The United States is in the middle of an employment crisis—one that will probably never be covered by Fox or CNN.
Politicians are super proud of being able to get that big scary unemployment number down to 4.9 percent. And with every new campaign, we are lauded with promises of reducing it even more. Every day I hear or read about new promises for prosperity and economic growth.
But let’s be honest: those promises are reserved for a very specific group of people. Sadly, people with disabilities are not included in that group.
Let’s begin by tossing aside the assumption that people with disabilities cannot work, or do not desire to work. Most importantly, let’s also toss aside the idea that people with disabilities do not have a calling and purpose built into their lives (aside from inspiring people without disabilities, of course).
When an employer finds out that I have a disability, my chances of even being considered drastically drop.
And now let’s go back to that 4.9%. For people with disabilities, that number is closer to 13%. Thirteen percent. And I happen to be one of those individuals that make up that statistic. Statistics are easily manipulated, though, so let’s focus instead on a story.
Recently, I was at my first job interview in four months. I had applied to over 200 jobs in that four-month time period. Anyone that has struggled to find work knows how difficult the job market is, no matter what your situation. The employer seemed like a gentleman, and I looked good, if I do say so myself. He introduced himself to me, told me a bit about the position, and looked me up and down while I sat in my scooter. He gestured towards my scooter and asked, “How do you feel about travel?” And, glancing at my scooter nervously again, “Are you able to drive?”
I answered, “Well, I actually love traveling and yes, driving is my favorite. But if you are asking about my physical abilities, I can do whatever is needed—just with some accommodations.”
He looked me up and down again, extended his hand and said, “Thanks. I will call you if we are interested.” Then he gestured to me that it was time to leave.
It’s funny, I couldn’t even stop my mouth from saying, “That’s it? Interview over?” He smiled and nodded and I left.
I entered the gentleman’s office at 10:10 and was shown out at 10:13.
Most people will hear that story and explain to me that surely I misunderstood what happened. But I have been on a lot of interviews, all over this country, and I know one thing: when an employer finds out that I have a disability, my chances of even being considered drastically drop.
I wish that this was just my story, but sadly it is not. Ableism permeates our society, our churches, our families and especially the job market. The sad part is that I am not sure who to blame, when the abiding narrative says that people with disabilities will hurt the bottom line. No matter how resilient you are, when the stories all around you tell you that you are a burden, it begins to do something to the very fabric of who you are.
No matter how resilient you are, when the stories all around you tell you that you are a burden, it begins to do something to the very fabric of who you are.
Like anyone who has grown up abused, the temptation is ever-present to believe the lies about who you are, instead of who you were created to be. That is how ableism works. It tells us, the people with disabilities, that we are unwanted, without value and strictly burdensome. And simultaneously it reinforces lies in the minds of people without disabilities. Ableism tells people that society would function better without us. Sadly, many believe this lie wholeheartedly—if not in words, in deeds.
So a few things we need to address and affirm:
- Ableism exists.
- Barriers exist to prevent people with disabilities from securing gainful employment.
- The high rates of unemployment within the disability community cause more damage than just not being able to afford to eat (which can we also agree, not being able to afford to eat is also a bad thing?).
- To make any progress, we need to agree that people with disabilities are created by God, with a purpose, and with gifts and talents that are individual to their human identity.
- Every human being deserves to pursue the use and purposefulness of their gifts and talents.
- Lastly, God’s Kingdom is incomplete without people with disabilities. And I am not just talking about our existence. God’s Kingdom is incomplete without us serving and working alongside everyone else.
So what role can the 335,000 faith communities across the US play in this intersection of disability and faith?
(This next part is super fun for me, because I cannot remember the last time I wrote about a big looming issue and actually had a practical solution that you could implement tomorrow and make a difference.)
Over the last three years, a team of people from four major universities have been working together to tackle the many issues surrounding disability and employment. I have been a part of this team for the last year, and together we have developed a guide to empower faith communities and churches to change the narrative on disability and employment.
Called “Putting Faith to Work,” this guide taps into one of the basic elements of faith communities: they are all communities of people striving to make a difference. Putting Faith to Work gives people the tools they need to match their desire for change.
I have seen the data firsthand, I have met with churches and “job seekers,” and I have heard their stories about this program. I can guarantee that the roof capping off the potential of people with disabilities is a difficult roof to crack—but I can also assure you that the churches that have adopted the program, and been 110% invested, have changed the lives of people with disabilities. More importantly, they have helped those job seekers change the entire cultures of businesses, and change people’s worldviews.
I encourage you all to think and look outside of the box of your own ministries. How are you partnering with those whom you minister to? Is your ministry built to empower people to meet their fullest potential, so that they too may go out and heal the world around us?
Is your ministry built to empower people to meet their fullest potential, so that they too may go out and heal the world around us?
Everyone has a right—and a calling—to work. To make good in a world in desperate need of it. No matter their physical, developmental, intellectual, learning, hearing, or seeing differences, everyone has something to contribute.
What we, the disabled community, need is for some of our allies to become mediators. We need advocates who can show employers that we are more than a liability, and that often, what we have to offer is something they didn’t even know they were missing.
I dare you to Break the Roof on your ministry and go above and beyond to meet the needs of ALL those you serve.
For more information, visit Putting Faith to Work.
Matt Curcio is a published writer and speaker. In 2016 he founded Break the Roof, a nonprofit disability advocacy organization. Matt’s mission and ministry is to use his gifts and experiences to help people of all abilities break open the roofs placed over their potential. For more information, contact Matt.