When I was fully sighted, I thought of blind people as brave souls condemned to a life of mismatched shoes and sheltered workshops. Sure, I read about Helen Keller in grade school and was awestruck, but I also read about Amelia Earhart, George Washington, and for that matter Paddington Bear. The experience of disability is happily abstract for many people, and perhaps this is why it’s not even considered when discussion turns to diversity. A case in point: high-profile legislation defines diverse individuals suited to serve as Reserve Bank Presidents only in gender and racial/ethnic terms. I’m not sure we need legislation to ensure diversity, but I do know that efforts to do so should reckon with all people who are different than traditional leadership profiles.
Diversity that takes disability into account would make a profound difference to enhancing opportunity for Americans left even farther behind than those to whom most fair- and open-access efforts are focused. As we discussed in an Economic Equality blog post this summer, no demographic group is as disadvantaged as those with disabilities. The unemployment rate for persons with a disability seeking work is twelve percent versus five percent for the rest of the population – or about 250 percent higher as of year-end 2017. Although you might think this is due to age and infirmity, these data are for prime-age (i.e., 25-64), civilian, non-institutionalized individuals.
And these rates aren’t due to intellectual disabilities. Americans with hearing impairment are unemployed at almost double the rate of the overall population, with this ratio about the same for Americans with vision disabilities in the relevant study. Those with ambulatory impediments are almost three times more unemployed.
These numbers don’t reflect the fact that persons with disabilities aren’t seeking work. Going beyond raw employment data to look at labor-participation rates shows clearly that disabled people are not just far less likely to be employed, but also far less likely to get work when they look for it. Judged by who is either employed or seeking to be employed, 81 percent of abled persons are in the work force compared to only 42 percent of persons with disabilities. There aren’t data on how many persons with disabilities who manage to find a job are also under-employed relative to educational or skill level, but I’ll bet it’s plenty from what I’ve seen about the profound barriers posed by embedded stereotypes of disability and its seemingly-inherent limitations.
These data of course do not deal with the still greater barriers to equal opportunity for persons with disabilities when it comes to high-profile government positions or a shot at the corner office. I’m loving what I do, but I’ve had enough offers of senior government positions and been on enough boards of directors to see how even a woman or two and, now, a woman with a disability struggles to break down barriers for others not blessed with like-kind early opportunity or access. Anyone of color who holds these positions or sits on these boards – CEOs included – will tell you the same stories about barriers to opportunity. Don’t even think about hoping for any of these positions in a head-scarf.
The problem isn’t the law book. It’s our mind-set. Landmark civil- and equal-rights legislation of prior generations broke down legal barriers, even if psychological ones remained to this day that the new legislation seeks to dismantle. The ground-breaking Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 also broke down legal barriers, but the data above show that public consciousness has yet to recognize how able so many persons with disabilities truly are. I’m not sure we need legislation to ensure leadership diversity, but I know we need a commitment from the Members of Congress focused on diversity to ensure that they remember all persons facing barriers to opportunity, not just those who look like the men and women on the Hill spear-heading this effort.