Critiquing Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities

Critiquing Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities

According to the ADA, a person with a disability is broadly defined as an individual with physical or mental conditions that significantly limit major life activities, have a disability history, or are subject to adverse employment actions (29 CFR Part 1630). People with disabilities (PwD) are the most marginalized group worldwide—representing 15% of the world’s population (Blaine & Brenchley, 2020; Jurado-Caraballo et al., 2020). Despite their significant numbers, people with disabilities often face numerous barriers and challenges in accessing education, employment, healthcare, and social inclusion. These barriers can be attributed to a lack of infrastructure, societal stigma, and inadequate policies prioritizing their needs and rights. They can also have a significant adverse effect since people with disabilities frequently endure higher unemployment and poverty rates. Additionally, they have few opportunities to enhance their careers and develop their skills, perpetuating inequality and exclusion.

Creating an inclusive workplace where all employees are valued for their skills is a challenging undertaking. However, the benefit of creating an inclusive environment is that it offers employees with disabilities an equal opportunity to succeed, develop, advance, and get compensated. To actively build an environment where people with disabilities can thrive, employers must go beyond meeting legal requirements to create equal access to opportunities and resources. This means recognizing that disabilities come in various forms and may not always be visible. Employers must develop a culture of awareness and understanding to empower leaders and managers to accommodate the accessibility needs of their employees.

Workplace Discrimination

Discrimination against disabled people has been prevalent in the workplace and has taken many forms. It continues to be a widespread problem that impedes their ability to advance professionally and adversely impacts their general well-being. One specific area where disability discrimination is evident is in hiring. People with disabilities often face barriers and biases when applying for jobs. Research has suggested that qualified PwD are being ignored during recruiting; therefore, they are not considered part of the applicant pool (Alfassi-Henley, 2013; Gouvier, Sytsma-Jordan, & Mayville, 2003; Louvet, 2007; Wiegand, 2008, as cited by Araten-Bergman, 2016).

Additionally, they are often subjugated to ableist bias when employers perpetuate the societal stigma that PwD must work jobs beneath their level of expertise (Moss, 2021). They are more likely to get hired for lower level (Schur et al., 2009). This not only limits their employment opportunities but also reinforces negative stereotypes and prejudices.

Another barrier has been a lack of accessibility in the workplace. Many workplaces are not designed to accommodate disabled individuals, whether that disability is visible or invisible. This lack of accessibility can be seen in physical environments that are not wheelchair-friendly or lack proper signs and assistive devices. It can also extend to digital domains with inaccessible websites, software, or communication tools. These hurdles prohibit PwD from fully utilizing their abilities and engaging in meaningful work, maintaining a cycle of exclusion and restricting their professional opportunities. It is also argued that accommodating PwD creates employment privilege over the abled and burdens the employer with overhead costs (Schartz et al., 2006).

People with disabilities often experience lower wages than their non-disabled colleagues (Cañas & Sondak, 2014). Pay disparity persists as another form of discrimination, despite PwD having similar qualifications and job duties. This discrimination extends to health insurance and pension benefits (Schur et al., 2009). They are more likely to get hired for low skilled or non-standard jobs that offer low to no pay and benefits (Schur et al., 2009). This pattern of discrimination affects disabled employees’ financial stability and promotion opportunities (Schur et al., 2009). Additionally, the lack of access to adequate health insurance and pension benefits can further exacerbate the economic challenges faced by disabled individuals, making it even more difficult for them to achieve financial security.

Social Bias and Prejudice

The prejudice and social bias prevalent in society are closely related to workplace discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Adverse assumptions, misconceptions, and stigmatization have significantly aided the perpetuation of prejudice against this group. Stereotypes about the skills and limits of people with disabilities are frequently held by society, which results in prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior. Due to these negative stereotypes, PwD are portrayed as less competent, unreliable, and unable to perform at the same level as those without disabilities. These social stigmas have substantially limited PwD’s professional growth and contributed to their exclusion from work prospects.

People with disabilities are frequently excluded from job opportunities because it is assumed they are less capable, reliable, and expensive (Cañas & Sondak, 2014). Employers may disregard qualified PwD due to unconscious biases prohibiting them from considering them as part of the application pool (Schartz et al., 2006). Additionally, there is a social stigma that PwD should have less demanding and menial positions. This stigma not only undermines their career objectives but also restricts their ability to progress, reinforcing the notion that their contributions are insignificant.

