Disability and dependency: access to education and employment

“Disabled people face major barriers in the labour market… A major barrier to obtaining employment is lack of qualifications. Disabled people are less likely than non-disabled people to have either vocational or academic qualifications.” (Hurstfield et al 2004a, p7)

Barnes (1991) indicates that the majority of disabled people are typically provided with education that does not enable them to achieve personal autonomy, attain meaningful employment or be able to fully participate in the community. He suggests that the education system fails to empower young disabled people by giving them the skills and knowledge needed to lead a fully active life, but instead teaches them to accept a “much devalued social role and in doing so condemns them to a lifetime of dependence and subordination” (p 28), and thus sustaining the negative stereotype of disabled people as ‘needy’ or ‘helpless’. He claims that segregated or special schools reinforce barriers between disabled and non-disabled children, while at the same time neither giving them a decent education nor preparing them for adulthood. Inclusion in mainstream education is also problematic due to lack of access (to materials as well as physical buildings), discrimination from teaching staff and negative stereotypes in the teaching materials. As such, disabled children are not likely to achieve similar levels of qualifications as non-disabled children, regardless whether they are educated in segregated or mainstream schools. Barnes notes a similar trend in further education, which is mostly segregated and focused more on life and leisure skills than academic courses or professional training:

There is no evidence of any substance to show that the kind of FE that the vast majority of disabled young people receive does anything other than prepare them for a life of under-employment and/or unemployment, and a disproportionate – and unnecessary – dependence on others.” (p 35)

Barnes accuses the education system of producing educationally disabled individuals, unprepared for adulthood, infantile and socially ignorant, and suggests that the barriers preventing young disabled people from receiving an adequate education sustain the discrimination that exists in other spheres of society. He provides a damning example of such discriminatory attitude in the form of the following passage from the Warnock Report into special educational needs:

“The problem of how to accept life without employment and how to prepare for it, faces people with a variety of disabilities, including those who are of the highest intelligence but very severely handicapped. We believe that the secret of significant living without work may lie in handicapped people doing far more to support each other, and also in giving support to people who are lonely and vulnerable.” (Warnock Report, 1978, p.202).

Disabled people are twice as likely not to have any qualifications as non-disabled people, while the rate of unemployment among disabled people is much higher than among non-disabled. Barnes puts this down to institutional discrimination, since the way the education system and labour market are organized and operated is influenced by the government, whose exclusionary social policies thus serve to “perpetuate the disproportionate economic and social disadvantage experienced by disabled people” (1991, p3).

Priestley (2001, p 9) points out that lack of access to education means disabled people are often denied the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills that would otherwise enable them to engage in productive, remunerative employment; instead they are frequently left in poverty, dependent on their families for survival, or segregated in special schools. In many societies, women and young girls are particularly vulnerable to such exclusion and stigmatization.

“In the modern world, work and employment are major signifiers of independent adulthood (particularly male adulthood). Yet, disabled men and women throughout the world continue to be disproportionately unemployed, underemployed and underpaid (along with young people and women), resulting in conditions of extreme poverty for many millions of their families.” (Priestley 2001, p 8)

Shakespeare et al (1996) claim that segregated ‘special schools’ provide poor levels of teaching focused on therapy and not academic education, while isolating disabled children from family, friends and non-disabled children: “[disabled children] grow up isolated and institutionalized, and the [non-disabled] grow up ignorant and prejudiced about disability” (p 19). Special schools have also been regarded as convenient ‘dumping grounds’ for children who may otherwise create challenges for their families, for the local authorities and teachers of mainstream schools, and parents are sometimes put under undue pressure to have their children taught at segregated educational establishments (Sutherland 1981).

Once a disabled person has gained access to education, however, their problems are far from over, Oliver claims. They are socially conditioned to accept their position as sick individual, to see their impairment as personal tragedy, views which are sustained by teachers and the curricular materials (Oliver 1990, p 92). Combined with this, Walker (1982) observes that disabled children were much less likely to have been given professional careers advice or even spoken to anyone about their prospects after leaving school.

Work offers several important benefits, including cash to afford social outings and a group of people, who are potential friends or lovers. It also provides the disabled person with a sense of worth and self-esteem” (Shakespeare et al 1996, p 33).

Although as Burchardt (2000, p 8) reminds us, paid work is not the only activity that is both rewarding and has social value, an individual’s sense of identity is nevertheless somehow inextricably linked to their occupation, and paid employment is widely acknowledged to signify adulthood as well as conferring social class and status; as such, it is a priority among disabled people to seek remunerated work as a meaningful activity, as a means to gaining financial independence (or of making a contribution to the household budget), as a way of challenging perceived notions that they are worthless and a burden, as well as to develop their skills and improve their social lives.

