The Employment Crisis You Didn’t Know About: The Dismal State Of Disability Employment

Jack and Jordan

I’ve been bothered recently by a viral story about a supermarket interaction between a stockperson, Jordan, and a young Autistic boy, Jack. As he walked with his family through the grocery store, Jack spotted Jordan stocking a cooler and decided to give him a hand. Jordan stepped aside and aided Jack in properly stocking the shelves. Meanwhile, Jack’s father videoed the interaction and Jack’s sister posted it on social media where it would quickly go viral, framed as the “saintly” Jordan kindly carrying the burden of Jack’s unnecessary interest. A quick rhetorical analysis reveals the problem right away: who is “assisting” whom?

This is another instance of what Stella Young so brilliantly dubbed ‘inspiration porn.’ If you are not familiar with the term, inspiration porn is media that objectifies disabled people for the benefit of the non-disabled. While the purpose of inspiration porn, as Young alludes to it, is to inspire or motivate, the way different media go about doing this differs from post-to-post. Whereas some inspiration porn exceptionalizes disability, other instances of the media form exceptionalize the most basic and humane treatment of the disabled to frame the non-disabled performing these actions as heroic and the best of people.

Although it needs to be noted that the non-disabled people in these stories, Jordan in this case, are often doing something very kind, the story itself spreads the message that even the most basic of understanding and humane treatment of another person is something extraordinary just because the other person happens to be disabled, rather than something that should be mandatory and expected — in other words, the non-disabled figure is elevated to sainthood rather than being the good example of what should be the average citizen’s response. As Young puts it, were it not for disability, there would be no story at all. Furthermore, the benefit of this saintly-ness is counterbalanced to the detriment of the disabled person; the evidence of the extraordinariness of Jordan’s actions relies on the framing of Jack as a helpless, burdensome, non-productive nuisance.

To be clear, it is obvious that this was not Jack’s sister’s intention in framing this story; however, the rhetoric reinforces old, ableist ideas about the labor of the disabled: disabled people, no matter how productive, are assumed to be getting in the way, being a pest, and slowing down the process of “real” work. The nonchalant way that this story mentions these possible cultural assumptions without troubling them in any real way only serves to reify what is thought of as their rightful place in the cultural consciousness. As evidence of my analysis, I must point toward the near total lack of accolades for Jack’s assistance. The only person that thanked Jack for his work was Jordan; in fact, everyone’s so busy thanking Jordan — who does deserve thanks, by the way — that Jack’s contribution is framed as puzzling, but whimsical self-indulgence. Jordan has done a good job, while Jack has been indulged.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with disability and unemployment? I assert that this story is yet another piece of the puzzle of the eternally high unemployment numbers for disabled people; namely, the way Jack’s productivity and ability is ignored, framed as useless, bothersome, and self-indulgent. Even when we see a disabled person being productive, we ignore it or claim that merely being allowed to perform the function is charity enough. And I am not alone in this analysis of the situation, nor in my assertion that it is a pervasive, virulent bad idea floating within modern Western cultural consciousness.

According to the Disability Studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson in her 1997 book Extraordinary Bodies, “…disabled people are often imagined as unable to be productive, direct their own lives, participate in the community, or establish meaningful personal relations — regardless of their actual capabilities or achievement.” Indeed, when faced with proof of a disabled person’s productive capability, as in the case of Jack’s stocking of the shelves, we view the activity from a distorted lens and selectively observe the interaction for the benefit of the non-disabled person.

Our collective cultural imaginative failings are thus responsible for the banishment of disabled persons from full participation in the economy; and with the economy taking centerstage in our capitalist society, this often means that disabled people are also shut out of personal relationships (in countries like the U.S. where a majority of any adult’s life is spent at work, most friendships and romantic relationships form at work), from a healthy sense of self-worth (most Americans equate what one “does” with one’s overall worth to society), and from life-enhancing activities (like company picnics, softball games, and BBQs).

Andy Smith writes in his blogUnderstanding Autistics, “There’s only one place where I truly feel at home, and ironically, that is at work.” Primarily working with Autistic children, Smith finds that he is valued, trusted, and can be himself. I don’t mean to contradict Smith, but it shouldn’t be ironic at all to feel valued and worthy at your work. However, most disabled people never get that chance.

The distorted view of the meaning of disability is the primary reason for the ongoing employment crisis for disabled people in the United States: according to a recent study by the Brookings Institute, only 40% of disabled people of prime working age (25–54) have a job… and that’s actually up from 35% a decade ago. It’s even worse for some people with other specific disabilities; for example, the historic unemployment rate for Autistic people is somewhere between 85–90%. Unlike almost any other group, including other disabled people, obtaining a bachelor’s degree or higher lowers the employment rate for Autistic individuals!

Campaigns, like the “I CAN” campaign from the Campaign for Disability Employment (CDE) are working to change the conversation regarding the meaning of disability in modern Western society. And I mention modern Western society deliberately — there are other cultures with different views of the meaning of disability in society, including those that view certain disabilities as fortuitous. Some cultures, like the Punjabi culture of Pranshu, a six-year-old with a mysterious genetic condition, even worship certain disabled people as reincarnations of their beloved gods and goddesses. The boy is thought to be the reincarnation of the god Ganesh. Of course, I am not suggesting that disabled people be worshiped, merely that cultural interpretations of the meaning of disability in society can change the way that respective societies treat disabled individuals to a drastic degree. What might it look like if we valued disabled people rather than ignored, pitied, or denigrated them?

For my part, I’ve recently started a website/organization called EmployABILITY in Austin. I am deliberately targeting a local community, as I feel that while national conversations like those opened by the CDE are invaluable, we need both their top-down approach to meet in the middle with a more viral bottom-up, grassroots approach to open the doors of communication from individual-to-individual, company-to-company, and (ultimately) from community-to-community. We need to spread the message loud and clear and change the conversation — disability isn’t inability.

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