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Disabled women face unique barriers at work. Our systems transformation guide seeks to address them.

by | Sep 11, 2023 | Fair Pay

On July 26, 2023, the National Partnership for Women & Families released the first installment of systems transformation guides focused on jobs and employment. We are releasing these guides to plot a more intentional course toward systemic change that achieves the inclusion, access, liberation and economic health and well being of disabled women and families.

The intersection of disability and gender justice have long been ignored in framing economic policy. At the National Partnership, we recognize the deep history of interactions between disability, race and gender justice through institutionalization, stripped autonomy and further marginalization. Ultimately ableism, racism, sexism and other forms of eugenic thinking have framed economic policies keeping disabled women, particularly disabled women of color, in poverty.

To the extent a disabled woman can work and chooses to work, barriers to employment and work are some of the many deliberate policy choices that prevent disabled women from achieving economic security. Discrimination, public benefit disincentives, subminimum wages, barriers to competitive integrated employment and inadequate paid leave and paid sick policies are among the numerous barriers to employment disabled people face.

Read the report: Systems Transformation Guide to Disability Economic Justice: Jobs and Employment

A Black, disabled woman with short hair signs to a colleague who is looking at her.

Image description: A Black, disabled woman with short hair signs to a colleague who is looking at her.

Photo by Jordan Nicholson, Disability:In. Licensed through Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives 4.0 International License. Based on work at www.disabilityin.org.

Disabled women, and disabled women of color in particular, experience discrimination unique to their identities, compounding on their experiences as disabled people. A 2022 Gender Policy Report found that discrimination in the labor market was the leading cause of economic instability for disabled women. Disabled people may experience disability discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion and other employment decisions. Disability discrimination also includes difficulty receiving or denial of reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Investing in additional enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and focusing on the unique experiences of disabled women and other multi-marginalized disabled women in how they experience discrimination is critical for expanding employment opportunities.

Occupational segregation is an extension of this discrimination that leads to more economic inequity among disabled women of color. It is when women, people of color, disabled people and people from other marginalized backgrounds are funneled into low-paying, undervalued occupations as a result of deliberate policy choices and stereotypes rooted in sexism, racism and ableism. While disabled people are forced into undervalued jobs deemed to be “for disabled people,” disabled women are also forced into undervalued jobs “for women,” compounding the effects of occupational segregation to limit potential earnings.

Employed disabled women ages 16 to 64 are substantially more likely than employed disabled men or employed nondisabled women or men to be economically insecure. This is likely due to the fact that disabled women, particularly disabled women of color, are more likely to work in lower-wage jobs, part-time roles and service work (including in the food industry and personal care work). In 2020, disabled workers were paid 74 cents for every dollar paid to their nondisabled peers. Disabled women are paid even less: the 10 occupations employing the most disabled women pay, on average, $41,200 per year–$15,800 less than the average annual wage across the 10 most common jobs for nondisabled men.

In certain cases, disabled people may also be paid below the minimum wage – even pennies on the dollar – for their work. An exception under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows employers to pay disabled workers less money for the same work based on how “productive” they are deemed to be. This policy also leads to workplace segregation through the common establishment of sheltered workshops, and makes competitive integrated employment even more difficult for disabled women to obtain. Raising the minimum wage, eliminating tipped wage and eliminating the subminimum wage for disabled employees are all critical for the economic security of disabled women.

The broken care infrastructure is also a major barrier to employment for disabled women. Disabled people may be more likely to need paid leave for their own conditions, as well as to request leave to care for chosen family, including other disabled people. Right now, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which only guarantees unpaid leave for certain workers, does not cover extended or chosen family. Disabled people, women and women of color are also more likely to work in lower wage jobs, which are less likely to offer paid leave. Disabled people also rely on Home- and Community-Based Services (HCBS) to live and work in their communities. With long wait lists, strict asset and income requirements, and direct care workforce shortages due to low wages and other factors, it can be incredibly difficult for disabled people to access necessary HCBS care. Not to mention, the direct care workforce is disproportionately composed of disabled women, underscoring the critical need for the safety nets and protections for all disabled workers – including direct care workers. A national paid family and medical leave program, a national paid sick leave program and critical investments in HCBS and our direct care workforce are necessary to improve opportunities for disabled workers.

Further, while working is not possible for all disabled people, and a person’s ability to work should not affect their ability to live comfortably, the nation’s labor and public benefits laws and systems must be completely transformed to allow disabled women to work should they so choose. In 2020, about 55 percent of all adult Social Security beneficiaries were women. As of 2022, 45.6 percent of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries and 50.5 percent of SSDI beneficiaries were women. People who are Black and American Indian/Alaska Native are more than twice as likely to receive SSI as white people. African Americans are also more likely to receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. Those who receive public benefits such as SSI, SSDI and Medicaid face numerous work disincentives, including strict income and “substantial gainful activity” limits (or a level of work that leads to a certain amount of earnings), strict asset limits, strict reporting requirements and reporting delays and errors on the administrative side that may even result in repeated overpayments. Overpayments happen when benefits are paid to an individual but a government agency later claims the benefits should not have been paid. Women are more likely to experience an overpayment than men; Black and Hispanic recipients are also more likely to experience an overpayment. Ensuring these policies work for disabled people, particularly disabled women of color, is a matter of equity.

These are just a few of the barriers disabled women face at work. While our guide outlines the many obstacles that disabled women – particularly multi-marginalized disabled women – face to achieving economic security in jobs and employment, it also highlights an opportunity. Much can be done to address the systemic barriers and deliberate policy choices that keep disabled women, particularly disabled women of color, in poverty and unable to achieve economic security. By addressing the inequities that target disabled and multi-marginalized women, policymakers will uplift everyone. The only way that the U.S. economy can function is when it works for all.