By Jewelles Smith
The U.S. Congress designated October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. From an international perspective, the author explains how economic hard times are particularly harsh for women with disabilities.
October 28, 2009
As national governments and institutions struggle to emerge from worldwide recession, the voices of women and members of minority groups are glaringly absent from discussions. Women like me who are living with disabilities are doubly silenced. First, our issues are not addressed by an ableist society; and second, many women’s organizations do not address the specific concerns of disabled women in an economic crisis. Women With Disabilities Australia calls us the Forgotten Sisters. As governments create billion dollar packages to bailout big business, many smaller grants and funding sources that are essential to our livelihood and well-being are being cut or delayed to compensate for deficits.
As a woman living with disability, I have worked hard to situate myself in employment that is flexible for my health; stimulating and within my field of education and expertise; and that financially supports my sons and me. As have others with disabilities, I’ve been able to find that work mostly in the non-profit sector. Unfortunately, due to the economic downturn, the NGO supporting my primary contract had to lay me off suddenly in January 2009. Seeking new employment, always a challenge for someone in my situation, is almost impossible during a recession. I heard from one NGO after another—their funding has not come through or has been cut as the government cuts corners to meet its bailout promises. As a consultant without unemployment benefits, the difficulty of my job search is compounded by my struggle to provide shelter and food for my sons as I face poverty, potential homelessness, and loss of medical supports and medications.
Even in a normal economy, women with disabilities experience one of the highest rates of unemployment, higher than disabled men, and greater than non-disabled women. The reasons why are often complex. Myths held by employers and society at large lead to hiring practices that exclude persons with disabilities from even entering the work force. During an economic downturn, companies may believe that hiring disabled persons will cost an exorbitant amount of money when, in fact, most persons with disabilities require few accommodations that are generally inexpensive. Further, studies have shown that too many employers favor keeping male employees during layoffs as they are still seen as the “breadwinners.” There is little consideration for the impact that a loss of income will have on a family in a woman-headed household. “The World Global Survey” in 2005, cited by the European Women’s Lobby, found that 40 percent of respondents believed men had more right to a job during layoff periods than women.
According to the UN Enable Factsheet on Persons with Disabilities, a “2004 United States survey found that only 35 percent of working-age persons with disabilities are in fact working, compared to 78 percent of those without disabilities.” Further, the study found that “two-thirds of the unemployed respondents with disabilities said they would like to work but could not find jobs.” Employers who are not educated in accommodation/accessibility issues might erroneously believe it is too expensive or complicated to make workspaces accessible and therefore miss out on the value women with disabilities bring to the workforce. In fact, according to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the average cost to create an accessible space is less than $500. Statistics show that once hired, persons with disabilities have a much longer retention rate.
In comparison to men, women with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed and experience further discrimination once hired. According to Arthur O’Reilly, writing for the International Labour Organization: “When women with disabilities work, they often experience unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal access to training and retraining, unequal access to credit and other productive resources, unequal pay for equal work and occupational segregation, and they rarely participate in economic decision-making.”
In a time of economic crisis, most “solutions” offered up focus on traditionally male-dominant work sectors including the auto industries; bank and finance; and construction. That leaves out the self-employed and small businesses, where women often work, as well as NGOs and work that is part-time or shared, or in sectors such as the arts and travel. “Many of these jobs are hired through contract or by project and lack the protection and security provided by larger industry,” says Carmela Hutchison, president of DAWN-RAFH Canada, a network for women with disabilities. “Perhaps there should be tax incentives to employers to provide similar benefits.”
By excluding a large part of the employable population from the discussion on how to move forward and out of the recession, nations will not be able to reconstruct their economy fully. Hiring practices and bailouts that exclude women with disabilities will only reinforce discriminatory practices. Not only will nations lose out on the skills and experience of this population, but formerly independent and self-sufficient workers will become dependent, destitute and isolated.
I am hopeful that my own situation will turn around. I am learning from this experience and collaborating with other women with disabilities, single parents and the NGOs that we work for to find a more workable solution. In the future we hope to have a mechanism in place when the economy turns so that government bodies—both national and international—bring all members of society to the table when deciding how to generate economic stimulus and viable employment.
Women with disabilities who want to work have a right to paid employment. According to international and national human rights laws, we are guaranteed access to education and employment as part of our basic human rights. Especially during times of economic downturn, it is imperative that vulnerable populations and their contributions to the economy and society are not forgotten as panicking policy makers scramble to hold the market up. Excluding specific groups, whether by ignorance or with purposeful discrimination, is unacceptable.