People with disabilities have poor representation across the board, despite being a massive, diverse audience.
Last week the world discovered that cops and firefighters arrested in New York for fraudulently seeking Social Security disability benefits were faking fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a get-rich gimmick to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in disability payments. These “Wolfs off Wall Street” went incognito as Chris Christie’s staff stages a loose analogy for a David O. Russell film set in 1970s Americana.
While crooks and crooked politicians can be entertaining at times, these dramas too often distract us from a less sexy story line, about the massive number of people with disabilities who receive disproportionally less attention in the American spotlight.
More than half of Americans (51 percent) report having a disability,
a family member, or a close friend with a disability. Whether it is an elderly parent with a chronic illness, a classmate who uses a wheelchair, or a young child on the autism spectrum,
most of us have loved ones with disabilities.
And tragically, fully 70 percent of working-age people with disabilities in America are outside the workforce (compared to 28 percent of people without disabilities).
Currently, there are 1 in 5 Americans (56 million) living with a disability. Yet, research by GLAAD found that people with disabilities only appear as characters in 1 percent of Hollywood films and TV shows.
The disabilities community has similar misrepresentation in today’s media and political discussions. Most reporters “don’t cover these issues,” and most politicians lack significant interest. Yet as taxpayers, we will pay for their monthly benefit checks seemingly without thought.
We currently spend $350 billion as a country each year on the Social Security disabilities benefits program. While the benefits are necessary for people with physical and mental disabilities who truly need the support — fraudulent claims, employer misconceptions, and a structurally misguiding benefits system leave countless capable people dependent on government funding for the rest of their lives.
In a poll from RespectAbilityUSA.org, 3 out of 4 people with disabilities responded that they prefer a job and independence to the government safety net of benefits.
Forward-thinking employers such as Walgreens, EY, AMC and Lowe’s understand that they can be outstanding employees. Their performance metrics are improving as people with disabilities contribute to the successful bottom lines of those companies. It’s time for other companies to follow their lead.
People with disabilities bring unique characteristics and talents to workplaces that benefit employers and staff. Stephen Hawking is a genius who happens to use a wheelchair. People with disabilities can bag groceries, tend our parks and schools, and be super talents in developing computer software.
Despite its reach across economic, social, racial and party lines, the disabilities community lacks necessary attention from policymakers often given to soccer moms, baby boomers, African-Americans and Hispanics.This group could make an impact if politicians could recognize their potential as a major voting block.
Until policymakers, screenwriters and journalists recognize the potential of people with disabilities, they will continue to fly under the employer radar. They will continue to watch from the sidelines as the Jordan Belforts and Carmine Politos get all the playing time.
Willam Fowler 01.20.2014