Because it’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues, I want to shine the spotlight on underemployment. The missed opportunities to connect talented people with full-time work and the independence they deserve needs more attention. So why haven’t you heard much about the issue? Probably because most people are obsessed with unemployment numbers. But the reality is that even in a strong job market, people with disabilities are much more likely to be unemployed. We also work part time at higher rates than those without a disability (32% and 17%, respectively) according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
Under-employment for people with disabilities is defined as being employed in a job that is inferior by some standard—either in hours, pay or likelihood of being promoted. Underemployment can also plague people who are overqualified for a job—common when people have 20 or more years of experience.
All of these scenarios have negative outcomes. Chronic underemployment can undermine a job candidate’s confidence and can lead to stress, anxiety or depression. This overlooked group also has fewer opportunities to be promoted or to be chosen for professional development opportunities. For people with disabilities under-employment is both a serious financial problem and often a health issue.
Note: Not being able to make a living wage due to underemployment related to receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a related and equally gnarly problem. (While I don’t write about it in depth in this post, I do offer resources at the bottom of this post.)
Setting the Bar Low
The days of employing people with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) as a charitable act are slowly coming to an end. Why slowly? I won’t sugar coat it: Often the problem is institutionalized discrimination. “Systemically, public resources fund service hours rather than outcomes and are often neither sufficient nor flexible enough to allow collaboration and blending of employment funding streams, according to The Arc. They offer a list of best practices, opportunities and policy changes that could remedy this issue in the future. In general, the goal is for more people with I/DD to benefit from early guidance and job counseling. Students should leave high school with opportunities to pursue post-secondary education and/or with an appropriate job or an action plan for finding one, according to Arc experts. The Arc has hundreds of offices throughout the country. If you are struggling with this issue, their resources may be helpful. There are also options available for people who identify as ADHD, have learning disabilities or identify as neurodiverse. Two resources that consistently get high marks are Broad Futures and Eye2EyeNational, which offer internship and career development programs nationally.
Looking for The Right Fit
Looking for an employee who is the right fit is a euphemism for “we’ve never had anyone like you here before.” Fear of the wrong fit stems from a lack of education about disabilities and is often code for systemic stigma. If, like me, you have a learning disability or mental health issue and you speak, think and experience the world differently, you have likely had the experience of being filed in the Not-the-right-fit folder. Once there, the likelihood of you being considered for a job at that company is copy-paper thin. The likelihood of feeling depressed, anxious or unfairly treated? It’s huge and it feels like the weight of a pallet of copy paper on your chest.
I’ve experienced this issue in my career. There’s one job interview I will never forget. I was referred by a friend. My skills matched the job opening. But something wasn’t going right. I sensed there had been some sort of miscommunication soon after the interviewer asked what would be one of her final questions: Has there ever been a time when it was difficult to get buy-in from your superiors? I remember looking left, scanning the gorgeous view of fall leaves outside while I thought. After what I don’t recall as being an unusually long time, I turned back to the interviewer, took a deep breath, smiled and gave a confident answer. The manager closed her file and replied, thank you so much for your time. The ending seemed abrupt. As we’re waiting for the next interviewer to retrieve me from her office, she said, apropos of nothing, Did anyone ever tell you that you look away a lot? There are times when you don’t make direct eye contact. But then later you do seem confident and make eye contact. You should be aware of that, she advised. Then a gregarious man arrived to take me to my next stop. Ready? This should be fun, he said as he sat me down at a computer to take a personality test. It was fun and I did get the job, meaning I would not be underemployed as I had been for several months.
Still, it was a classic square-peg, round-hole moment. Did my demeanor seem weird? Was that not a normal way to thoughtfully answer a question? Those questions were never clearly answered. Luckily, I had done my best and gotten the job. That’s not always the case for the 20% of job seekers who think, communicate and experience the world differently than neurotypical folks. We’re different and that makes people uncomfortable at first. For a job candidate who has ADHD, dyslexia, sensory dysfunction, depression, anxiety or a host of other issues, our differences are our strengths. In the corporate world, that idea isn’t yet widely understood.
Some people with disabilities who are underemployed—working part time or on contract—lack the peer support many full-timers do, such as being part of a peer support group the company’s business or employee resource groups (B/ERGs). If they are trying to get their foot in the door to a larger job and are suffering from depression or chronic pain or are recovering from addiction, they keep that information private. Eight of 10 employees say stigma prevents them from asking for assistance or support because of a deep-rooted fear of being discriminated against. It also keeps them from seeking job counseling and coaching and participating fully in opportunities that might lead to full-time employment.
Just as success has a ripple effect, so does silence. If a large number of employees are silent about mental illness for fear of stigma in the workplace, leaders and HR executives who weigh in on benefits packages yearly can’t know to add programs that employees need.
Finding The Right Talent, Right Now
Paddling upstream in the job market, even one as healthy as it is today, is frustratingly slow going. There are some positive developments. In July the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $183.8 million in grants to 23 academic institutions and consortia nationwide for apprenticeship programs. The Ticket to Work program is designed to give adults access to career development, vocational rehabilitation and an employment network.
This October, NDEAM’s theme is The Right Talent, Right Now. To stop stigma and advance workplace inclusion, the Department of Labor has encouraged people to share their images during National Disability Employment Awareness Month and use the hashtag #NDEAM. Ticket to Work has a blog and offers seminars and webinars for entrepreneurs seeking mentors and basic skills such as understanding basic financial statements and creating a marketing strategy. If you have a disability, you’ll need to carefully plan how to transition to a job and still receive select benefits. One route is to use a Benefits Counselor. I strongly encourage anyone with a disability who is confused about benefits to look at their resources. Employers and organizations can find a portal to all kinds of resources that can help people with disabilities become full-time employees and gain independence, here.
If you are currently underemployed, don’t underestimate the emotional toll that it can take on you. It can crush your pride and shift you into a pattern of negative thinking. When you’re in a rut, it can difficult to know where to start looking for more meaningful or gainful employment. While you read about programs focused on neurodiversity or veterans, you may wonder if they even exist in your area. Most likely, they do. Arm yourself with help offered by large national organizations with well-established, local roots who offer free access to experts. Like the Arc, mentioned earlier, they will have local outposts across the country that fit your specific needs. Here are just a few.