A Response to NPR Piece “Unfit for Work: the Startling Rise of Disability in America”

This piece was written with special assistance from Dr. Paul Bohman, Deque Director of Training.

A very interesting story was recently covered by NPR via Planet Money, This American Life, and All Things Considered. In the piece “Unfit for Work: the Startling Rise of Disability in America”, Chana Joffe-Walt presents the current state of the US Social Security disability benefits program – a program now delivering benefits to approximately 14 million people each month – through the case study of Hale County, Alabama, where about 1 in 4 adults receives disability benefits.

To summarize, the number of people on disability has more than tripled since 1985. The increase in people on disability has a direct correlation to unemployment numbers (as unemployment rates increase, so do applications for disability) and an inverse correlation to welfare applications since 1996 when President Bill Clinton instituted his welfare reforms (welfare applications declined, but disability applications continued to increase). Joffe-Walt outlines many different contributors to the rising number of people receiving disability benefits: the rise of “disability-industry” lawyers specializing in winning disability cases, private companies paid by the State to move citizens off State-funded welfare programs and onto Federally funded disability, and the fact that the disability system, unlike the welfare system, has no strategy for getting people off of disability benefits.

The piece ultimately concludes that the problem comes down to education. Chana Joffe-Walt writes, “Somewhere around 30 years ago, the economy started changing in some fundamental ways. There are now millions of Americans who do not have the skills or education to make it in this country.” She raises the very interesting point that, to a certain degree, disability is subjective. Conditions like back pain or diabetes that would not be considered disabilities for office workers at sit-down jobs can actually be disabling for people who, because of their lower education and qualifications, are limited to physically-demanding jobs that require a great deal of movement, lifting, or other physical tasks.

But what about the technological barriers?

What Chana Joffe-Walt fails to consider, however, is a significant change has occurred in the workplace since 1985 and especially since the welfare reforms in 1996 – many jobs now depend on the use of personal computers and the Internet. Yes, laws have been passed to “ban” discrimination in the workplace and yes, there are assistive devices to aid users with disabilities on their computers and the Internet, but there seems to be an assumption that the presence of these laws and assistive technology has closed the book on technological barriers to people with disabilities in the office environment. This is simply not the case.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has only recently been interpreted as applying to websites and other Internet-based applications.  Efforts to enforce Section 508 regulations have required a reboot from the Office of the President. Assistive technology can’t help a disabled user if the content isn’t properly coded in the first place. When websites and other digital technologies are designed without accessibility in mind, it doesn’t matter how smart or how qualified the person is: that person cannot perform jobs that require them to make daily use of Internet-based resources and software. It is possible for people who are blind or deaf or who can’t use their hands to use the Internet when the content is accessibly designed, but the vast majority of the Internet is not. Inaccessible websites create unnecessary circumstantial disabilities.

Joffe-Walt’s piece raises some fascinating and significant points – educational and skill-based barriers in the work place are a serious issue and need to be addressed; but in the modern work place, how can we fail to recognize technological barriers as well?

Read “Unfit for Work: the startling rise of disability in America” on NPR’s Planet Money. The story has also been covered on This American Life and All Things Considered.

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