“Although employment should not be seen as the only viable route to citizenship in the twenty first century, access to supportive and sustainable employment environments should be the shared goal of disabled people and stakeholders who are paid to enhance such opportunities.” (Roulstone 2004, p 31)

Disabled people often express a yearning to be productive (Shapiro, 1990), but are frequently denied access to employment. With public spaces and transport designed to maintain the dominant ideology of able-bodiedness, and little or no thought for disability access, urban environments themselves create barriers to inclusion. The difficulties and prejudices encountered when trying to access the labour market serve to impoverish and disempower disabled people, as Kitchin (1998) observes:

“Disabled people are often excluded from labour market through discriminatory practices and poor levels of mobility. Where they do gain access it is usually in margin positions undertaking low-paid, low-skilled work often on a part-time basis. Such a situation works to deny disabled people prosperity and wealth, and their associated power.” (p 346)

Disabled people generally have lower educational qualifications and limited experience of the labour market, and their chances of getting a job are thus reduced (Burchardt 2000). They are less likely to be in full time employment, and probably earn less per hour than their non-disabled counterparts. It has also been noted that they are more likely to be engaged in skilled or unskilled manual occupations and much more likely to work from home (ibid) or do monotonous, isolated work in poor conditions, as a result of which disproportionately high numbers report being dissatisfied in their jobs (Walker 1982, 53-61). Barnes (1991) notes that those born with impairments are more likely to be out of work than those who acquire impairments later in their life course, while those who find employment are typically ‘underemployed’ in low-skilled and low-status jobs that are low paid and unchallenging. Disabled people are disproportionately underrepresented in primary sector employment (with high salaries and skill levels, job security and career prospects), with the majority engaged in secondary sector jobs (low salaries and skills, lack of job security and few chances for promotion). Walker (1982, p 7) posits that disabled people face reduced employment opportunities with the disappearance of ‘dead end’ unskilled and semi-skilled junior positions, which had previously opened the way for more skilled positions.

Institutionalized discrimination comes from the employers, who cite unsuitable premises or job types and inability to do shift work as factors that mean they cannot employ disabled people. Barnes lists further factors that create barriers or an oppressive working environment, including the attitudes of other employees, as well as a general requirement for a ‘clean and tidy’ appearance, transport and geographic mobility – issues which relate directly to the financial circumstances of an individual.

As Wendell points out, disabled people are in a catch 22 situation: “they have access to inadequate resources because they are unemployed or underemployed, and they are unemployed or underemployed because they lack the resources that would enable them to make their full contribution to society” (1989, p 246).

Work is central to industrial societies not simply because it produces the goods to sustain life but also because it creates particular forms of social relations. Thus anyone unable to work, for whatever reason, is likely to experience difficulties both in acquiring the necessities to sustain life physically, and also in establishing a set of satisfactory social relationships.” (Oliver 1990, p 85)

In the industrialized world, according to Oliver (1990), at the time of writing the majority of disabled people of working age were employed, despite high unemployment figures (p 87). He also noted that collective organizations set up and managed by disabled people have seen more success in developing countries rather than the industrialized North, ascribing this to resistance to change in existing structures as well as the influence of powerful dependency-creating organizations, in whose interests the status quo is maintained (p 100). Priestley, however, sees this more as the result of economic priorities and a matter of sheer survival for those in poorer nations (2001, p 10).

Writing for the Institute for Research on Poverty, Sheila Ryan (1980) noted that even when disabled people find work, their cost of living tends to be much higher than that of non-disabled people as a result of medical supplies, prosthetics or mobility aids, as well as the fees for personal carers and housekeepers. She also observes that policymakers tend to look at the ‘dollar return’ they can obtain from rehabilitating disabled people as opposed to simply rehabilitating them on humane grounds, which in turn means that rather than adapting an entire public transport system to cater for the needs of disabled people, it is considered more cost-effective to set up a separate shuttle service, which requires advance booking and serves to further segregate disabled people from the rest of society.

On the other hand, as Armer (2004) points out, since there has been a shift from an economy based on manufacturing to one based on information supply, combined with technological progress that enable the reduction or negation of impairment effects (as well as the possibility to work remotely and thus avoid physical obstacles), there should be no reason why disabled people are not competing on the labour market on equal terms with able-bodied people. He argues that equal inclusion of disabled people in the workforce was even proposed as early as 1923 by the “arch-capitalist Henry Ford” (albeit on economic rather than humanitarian grounds), and as such their continued exclusion cannot be ascribed to economic factors alone. He suggests that discrimination comes about as a result of structured selectivity, where disabled people are seen as abnormal and thus dislocated from mainstream activities.

