Combating Stereotypes of Workers with Disabilities

Filed in Workforce Development, Workplace Rights by on November 10, 2010 4 Comments
Kathy Martinez

Assistant Secretary Kathy Martinez Addresses the Diversity, Inc. Conference

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of employers at the Diversity, Inc. Magazine Conference which focused on how diversity-management best practices can be used to increase employee engagement. My focus was on the impact of stereotypes about people with disabilities and what they can do to improve employment for this community.

Think about the stereotypes that we have placed on people with disabilities in the workplace — that people do not want to work, cannot work, or are somehow not as whole or complete as everyone else. As diverse individuals and communities, and/or people who care about diversity, it is critical that we recognize that our histories and experiences are individual and unique, but also recognize that they are interwoven and interconnected. Not only do we make up one another’s communities through the multiple identities many of us have, but many of us share a common experience of discrimination and exclusion through having been labeled by society as “other” or somehow different from what is “normal” or “desirable”.

Some stereotyped concerns that employers and coworkers have about hiring workers with disabilities are: 1) Fear of having to do both their own work and the work of people with disabilities, 2) Fear that having people with disabilities in the workplace makes co-workers feel sad, and 3) Feeling like one is” walking on eggshells” because a colleague may say something inappropriate or incorrect.

Whether we want to or not, people with disabilities bring countless stereotypes to work with them. The best method to break down stereotypes in the workplace is to hire people with disabilities, because attitude is caught, not taught.

It should be expected that people with disabilities will be a part of the workplace.  It must become standard practice.  This is the only way to combat low expectations; when you combine low expectations with stereotypes, many opportunities can be closed off.

I should know; my career as a world traveling disability policy advocate and as an Assistant Secretary in the Office of Disability Employment Policy would have never occurred if I had taken the uncreative, stereotypical advice years ago of my vocational rehabilitation counselor, who wanted me to assemble locks in a lock factory.  He thought that was all a blind person was capable of. Imagine that…

I left the audience with an important message and a challenge. The message is to remember that policies that benefit people with disabilities are going to one day benefit you or someone you know or love.  It is not about “us” and “them” anymore – this is about all of us.  And the challenge is to step out and be model employers of people with disabilities.  Strive not only to make Diversity Inc’s Top 10 Companies for People with Disabilities next year, but also step out in front and be the leaders in the company, industry, or agency you work in.  Above laws, regulations, or company policies, it takes heart and the willingness to take risks to be a true change-leader.

I encourage you to be change leaders, and speak up to combat discrimination in your communities.

Ed. note: Kathy Martinez is the Assistant Secretary in the Office of the Disability Employment Policy.

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  1. Wendy Gleich says:

    Thank you so much for standing up for everyone. You are a change leader!

    We have to move past the fear of working with each other in jobs where we are all equally capable of producing the same products and services equally but may need to do it differently or look different that the majority when we are working . But we are all equals and co-workers should all be respected as equals.

    As Ms. Martinez so keenly reveals, once society labels us disabled, regardless of our abilities and qualifications, we are often stereotyped, and pigeon-holed into segregated workshops or solitary confinement working from our homes alone where those who think they are helping serve to further discriminate against us by trying to force us to accept self-employment when it is not “a good fit” for our qualifications and our potential to fully contribute professionally in jobs that let us be independent from public assistance and tax-funded social security disability payments. When we work together in careers with non-disabled co-workers we not only earn equal pay, equal status, and produce equal work, we also share by paying the same amount of taxes and charitable giving as our non-disabled co-workers are able to contribute.

    Workplace policies that use hiring criteria based on “a good fit for the company,” or “a good fit for the staff they already have,” serve only as a way to unjustly deny EVERYONE in our community EQUAL access to fair employment, job security, and health care benefits.

    ….And, everyone of us is just one accident, illness, surgery, injury, diagnosis, adoption, or childbirth away from needing the job and income protections provided to ALL workers by ADA, FMLA, and age-discrimination laws.

