When someone asks me what my mother does for a living, I reply with “she’s disabled,” and the dialogue ends there every time. Not once in the 11 years since my mother’s stroke has anyone asked for further explanation. Two words disqualified everything that my mother had worked for in her life. With them, everyone forgot her nine years of work experience and her two college degrees, and, although her disability had no effect whatsoever on her cognitive abilities, they made her out to be stupid.
The consensus on the word “disability” is singular. A word representing people facing a wide variety of physical, mental, or emotional difficulties has become so muddled that it now places a variety of people under the guise of being the same: depressed, stupid, and worthy of pity as opposed to respect. These monotonous ideas have become so socially ingrained into society that legislation has surfaced allowing disabled persons to be paid below minimum wage, despite the fact that many of them are able to complete their job to the same standards as fully abled employees. This paired with the additional expenses of disabled life (which often are not covered by disability benefits) has placed many families in economic difficulty.
Take my mother’s case. Before her stroke, my mother had earned a master’s degree in Human Resources and had been working in the field for nine years—just short of the 10 years required to qualify for disability benefits. Her stroke caused my family to go into massive debt in order to pay off the medical bills and left her permanently disabled. However, her disability, called Aphasia, only affected her language abilities—her ability to read, write, and speak. Her cognitive ability remained intact, meaning there are many jobs she is capable of completing just as well as she would have before her stroke. After three years of searching for employment to help support our family, the highest offer she was able to muster was three dollars an hour, part time, so she gave up trying. She’s not alone. A majority of individuals with disabilities are discouraged from seeking employment, despite the fact that many of these individuals are more than capable of completing work to the same standards as any other employee. (For more information on disabled unemployment statistics, see this Bureau of Labor study.)
The impact this can have on a family can be difficult, but the effects they have on the disabled individual can be devastating, compelling them to live out the remainder of their lives underappreciated and underutilized.