Disability the ADA was instrumental in fighting

Disability and Gender Discrimination:
Impaired Women in the Workplace

            Gaining civil rights has been a
hard-fought battle over the past century for many minority groups, and is still
an issue that is intricated in our communities today. These groups have been
fighting for issues of citizenship, voting, representation, employment, and
education and many of these problems are still prevalent, as more individuals
of different minorities are joining together to stand up for their rights. The
disability rights movement is one of the more recent conversations that
Americans have been having, and many people have been working behind the scenes
of this force for decades. Most public schools teach about the civil war and
the feminist movement, but the disability rights movement doesn’t get as much
of the spotlight as is often afforded to other influential movements. The
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was a hallmark for progress within the
movement, which prohibits discrimination of disabled individuals within the
workplace and requires employers to accommodate the needs of disabled people in
the work environment.  While the ADA was
instrumental in fighting the discrimination people with disabilities face at
work, there have been some unintended shortcomings that the law, and its
application, have created. The gender-neutral wording and view of disability
has allowed a patriarchal image of what disability is to form and masculine
norms to become entwined in the playing out of the law in the workplace. The ADA ultimately helps the typical white, disabled man, but
disabled women often face added hurdles in overcoming stereotypes and
oppression, seeking accommodations, and facing employment discrimination that
is accompanied by the duel label as disabled and female.

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            Disability is a unique form of
minority due to the large diversity of diseases and impairments that are
grouped into this category. Historically, people with disabilities have been
treated as social outcasts, even in the Bible, there is mention of disabled
people begging on the streets, with no social belonging. In the social hierarchies
created in civilizations over time, disabled and diseased people were placed
lowest in many cases. In the early 20th century, there where views
that disabled people are “defective strains of humanity” as during the Eugenics
movement in the United States. People with disabilities were among the first
victims of the Holocaust in Germany. There a long history of misunderstanding
and cruel mistreatment of the disabled, whom were often dehumanized and treated
as animals. Although treatment of disability has progressed, and more knowledge
has been acquired, further improvement is needed. More recently, during the
late 1980’s, many people came together to fight for civil liberties to be
afforded to the group. Strategies went into effect in the form of sit-ins at
federal government buildings and thousands of letters to politicians, like
other civil rights movements. Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was
profound in that it banned discrimination in distribution of federal funds to
the disabled, and was instrumental in the changing perception on the federal
level of the social barriers that greatly impact the social and economic status
of impaired people and view of the injustices as discrimination. The disability
community played a huge role in cases in disability discrimination that were
taken to the Supreme Court and through this, Congress began to respect the
community and gain insight on the injustice and the huge need for employment
rights for the disabled. The ADA was passed in 1990, over twenty-five years
after similar liberties were granted to women and racial and ethnic minorities
in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

            One of the tactics used by the
disability community to create a unified voice was to group all impairments
together to be perceived as a formal minority. Rather than classify an
individual by the impairment that they possessed, they were uniformly labeled
as “disabled”. This proved to be a great political tactic, in creating a united
force to fight for common rights. However, this uniform label overrides the
differences that the group possesses, particularly gender. Disability is often
thought to be a “master status,” a label that is perceived to be more indicative
of a person’s behavior, character, and social interactions than any other label
they might possess. Through this, however, the gender of a disabled person is
effectively disregarded and androcentrism ultimately fills its place. Because
the gender stands irrelevant, the standard for how a disabled person is perceived
is male, and without this differentiation, the needs that which people with
disabilities assumingly have align more so with masculine norms. Professor
Anita Silvers states that “group identity strategy relies on theorizing to
establish the positive worth of typical members of the group.” While sometimes
effective, it often fails to recognize the uncharacteristic members of the
group, people that deviate from the “iconic image of white, heterosexual men
with mobility impairments” that represented the disability rights movement in
the 1980’s. As such, many of the legal actions taken following the movement
have been centered on narrowly assisting the person that image describes. At
the same time, the feminist movement often portrayed an image of a strong,
independent women. A disabled woman, potentially not having those traits, may
not have displayed the characteristics that the movement was trying to present
as the typical women. Disabled women, having duel minority labels, are often
forgotten in these movements, as they are essentially minorities within
minorities, no matter what label they align at any given time, an instance of
“intersectional invisibility”. Because of this, these women have added employment
obstacles, injustices, and stereotypes that neither the disability rights
movement and the ADA or the feminist movement addresses. Disabled women have
higher poverty rates, lower income, lower employment rates, and less
educational attainment than both able-bodied women and disabled men as a result.
Women with disabilities are less likely to have full-time positions, and make
56 percent of the income earned by disabled men. This duel subordinate identity
has shown to have huge implications in employment and income.

            The ADA is intended to help
individuals with disabilities, however, problems arise with how and who is
determining what is classified as disability, as the ADA cannot be enacted if a
person is legally classified as nondisabled. There is skepticism around women
with certain disabilities or disorders that have symptoms that are seen are
stereotypically feminine characteristics. Women are often thought to be
emotional, feeble, irrational, and sensitive. If a disease causes any of these
characteristics, it is much more believable if a man alleges that he has it
than a woman, particularly if the disorder primarily affects women. For
example, in the case of chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, lupus, or
anxiety and depression, many of these disorders are reluctantly classified as
disabilities by judges, and without the classification, no accommodation must
be made in the workplace. Skepticism is also seen in male doctors who diagnose
the disorders that primarily affect women and disabled women are often met by
hostility by supervisors and coworkers, whom may question the authenticity of
the disability as seen in many court cases where reasonable accommodations were
not made for the disabled employees with these conditions.

If a woman is ultimately classified as
disabled and therefore is protected by the ADA, accommodations made in the
workplace often still reflect male norms, as the gender-neutral approach to
disability and the ADA influences how accommodations are put into place.
Employers and courts have room to construct the standard workplace around the
“ideal worker,” whom often embodies a male employee and his experiences, and
can define what is considered essential job tasks. For example, the masculine expectation
that an employee is able to work unlimited, flexible hours, in-person, and at a
specific location, without the need for extra time off can be defined by the
employer to be an essential job function, which is often a standard that only a
man or woman with no dependents or with a full-time spouse at home to attend to
all domestic responsibilities can attain. Any disabled person who cannot meet
those standards are not protected by the ADA. Under this claim, employers do
not need to accommodate scheduling and attendance requirements, even when those
tasks may not truly be essential. The ADA can easily be manipulated in the
application of the law in ways such as this, as loose ends that allow judges
and employers to interpret the law also allows systematic prejudices to become
incorporated into the system. Courts often use this “full time face time” norm
to side with employer’s rejections of telecommuters or shift modifications as
it is assumed that many, if not all jobs, require face to face interaction at a
centralized location as an essential task. Defining masculine norms as
essential functions of the workplace often disqualifies many people with
impairments and often people who have feminized disorders need exactly those
accommodations that the court rejects.

Women with disabilities are significantly
less likely to inform their employers of their disabilities than disabled men,
as admitting their condition allows them to be viewed as even weaker and
incapable than their status as women as already created. The stakes for women
are much higher than men. If they do inform their employers and coworkers of
their condition, they are significantly more likely to suffer negative
reactions and skepticism from their peers as a result.

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