    I have learned a lot from my recent experiences with disabilities and working with non-disabled bosses and co-workers. I was once valued as a highly-qualified, extremely productive non-disabled elementary teacher who was passionate, active, and an advocate for disabled students in my work and my community, my life drastically changed when I became mobility impaired and needed accommodations, FMLA, and surgery while working in the same job in the same community. My co-workers and boss turned into people that I never believed they would become. They changed their views of me, they avoided me and abandoned me when I myself was experiencing something new and needed them to be the same team members and faith-filled co-workers I had always known.
    So, when I became disabled in my workplace, instead, of maintaining and building a community which could grow and adapting to the needs of each other in our common workplace, I experienced the harsh negative impact of fear and abandonment by my employer and my co-workers immediately as soon as I came to work having acquired an unexpected mobility disability. My need for workplace accommodations was met with new polices that actually turned my needed accommodations into violations of workplace attendance policies that could be used to deny me the right to equal pay and equal employment that I had been doing just fine and could do again now after medical treatment.

    I have been unemployed now since the day before having emergency surgery to have my knees replaced. I was on FMLA but it didn’t seem to matter to the chief executive of this employer because I was told my position was eliminated and that I’d need to get another Master’s degree to be able to qualify for it. I never was allowed to return to my job after my surgery, even though I was completely returned to a physical condition better than the one I had before the temporary mobility disability. I was a teacher of small children. I was never given the opportunity to say good-by to my young students. And even though everyone can see that I am perfectly able to walk and have no more physical impairments; when my former students and their parents see me now two years later, they ask me, “How are you feeling? I hope you are feeling well now.”

    Today, these same co-workers who once worked collaborative with me smiling and happy, they can’t look me in the eye. They don’t call or ask about me. They want me and what happened to me to go away and pretend it never happened. Or, they think it is okay to let their fears rule them at work and in their relationships. It is making them feel better at work that they don’t have to see “a person who had a mobility impairment” anymore.

    Because how they treated me as a disabled employee was so drastically different and impacted my ability to earn a living for myself, it was a shock at first to have to come to the realization that what my employers and, although my co-workers may not have been able to see this at the time….all of them acted and failed to act in ways that clearly violated my legal rights as an employee to FMLA leave and restoration of my job and my pay and my status, as well as my ADA rights to reasonable accommodations for what ended up to be a qualifying disability that has been repaired now with surgery.

    From my own story here it should be clear that employers must hire and maintain all qualified employees, and that the fears of the problems they believe that their disabled workers will cause in the workplace ARE PROBLEMS CAUSED BY FAILURE TO EMPLOY AND TO COMPLY WITH FEDERAL ADA AND FMLA LAWS IN THE WORKPLACE.


    NOT SO…It is true that when we do things that avoid communication with, fail to offer to work out fair accommodations, we are acting and not acting in ways that discriminate against a co-worker who is disabled; WHEN WE TREAT ANOTHER HUMAN BEING DIFFERENTLY, AND IT ENDS UP HURTING A CO-WORKER STRUGGLING TO LEARN HOW TO DO THEIR JOB WITH AN ACQUIRED OR CONGENITAL DISABILITY…WE DO FEEL SAD AT WORK. We feel sad not because of the person with the disability or anything that the disabled worker did or didn’t do…IT IS because we know what we are doing isn’t fair to them and it hurts to know we aren’t treating each other fairly.

