Disabilities and Employment: Addressing disparities in social rights

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Dr. Michael Stein joined professors and students in a lunchtime seminar on Friday afternoon that addressed disability and employment. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development  conducted a study in the late 2000s discovering that only roughly 40% of persons with disabilities are employed compared to the approximately 75% employment rate of persons without disabilities. Photo courtesy of the author.

More than one billion people worldwide live their lives with disabilities, with 80% of whom living in the developing world, excluded from society and denied basic human rights. Though human rights is an expansive field, economic and social rights remain just as important to a person’s wellbeing, as their civil and political rights. 

In a lunchtime seminar entitled, “Disability and Social Rights,” the Human Rights Institute, in partnership with the Research Group on Economic and Social Rights and the Research Program on Global Health and Human Rights, hosted Professor Michael Ashley Stein. Stein is the co-founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, and has been a visiting professor at Harvard Law School since 2005. In Friday’s discussion, Stein addressed disability and employment, detailing how the infringement of the right to work on persons with disabilities is a damaging reality of our current world that must be addressed. 

“Persons with disabilities historically have experienced high levels of social exclusion across all aspects of society,” Stein said. “Inequality in employment is particularly damaging because having a livelihood, as we all know, is immediately essential to avoiding or reducing poverty, as well as multi-generation poverty, and income can in turn create an opportunity to access a wide range of human rights.” 

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development  conducted a study in the late 2000s discovering that only roughly 40% of persons with disabilities are employed compared to the approximately 75% employment rate of persons without disabilities. 

“Here in the U.S.,” Stein said. “We’ve been hovering between 75% and 80% unemployment rate [for persons with disabilities] for at least five or six decades, so we in the U.S. have failed traumatically in that respect.” 

We’ve been hovering between 75% and 80% unemployment rate [for persons with disabilities] for at least five or six decades, so we in the U.S. have failed traumatically in that respect.

Professor Michael Ashley Stein, co-founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability

Not only are persons with disabilities being hired at lower rates than persons without disabilities, but they are also being paid considerably less than their counterparts for the same job being done, and have greater difficulty in career advancement. 

“Employers, moreover, tend to overestimate the productivity of workers without disabilities, underestimate the productivity of workers with disabilities, overestimate the cost of reasonable accommodations and seem unaware of public policies and programs that are designed to address potential challenges.” 

This mixture, Stein said, makes employers less apt to hire persons with disabilities and less apt to pay them at the same rate as their peers without disabilities, ultimately discouraging workers with disabilities from entering the job market at all.  

All the more noticeable in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the right and ability to work is crucial, not only from an economic standpoint to sustain one’s livelihood, but also to give the feeling of dignity and accomplishment to the worker. 

“[The right to work is] recognized internationally as one of the most fundamental social rights,” Stein said. “When freely chosen, it contributes to one’s personal development, sense of identity and feelings of fulfilment. Moreover, the lack of meaningful employment could greatly limit a person’s ability to participate fully in social, political and economic life.” 

Stein notes that there is particular alarm for persons with disabilities in the future of the job market, as it is predicted that artificial intelligence will replace many currently existing jobs, combined with the fact that the world human population is projected to grow by an additional one billion people in the coming decades. 

As a means to build a more inclusive society, Stein described the need for destigmatizing and breaking down the social construct of special needs. Too often are those with disabilities seen as needy or incapable of completing tasks at the same quality of those without disabilities. Too often the idea of accommodations for persons with disabilities is seen as a burden for institutions and organizations to grapple with, while there is a clear ability to destigmatize accommodations. Take the “speak to text” feature on smartphones, for example; while its function is to aid those with disabilities, it is presented in a way accessible to all users that is not made to ostracize or exclude those it is intended for. With such societal implementations, we can work toward a more inclusive and equitable future. 

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