Several things might be attributed to the social stigma in the workplace toward PwD. Often, people lack awareness and understanding about disabilities, leading to outdated beliefs and the spreading of misinformation. Also, people tend to have limited exposure to PwD and rely on media portrayals and societal narratives that emphasize limitations rather than capabilities, further contributing to the stigma (Babik & Gardner, 2021). The media promotes the ableist ideology that values physical perfection as a measure of worthiness in the workplace, further marginalizing individuals with disabilities (United Nations, n.d.). Limited exposure can lead to emotional insensitivity and disability dismissal (Diamond, 2001; Diamond et al., 2008; Yu et al., 2015, as cited in Babik & Gardner, 2021).

Marginalizing Laws and Policies

Disability-related legislation, regulations, and practices have historically discriminated against and excluded people with disabilities from society. These discriminatory practices have impacted PwD, perpetuating inequality by making it more difficult for people with disabilities to participate in society and reducing their access to career, education, and health opportunities. These marginalized laws and policies have made it systemically more difficult for PwD to achieve their full potential. 

One example of a discriminatory law is the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. The eugenics movement was a pseudoscientific theory that advocated improving the human race through controlled breeding. It forced the sterilization of PwD, minorities, people experiencing poverty, and LGBTQ individuals (National Human Genome Research Institute, 2021). These policies aimed to eliminate disability from the population since it was believed that PwD were genetically inferior. In 1914, the eugenics concept began to spread globally (National Human Genome Research Institute, 2021). Ultimately, it denied PwD the right to make their own decisions about their bodies and their families. It also stigmatized people with disabilities and made it more difficult for them to participate in society. This practice violated the human rights of individuals with disabilities and profoundly impacted their ability to form families and maintain reproductive autonomy. In 1939, the public and scientific community began to understand the horrific realities that came with eugenics. In 1983, Oregon was the last state to repeal sterilization (National Human Genome Research Institute, 2021).

Another discriminatory policy beginning in the 19th century was institutionalization. People with disabilities were placed in large residential facilities based on the assumption that they could not live independently or participate fully in community life (Stangis, 2021). Institutionalization resulted in the loss of autonomy–they were not allowed to make their own decisions (Stangis, 2021). They also had limited access to education and employment opportunities and were sometimes neglected and abused. As a result, people with disabilities who were institutionalized were often unable to achieve their full potential, left without adequate care, and subjected to physical and emotional abuse (Stangis, 2021). After the disability rights movement in the 1960s, institutions began to close, and laws were enacted to protect the rights of PwD; however, this left a mark on those released. They often have difficulty adjusting to life outside the institution, building social skills, living independently, and finding employment (Stangis, 2021).

Discrimination against PwD has had terrible and pervasive impacts. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), PwD are twice as likely to be poor due to worse educational and labor market outcomes (World Health Organization, 2011). Because of this, they experience higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness. This economic exclusion continues the cycles of dependency and poverty–depriving PwD access to the resources they need to maintain their families and themselves.

The physical and mental health of people with disabilities are negatively impacted by perceived discrimination (Pascoe & Richman, 2009). Pascoe and Richman (2009) discovered that PwD who perceived discrimination were more likely to report physical health issues such as headaches, stomach aches, and sleep issues. Additionally, they were more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. These detrimental psychological impacts may make it more difficult for people to advocate for themselves, achieve their goals, and contribute to society.

Workplace Initiatives to Combat Discrimination

Laws and governmental action protect and empower people by establishing a legal framework and implementing controls. Governmental laws and actions are necessary to protect people with disabilities. They safeguard accessibility, equal rights, and equal opportunities. These regulations offer a framework to prevent prejudice and encourage inclusion in different areas of life. Legislation protects people with disabilities from mistreatment, exclusion, and unequal treatment. Legal protections prevent abuse, exclusion, and inequitable treatment of people with disabilities. To ensure that people with disabilities may fully participate in society, laws must specify accessible infrastructure, employment opportunities, education, healthcare, and transportation. Governmental action enforces compliance, monitors progress, and implements policies to address the specific needs and challenges faced by people with disabilities.

One example of such a law is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which safeguards the rights of individuals by prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in programs or activities that are federally funded (Rehabilitation Act, 1973). It has been essential to ensuring accessibility and equality in employment and education. It has empowered PwD by guaranteeing accessibility and advancing equal opportunities in work and education.