    FEARS THAT WE WILL HAVE TO DO MORE WORK OR PAY HIGHER HEALTH INSURANCE PREMIUMS BECAUSE WE WORK WITH A DISABLED PERSON…..this is a terribly inaccurate and unfounded fear…in fact, when you do not hire and when you eliminate the job of a disabled employee based on this fear you now have a much higher tax, social security, and medicare burden that you must pay the government that must now pay social security disability, medicare health coverage, food stamps, rehabilitation, transportation, government subsidized housing, and other needs that the disabled person IS ABLE TO DO WHEN WORKING FULL-TIME FOR YOU IN YOUR COMPANY! So when you fail to hire and retain disabled employees you now have placed the burden for all of their care and well-being on yourself and all members of society. AND YOU LOSE THE WORK THEY WERE DOING FOR YOU AND YOUR COMPANY TOO.
    FACT: Workers with disabilities ARE ABLE AND CAN PROVIDE for themselves and WE DO MORE. When we work full-time the company benefits from our services, we also pay the same taxes as our non-disabled co-workers, we pay insurance premiums the same as our non-disabled co-workers, and we volunteer with our co-workers to benefit charities and we donate money we earn from income to help others less fortunate. for others when they were working full time with non-disabled workers.

    3) FEARS OF Co-workers that they will have to pick-up the slack for disabled employees:
    NOT SO! ACTUALLY, IT IS ONLY WHEN EMPLOYERS USE POLICIES AND CIRCUMSTANCES TO ELIMINATE THE JOBS OF DISABLED WORKERS IN THEIR COMPANY–THAT CO-WORKERS MUST THEN PITCH IN AND DO THE WORK THEMSELVES THAT WAS ONCE PRODUCED BY THEIR DISABLED CO-WORKER. And if you deny the disabled worker their rights to return to their same job after FMLA LEAVE…YOU HAVE TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO DO THE JOBS THAT WORKER DID YOURSELVES PERMANENTLY. When you could have had a devoted, qualified worker with a disability do that job as a life-time career that they would only be able to become better and more efficient at doing the longer they remain in employed with the same company doing the same job that they were hired to do and already do well.

    And, of course their will be fear of issues learning to communicate between disabled .

    FINALLY-EMPLOYER/CO-WORKER: FEARS OF COMMUNICATION WITH DISABLED WORKERS: WHY? WHEN I AM AT WORK, I WANT TO COMMUNICATE WITH MY CO-WORKERS ABOUT OUR WORK AND THE GOALS OF OUR WORK…NOT MY DISABILITY OR THEIR LACK OF DISABILITY. Even in the case of negotiating with a team ways to help each other get all of our common work completed at work…it isn’t my disability we are there to discuss, it is how we can all use the abilities we have to get our common work objects successfully completed each day. Fear and Avoidance of communication with a person needing accommodations for a disability to be able to do a job with non-disabled co-workers is not because you fear saying something wrong or illegal about the disabled employee…it is about avoiding your own fears of our human vulnerabilities. No one asks for a disability. But having one shouldn’t be a reason to exclude and abandon our abilities to work and earn a living for ourselves.

    Bottom line: When we don’t let the disabled work in the same jobs as our co-workers; we will never learn to communicate and share important knowledge with each other. EVERYONE WILL BE DISABLED OR NEED PROTECTIONS PROVIDED BY ADA and FMLA, AGE-DISCRIMINATION, EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES LAWS. We are who we are and we have much to share and are just as qualified as anyone with or without a disability to be employed together as co-workers for change. Fear of sadness and over-burdened workers in the workplace is unnecessary when we make it a point to hire and retain all qualified workers with and without disabilities. When we are all doing our fair share to contribute positively to our society through our work and when we open up our lives and communities to diversity in abilities, we create gladness not sadness… I know I wouldn’t feel sad about working together with co-workers who have different abilities than I do. We are all in this world together because not one of us is perfect and not one of us can do the job of caring for our world by working alone. We have diverse abilities because it takes all of us to make this world a safe, and happy place to live, work, and enjoy life together.

  2. chad says:

    I would love to speak in front of group of people and tell them that disabilities don’t have to hold em down in the labels from other peoples don’t matter that is all about what jesus christ thinks about you and the confidence you put in yourself message putting yourself in you put in the lord above .

  3. lakital says:

    Unfortunately, not all stererotypes are untrue.

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