Harlan Hahn argues that the existence of an ‘industrial reserve army’ made up of marginalized groups (housewives, disabled, seasonal workers, immigrants, etc) has the effect of “defus[ing] the revolutionary dynamics of a capitalist system by exerting downward pressure on wages” (1987, p 172); while they can be called upon to assist in times of dire need (such as during the war effort) the type of work they are ordinarily engaged in is not considered deserving of standard remuneration, and as such disabled people’s economic oppression is perpetuated. Elsewhere Hahn (1985) draws attention to the fact that prevailing notions of whether or not a person is capable of work that are based on functional capacity are outdated, suited more to economies based on manual labour as opposed to contemporary economies driven by services or technology, while rehabilitation programmes still tend to focus on manual work, meaning disabled people are unable to upgrade their skills to seek employment in management or service sectors. Rather than expecting individuals to conform to existing roles and functions as defined by employers, Hahn suggests those job descriptions be redefined to accommodate the requirements and capabilities of disabled persons.

Sutherland (1981, Ch 4) stresses that work judged appropriate for disabled people is usually considered on the basis of their assumed inabilities rather than of making full use of their abilities. He also emphasises that discrimination with regard to employment is of particular significance since it not only denies disabled people economic (and thus political) power, but also prevents access to the areas of employment where they could effect positive societal change, for example the designing of buildings or teaching of children.

Inclusion in the mainstream employment market is not something that has happened to any degree of rapidity or ease, despite legislation supposedly enforcing employers to engage a quota of disabled workers (Disabled Person’s [Employment] Act, 1944) as well as more recent laws against discrimination on the grounds of disability (ADA in the US, 1991 and DDA in the UK, 1995). Hyde (1996) suggests that in the UK this may be the result of the employment services sector being unduly prejudiced in offering lower paid unskilled work rather than encouraging disabled people to study at further and higher educational institutions in order to better prepare them for a professional career. He also notes that some disabled people who are able to work choose not to for fear of being stimatised or discriminated against in the workplace (ibid, 686), or that they will lose some of their welfare benefits. He recorded disabled people’s testimony describing discriminating attitudes among employers, who treat employees with impairments less favourably (696), as well as service representatives, who advised them to go home and watch TV rather than look for paid work (p 689).

Erlanger and Roth (1985) point to the fact that inclusion in the workplace is primarily driven by supply rather than demand, and as such disabled people are required to be made suitable for employment on an individual basis – the focus is squarely on their inabilities, and they are treated as ‘special cases’, which has the effect of segregation rather than integration. They suggest that inclusion could be better achieved by shifting attitudes and adapting the workplace environments:

making people more employable and more a part of general social life by changing the social organisation of work and of other aspects of everyday life, through the removal of architectural barriers, nondiscrimination and affirmative action programs, mainstreaming in the schools, and so on. Until recently, there has been almost no concern with these possibilities” (Erlanger & Roth, 1985, p. 339)

The idea of dependency is central to disability issues, but it is rarely defined. As has been established, since the rise of capitalism and waged labour, the populations of industrialized nations have been instilled with the notion of competitive individualism and the idea that independence, in the sense that an individual is completely self-sufficient and requires no assistance, is a virtue and equivalent to freedom. However, it has been revealed that this is pure fallacy, since the inhabitants of contemporary society are mutually interdependent (Butler) and as such, Oliver contends, the fact of being dependent on others is not something that differentiates disabled people from the rest of society, rather it is the degree of dependency that differs (1990, p 83). The welfare state or ‘nanny state‘ as he terms it, has created “pathological groups” that have lost their self-reliance and become dependent on the state for education, healthcare and financial support, furthering reductionist explanations for dependency and fuelling the stigma attached to it.

In addition, Oliver points out that when discussing the notion of independence, professionals and disabled people tend to be talking at cross purposes: while professionals define independence as conducting ‘self-care’ activities (eating, washing, dressing, etc) unassisted, disabled people see independence as the ability to make decisions and to generally be in control of their own lives (p 91). Dependency, as he sees it, is not the result of limited capacity for self-care, but due to economic, political and social forces that create and maintain the conditions of dependency (p 93). In addition, the caregivers themselves appear to be more fundamentally trapped in this dependency relationship, reliant as they are on disabled people for their means to earn a living!

Barnes sees the creation of a culture of dependence as a form of discrimination, since it is based on the premise that people with impairments are helpless and unable to make decisions and take control over their own lives, while the professional carers are trained and work according to the medical model (1991, p24).

Susan Wendell (1989) writes that both feminists and disabled people are faced with a similar dilemma – whether independence from other people’s help should have such value as the dominant culture places on it, or the very value-system that scorns dependency on others should be challenged. She points out that in contemporary Western society, the insistence on self-reliance means that many disabled people expend enormous amounts of energy (not to mention resources) trying to maintain their independence and thus their self-esteem, and that if interdependence were the dominant ideology, those resources might be used to better effect in carrying out more meaningful activities.


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