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A few years ago I expressed a lament on someone’s blog that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is much higher than the unemployment rate of the general population. The blogger replied something like, “Well, duh, they have disabilities. Would you expect a man without arms to stock groceries?”

Clearly this blogger, and many others, miss the point. As I heard a wheelchair user say, “I’m not a disabled person, I’m a person with a disability.” The point: disability is one aspect of the person, not the sum total of the person. When employers, church leaders, and people in general see “disabled persons,” they are allowing themselves to fall into the spread effect or spread phenomenon. The Spread Phenomenon “generalizes from a single disability and assumes there are also intellectual, social, and additional physical deficits. An example would be shouting at a person with a visual impairment.”

The spread effect is one of several factors that result in more people with disabilities living at the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum of all North Americans. A recent report revealed the following:

  • Twice as many Americans with disabilities live in poverty compared to those without disabilities. Over 28 percent of non-institutionalized adults aged 21-64 with a disability in the United States live in poverty compared to 12.4 percent of those without a disability; greater than the rate for any other demographic category including African-Americans, Hispanics, or female-headed households.
  • Less than 30 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities participate in the workforce. Of the over 20 million Americans with disabilities who are of working age, less than 30 percent work, compared to over 78 percent of non-disabled Americans.
  • Americans households with an adult member with a disability earn 38.4% less than households without an adult member with a disability. The average annual household income for with an adult of working age (ages 21-64) in 2012 was approximately $37,300 compared to $60,600 for households with a member with a disability.

 “I think that employers are just not interested in taking a chance, and they find excuses not to hire us,” an Iowa woman with Down syndrome told the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “They are afraid they will get stuck in a difficult situation, but I always hear that many research studies have shown that people with disabilities make real good employees. The situation is very frustrating!”

Although many more buildings are accessible now than were in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, many societal barriers remain toward people who have disabilities. A longitudinal study conducted by Disability Concerns of Christian Reformed Churches has found the same to be true.

While Christian Reformed churches have made great progress in making our buildings more accessible, congregations have made few changes in creating more welcoming environments in their congregations such as providing transportation, accessible communications, and encouraging people with disabilities to use their gifts in the full life of the congregation. 

As a societal issue, the high rate of poverty of people with disabilities is an issue for the church too. What could your church do to assist people with disabilities and employers so that more people with disabilities could work for meaningful wages? Does your church have programs to assist people in finding employment, including people with disabilities? Please tell us about it. 


These statistics would likely be the same in Canada.  I know that I live on a disability income well below the poverty level.  I am now well enough to start looking for work but I'm almost 56, so I wonder who will hire me.

These statistics are alarming, but I appreciate your sharing them. Thank you for all of the work you do advocating on behalf of those whose voices many of us in the church ignore. 

Michele, I pray that God will surprise you with an opportunity you never expected.

Shannon, yes, they are alarming statistics. I would guess that in most societies, disability is part of the lives of many if not most of that society's members who live in poverty. In addition, many people with disabilities are put to death against their will, either through abortion, or infant exposure, or neglect, or euthanasia. 

 Besides, even if someone without arms can't pack grocery bags, it doesn't mean they CAN'T do ANYTHING else.  Having no arms doesn't mean that people cannot think.   In Québec we have a singer who was born with stubby arms and only three fingers on each hand as well as virtually no legs as a result of his mother having taken Thalidomide during her pregnancy, but the guy still finds a way to strum his guitar and begot perfectly normal kids, though I don't know why I insist on this.  The biggest employment hurdle to overcome for people with disabilities is the narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination of able-bodied people.  Here too we see too many chronically normal people placing roadblocks in front of people with disabilities trying to find gainful employment.

Yes, too often if someone has a disability affecting one part of their life, others assume that the disability affects all parts of the person's life. As you point out, that's not true at all. Among some people with disabilities I know, I've seen extraordinary creativity in finding workarounds to get things done. 

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