Amy Lindgren
Amy Lindgren

Second Sunday Series: This is the first of 12 columns on work and disability that will appear in the next 12 months — one on each second Sunday of the month, from September through August. As a reference, last year’s Second Sunday Series focused on business startup, while the series in preceding years highlighted readers’ questions; career building during recovery from addiction; work in the trades; and career issues of special concern to Millennials and mid-career workers. 

Did you know that people with disabilities in the labor force have a higher self-employment rate than people who are not disabled (9.6% vs. 6.4%)?

Or that unemployment for those with disabilities is approximately twice that of those reporting no disabilities (10.1% vs. 5.1%)?

Maybe you’ve read that more people with disabilities were employed in 2021 than in 2020 (600,000 more).

As always, statistics are problematic. Take that last one, for example. One theory is that the increased number of disabled workers in the workforce was not due to more getting hired but to the increased number of people who had become disabled during the pandemic and simply held onto the jobs they already had. Which does change a feel-good statistic into something a bit darker, for sure.

Disability employment is like that. Just when you get to feeling optimistic about something, another fact comes along to set you straight.

In more than three decades of helping people find and keep jobs, from folks in recovery to people with felony records to job seekers in their 70s, I can honestly say that nothing has presented such confounding challenges as employment for individuals with disabilities.

Part of the struggle is the sheer variety of disabilities people are contending with, coupled with each individual’s complementary issues. Disabled and unskilled? That’s a disaster, compared to being disabled with a degree or work experience. Able to dress yourself, and then commute on your own? Quite an advantage over someone who needs a personal attendant to start the day.

Even the definition of disability is tricky. While people with certain diagnoses such as lupus or fibromyalgia might not fit the general concept of being disabled, their conditions can mean as many impacts to their work as someone with a more visible disability.

And what about people with mental health issues, or those with cognitive differences? Their workplace challenges will differ from those of someone who uses a wheelchair or communicates with American Sign Language.

Did we touch on temporary disabilities, perhaps arising from cancer treatment or recovery from surgery? Statistically, pretty much all of us will become disabled, at least temporarily, at some point in our lives.

Having recently fractured my leg for the second time in 10 years, I can attest that revisiting the use of crutches has been much less fun than a barrel of monkeys. I can also confirm that being self-employed in this situation has given me complete control over scheduling for medical appointments, remote work and other temporary accommodations I need — something that not every employee could say in the same circumstances.

Although employment issues are much more critical for those with permanent or persistent disabilities, any changes employers make to ease their challenges will end up helping everyone, including those who experience a temporary disability during their work lives.

Work issues for people living with disabilities is my Second Sunday subject this year, which means that every month for the next 12, I’ll devote the second Sunday to a topic related to job search, work, or career development for people with disabilities.

I’m planning to explore those self-employment statistics more, and review which career paths might hold the most promise for workers with disabilities. We definitely need a closer look at the question of when (or whether) to disclose a disability during the hiring process, as well as ways to describe the employment gaps disabled workers often have.

To be honest, I’ll need your help — there are so many angles to this topic that I’m sure to miss something important or misunderstand something key. Your feedback and corrections will be especially appreciated. I’d like to hear your ideas, questions, resources and experiences around this issue, whether you’re living with a disability yourself or advocating for someone who is.

I’ll try to incorporate as many views as I can into the monthly columns, including corrections if I’ve gotten something wrong the month before. Meet me back here in October and we’ll continue the conversation.

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