Disability civil rights are also a racial justice issue

November 15, 2022, 9:45 PM UTC
A businesswoman of color in a wheelchair shakes hands with a person across from her.
People of color are disproportionately more likely to have or be impacted by a disability. Employers need to evaluate how they accommodate staffers of color who are differently abled.
Daniel Tardif—Getty Images

After a contentious race, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman will be representing his home state in the U.S. Senate.

While many pundits have noted his deep working-class bona fides, a rarity in Democratic circles, one of the most unexpectedly authentic elements of his blue-collar appeal was his unwillingness to hide his recovery from a recent stroke from the public eye. Not only was that transparency laudable and instructive, but it also hit home: Like many people he’s represented over the years, he felt he had no choice but to show up and get the job done.

Working class and wage workers are often hardest hit when they have or are diagnosed with a disabling condition, and with inadequate access to health care, pain management, supportive devices, or meaningful accommodations, they quickly lose any opportunity to advance. Before COVID hit, this population was also disproportionately concentrated in what researchers call the “disability belt” in the U.S.—the Southeast, Midwest, and Appalachian regions. Within the working-age population, the disability rate among people with only a high school diploma is three times higher (12%) than among those with a bachelor’s degree (4%), but that gap is far higher in many Rust Belt towns like Scranton and Pittsburgh, Pa., according to this report from Brookings Institute.

Race plays an enormous factor in all of this, wherever people fit in an org chart, in part by amplifying already existing equity disparities and biased assumptions. Black and Asian people with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed than their white or Latinx counterparts, and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people with disabilities are more likely to be living in poverty.

Long COVID is only going to exacerbate all these already grim statistics.

As Jasmine E. Harris, a law and inequality legal scholar with expertise in disability law, argues, if we ignore disability in the national “reckoning” on race, then we will have completely missed the boat. “Race and disability have a complicated but interconnected history,” she writes in this must-read essay. “Yet discussions of our most salient socio-political issues such as police violence, prison abolition, healthcare, poverty, and education continue to treat race and disability as distinct, largely biologically based distinctions justifying differential treatment in law and policy.”

That means, in part, that employers must not only think through accommodations for employees of color with disabilities, but they must also think through the unique pain points these employees face in the quest to “bring their full selves” to work. A Black parent of an autistic teen who knows their gentle boy is more likely to be mistaken as a threat by police. An Asian American high performer who is statistically less likely to seek treatment for their depression than their white peers. These are just two examples hiding in plain sight, and it is going to take empathetic inclusion professionals to find the myriad ways the diverse populations they serve intersect with a biased and discriminatory world.

And then, let them grow.

Mia Ives-Rublee, the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the think tank Center for American Progress, recalls the frustrating slog to find her first job out of college, despite being a top student in a highly competitive program. “Every time I disclosed that I had a disability, I knew that employers were calculating whether they could deal with somebody with a disability within their location,” she tells the Guardian. “What’s so frustrating for the disability community is that so many people use our likeness and our stories to be inspiration porn. But when we are asking to be perceived as competent and take higher positions, non-disabled people are like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s not what we meant!’”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On background

People with disabilities were the original hackers says Quemuel Arroyo, the first-ever Chief Accessibility Officer at NY state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), in this lively podcast interview. “We have to hack our lives every day because very little is designed for us.” The question that led to his hacking comment was simple yet direct. Did he think that the willingness of employers to support people working from home, an accommodation people with disabilities had been advocating for long before COVID, would disappear as the world opens back up? He was certain that a new hybrid world was here to stay, in part because of how it helped companies not only survive but, in many cases, thrive. “It won’t disappear because companies, both private and public, have seen astronomical benefits of telework,” he says. But as hackers of spaces and opportunities, people with disabilities should be playing a larger role in the re-design of work, he says. “Hacking” comes with the territory. “We’ve always been saying, ‘I don’t need to be in an office…for you to have access to my mind and my contributions,’” he says.
The Design of Business | The Business of Design podcast 

Feeling inspired by brave disabled people? Helen Keller would like a word. M. Leona Godin is a writer, performer, and educator who stumbled on a book some 15 years ago called The Radical Lives of Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen. It was an auspicious time for the grad student who, at the time, was slowly going blind. Banished was the feel-good narrative about Keller as a brave soul who broke through at the water pump and went on to make nondisabled people feel grateful for their good fortune. Keller was, in a word, a badass—who also had complicated ideas about disability. “I learned that in her long life (1880-1968), she was a socialist, a suffragist, and a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union.” She also performed vaudeville for a number of years, survived a series of thwarted love affairs, and was one on a list of America’s Most Dangerous Women. Godin points to Becoming Helen Keller, a new PBS documentary, as an important corrective to the Keller narrative. “[I]t does so while prominently featuring a cast of accomplished blind, deaf and deaf-blind scholars and artists as expert commentators, some of whom have moved past the too-good-to-be-true narrative of Keller’s life.” 
New York Times

What is authenticity? Turns out, you may not just know it when you see it. “One big problem with authenticity is that there is a lack of consensus among both the general public and among psychologists about what it actually means for someone or something to be authentic,” writes Scott Barry Kaufman, a humanistic psychologist, in his Beautiful Minds blog in Scientific American. Even weirder, research seems to show that people don’t report feeling authentic when they are being “true” to their nature. “[W]e all tend to feel most authentic when we are feeling content, calm, loving, enthusiasticfree, competent, mindful of the present moment and open to new experiences,” he writes. “In other words, we tend to feel most authentic when our needs are being met and we feel ownership of our subjective experiences.” Does this have implications for designing “moments that matter” in the hybrid workplace?
Scientific American

How to predict the future like Octavia Butler. The prolific and award-winning science fiction author is best known for her wide-ranging dystopian novels, like Parable of The Sower, built on powerful and prescient themes of race, climate change, and social justice. In this essay, first published in Essence, she recalls a young reader asking her if she really thought the future would be so grim. “I didn’t make up the problems,” she told him. “All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.” To predict the future, study history, she says. “The past, for example, is filled with repeating cycles of strength and weakness, wisdom and stupidity, empire and ashes.” To help her imagine a worst-case scenario in Parable of The Talents, she studied the origin of fascism in Germany during World War II. ‘[T]o try to foretell the future without studying history is like trying to learn to read without bothering to learn the alphabet.”
Common Good

Parting words

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

Octavia Butler, from Parable of the Talents

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