To develop positive expectations of a person, follow five basic guidelines:
Focus and build on the person’s strengths, not weaknesses.
Express positive expectations about the person’s abilities.
Listen and pay attention to the person.
Emphasize the person’s worth.
Have confidence in your own ability to help the person solve the problem.
Words reflect and influence attitudes and expectations. Language can play a significant role in creating and maintaining attitudinal barriers that are harmful to individuals with disabilities. Words indicate how we feel and think and they perpetuate belief systems. The manner in which you talk to, and about, a person with a disability affects whether or not he or she feels respected.
“Person first” is a philosophy reflected through language and actions by putting the person first and the disability second. This helps focus on the individual rather than the disability. A few guidelines of the person first philosophy include:
Refer to the person first and then the disability.
Emphasize abilities not disabilities or limitations.
Use the term people with disabilities rather than label people as part of a disability group such as the disabled.
Do not patronize or give excessive praise or attention to a person with a disability.
People with disabilities are people first and our language should reflect that. “People first” language is an objective way to acknowledge disabilities and to communicate and report about them. It is a respectful way of communicating and helps halt negative stereotypes while creating a climate in which a person with a disability can participate in decisions about his or her future.
A few examples of person first language are:
A person with a disability versus a disabled person
Uses a wheelchair versus confined to a wheelchair
Accessible parking versus handicapped parking
Supporting the employment of people with disabilities requires beliefs in real competitive wage opportunities that are based on the following:
People have a right to choose where they work, with whom they work, and what sort of job they would like to have. One’s wishes should never be discounted; we can and must listen to everyone.
All people are different. Capabilities of individuals are not similar just because they are similar in some general way or share a label. All people have individual personalities, skills, needs, and desires.
The provision of on-going support on an "as-needed" basis is one of the reasons that each of us is able to be successful at work. There are many means of support including co-worker support, productivity aids, and many other forms of "natural" supports.