Nearly 20 years after the Rehabilitation Act was passed, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were signed into law in 1990. Section 504 complements the ADA and IDEA to protect children and adults with disabilities from exclusion, unfair educational treatment, and unequal job opportunities. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a civil rights law ensuring PwD are protected against discrimination in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. Employers must make recruitment and hiring processes accessible and provide reasonable accommodations for qualified PwD (Bruyere et al., 2004). The ADA also prohibits employers from asking about an individual’s disability during the hiring process, ensuring that PwD are judged solely on their qualifications and abilities. Additionally, the law mandates that public accommodations, such as restaurants and hotels, must be accessible to individuals with disabilities, providing ramps, elevators, and other necessary accommodations.

Although the ADA was signed over 30 years ago, equity is still elusive, especially for people of color and those whose socioeconomic position makes access to health care and other services more challenging (Pappas, 2020). Compared to the overall population, non-Hispanic American Indians and Alaska Natives are significantly more likely to have a disability (Pappas, 2020). This poses a significant issue when PwD must deal with health care, criminal justice, employment, and education. Psychologists are pushing for research-based solutions to make these systems more equitable (Pappas, 2020). They are working to improve training for healthcare providers as well as aid attorneys in providing clients with alternative rehabilitation options other than incarceration (Pappas, 2020). Often, people who have undiagnosed developmental disabilities are jailed or face the death penalty. Typically, since disability intersects with race and socioeconomic status, these individuals are more likely to be people of color (Pappas, 2020).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law that mandates each state to ensure free, appropriate public education available to all eligible children with disabilities within the state. This act entitles children in the United States from infancy to young adulthood to education through early intervention and special education services. These services are designed to meet the unique needs of each individual and help them achieve their educational goals. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also requires schools to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with a disability, which outlines specific educational goals and accommodations.

The IDEA has been criticized for insufficient funding for special education programs (Manna et al., 2016). Although Congress passed IDEA in 1975, it has yet to receive full funding per pupil. The federal contribution has been consistently less than 20% since it passed (Manna et al., 2016). This lack of funding has strained schools and districts, making it difficult to fully implement the required IEPs and provide necessary resources for students with disabilities. As a result, many schools have had to scale down their special education programs, limiting the support and services available to these students (Manna et al., 2016).

Workplace Practices & Strategies

Ensuring equitable employment opportunities is foundational to establishing inclusive and diverse workplaces for people with disabilities. It is not just a legal requirement that must be fulfilled; it is a moral obligation to ensure every person has fair and equal employment opportunities. Unfortunately, PwD often encounters barriers that make finding and keeping employment challenging. Employers must proactively implement measures that guarantee these opportunities for people with disabilities. By doing so, employers can tap into a pool of talented individuals who bring unique perspectives and skills to the workforce. Additionally, fostering an inclusive workplace not only benefits individuals with disabilities but also creates a more diverse and innovative work environment for all employees.

The first action employers can take is to create diversity, equity, and inclusion practices that emphasize fair and equitable practices, discourage discrimination, and promote accessibility and inclusion. This can be achieved by implementing inclusive hiring practices, such as actively recruiting individuals with disabilities and providing reasonable accommodations during the application and interview process. Furthermore, employers should invest in disability awareness training for all employees to foster a culture of understanding and respect.

Next, they can provide reasonable accommodations for all employees. This includes making physical modifications, providing assistive technologies, and offering flexible work arrangements (Schartz et al., 2006). Offering all employees the same accommodations mitigates employment privileges or subsidies for a select group of employees (Schartz et al., 2006). These efforts not only benefit employees with disabilities but also contribute to a more diverse and innovative workforce overall. Schartz et al. (2006). For example, Schur et al. (2020) surmised that remote options provide PwD the flexibility to work from home, giving them a larger advantage in productivity. This accommodation allows caregivers to take necessary breaks (Schartz et al., 2006).

Other practices that can be implemented are prioritizing inclusive hiring practices and seeking diverse candidates through partnerships. Partnerships can be created by working with organizations representing marginalized groups, like the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. Regular training sessions and workshops can promote an inclusive workplace culture, fostering empathy, reducing biases, and valuing diversity. In addition, organizations can establish employee resource groups (ERGs) that provide support and networking opportunities for employees from diverse backgrounds (Thompson, 2021).


Multiple barriers, including job discrimination, social bias and prejudice, and disadvantaged legislation and policies, continue limiting employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. Employers must prioritize fostering inclusive workplaces that recognize the abilities and contributions of people with disabilities if they are to address these issues successfully. To do this, it is necessary to go above and beyond the regulations and promote an awareness, awareness, and inclusive culture. Protecting the rights and promoting equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities depend heavily on workplace efforts, such as laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, work still must be done to guarantee complete fairness and inclusion.


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