Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Walk in a Workhouse, by Charles Dickens, and the difficulty of finding jobs while disabled

"In another room, a kind of purgatory or place of transition, six or eight noisy madwomen were gathered together, under the superintendence of one sane attendant. Among them was a girl of two or three and twenty, very prettily dressed, of most respectable appearance and good manners, who had been brought in from the house where she had lived as domestic servant (having, I suppose, no friends), on account of being subject to epileptic fits, and requiring to be removed under the influence of a very bad one. She was by no means of the same stuff, or the same breeding, or the same experience, or in the same state of mind, as those by whom she was surrounded; and she pathetically complained that the daily association and the nightly noise made her worse, and was driving her mad - which was perfectly evident. The case was noted for inquiry and redress, but she said she had already been there for some weeks.
"If this girl had stolen her mistress's watch, I do not hesitate to say she would have been infinitely better off. We have come to this absurd, this dangerous, this monstrous pass, that the dishonest felon is, in respect of cleanliness, order, diet, and accommodation, better provided for, and taken care of, than the honest pauper." -- Charles Dickens
 The work is now in public domain, in the United States at least,

Disability rights have definitely come a long way since Dickens time. In the United States, we have an ADA, which makes it requires employers to not discriminate against disabled applicants and employees who are able to perform the "primary functions" of the job "with or without reasonable accommodation", and to provide said "reasonable accommodation". Some other countries have similar laws. Of course, that doesn't actually prevent employers from not simply making up some excuse, or giving no reason. The epileptic girl would likely have been fired even today; it's just not likely she would have been given an honest answer why.

We also have, in the United States, SSI and SSDI for disabled people who can't work. Some other countries have similar programs. However, the laws specify that the disabled person must be incapable of substantial gainful employment (meaning employment earning more than about $1000 per month). (Well, actually, it's a whole lot more complicated than that, but anyway....)

Unfortunately, it's often not that the person is incapable of working, so much as the employers who are incapable of wanting to hire a disabled person when they could hire a non-disabled one and not have to deal with making reasonable accommodations. The problem gets even worse during a recession, when there are that many more non-disabled applicants to choose from.

At the same time, the government tightens spending and makes it even harder for disabled people to get approved for SSI or SSDI. The theory, I suppose, is a sterotype of disabled people being lazy, and especially during a recession, they need to be encouraged to go out and get jobs.

While there are undoubtedly people who take advantage of social services. there are a whole lot more who really want to get jobs, but either actually can't do any sort of remotely normal job, or else can't find an employer willing to hire them. Also, people don't get that much on SSI or SSDI. Disabled people often have disability related needs, such as wheelchairs and other medical equipment, accessible building modifications, medical expenses, and so on. Oh, and then there's things like audio and braille versions of books for blind people, which, although not usually necessities, illustrate how even leisure can be more expensive for a disabled person than a non-disabled person. So, cost of living for a disabled person is higher, sometimes a lot higher, than that of a non-disabled person. In other words, SSI and SSDI often don't cover the necessities, or, at the very least, require necessity to be tightly defined, such as having to ask oneself: which is more important -- food, rent, or medical equipment?

If the poor in the Victorian era were discriminated against, the poor and disabled were doubly so. We should learn from their mistakes. In a time of recession, it's even more important to ensure a social safety net for poor and/or disabled people, so that epileptics like the one in Charles Dickens' short story aren't punished for their medical condition.

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