Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

Debating Advocacy Priorities: Free the Oppressed, or Promote Employment?

Always willing to challenge the disability rights movement with provocative ideas, my friend Josie Byzek has now written a column calling on our advocacy movement to make employment a top priority. It hasn’t been, says Josie, and “this has got to change.” She questions the wisdom of expending so much of the movement’s energy and resources on the nursing home issue. She argues that we should shift attention to employment advocacy, so that improved job opportunities will help keep people from getting so poor that they end up institutionalized.

I have a couple of quibbles with Josie’s column. (I don’t think she’ll mind me airing my critique. I know Josie well to know that she enjoys a healthy, respectful debate.)

First of all, Josie’s article attributes the lack of focus on employment, in part, to “a community organizing model that erroneously teaches change can only come from the very bottom up.” She goes on to make this questionable claim: “I can’t think of a single successful social change movement that was initiated and propagated primarily by the poorest of the poor, the most oppressed of the oppressed. Social change, in actuality, typically begins in the middle class.”

When I read this statement, Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement leapt immediately to mind: Poor, disenfranchised, marginalized by class, race, and language, these laborers organized a massive and ultimately successful grape boycott to protest their exploitation by the agricultural industry.

Then I thought of those drag queens rioting at the Stonewall Inn, fighting back against police harassment and other forms of discrimination. These unsung heroes in high heels, mostly low-income people of color, sparked the modern lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) movement. (If anything, that movement’s takeover by the middle class has threatened to derail it. Instead of demanding real justice, and the right to be ourselves in any environment, the LGBT movement’s loudest current demands are to be allowed to assimilate into two of our society’s most oppressive institutions: marriage and the military.)

So I disagree that a grassroots, bottom-up advocacy model is wrong for the disability rights community. Having said that, I agree with Josie about the importance of job opportunities. Our community should be outraged by the fact that only around 37 percent of disabled Americans are employed. Like Josie, I would like to see a more aggressive “push for policies that truly can shift that unemployment rate.”

This is more than a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue. The International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — which took effect in 2008, and which has been ratified by 78 countries (though not yet by the United States) — recognizes “the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities. (Article 27).” It goes on to call for nondiscrimination, reasonable accommodation, affirmative action, training and placement services, self-employment opportunities, and more.

And just as important, I think, is Article 28 of the Convention, which recognizes “the right of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions…”

Our disability advocacy movement needs to prioritize economic issues, including but not limited to employment. Certainly, everyone should have access to opportunities to use their skills and talents for financial reward, for this increases our choices in life, and improves our own and our families’ well-being. Most disabled people are denied those opportunities. In the U.S., disabled people’s lives tend to enrich other people, while leaving us relatively poor. Many of us aren’t allowed to earn a living; if we do, we can lose the very supports that keep us alive and out of nursing homes. There are a few loopholes, called work incentive programs, but these are quite complex, and people who use them frequently face bureaucrats’ suspicion and mistreatment.

Furthermore, workplaces can be very unfriendly to people with significant disabilities. I’m not just talking about blatant prejudice. I’m talking about corporate structures that barely tolerate any human needs or differences on the part of workers. Schedules and duties can be rigid, office politics can be baffling, and organizational cultures can be downright brutal. Even non-disabled workers have difficulty with these aspects of many job environments; for workers with chronic physical conditions, or mental health issues, they can become insurmountable barriers. Yet the rehabilitation industry, and even employment advocates, focus mostly on getting disabled people “ready for the job market.” I think we need to advocate for fundamental changes in the U.S. workplace, beyond just a reasonable accommodation to an individual’s disability. We need to reconfigure corporate America, to make it serve workers and consumers — indeed, to make it serve the public good — rather than to funnel resources upward into an ever-growing concentration of wealth.

And while I agree with Josie that we “ought to be delinking disability from poverty,” I also think we ought to be delinking poverty from suffering. No human being should endure deprivation of basic material needs such as housing, food, and clean water. In the spirit of Article 28, we must advocate for “an adequate standard of living… and… continuous improvement of living conditions.”

Which brings us back to the nursing home issue. We should demand job opportunities, for anyone with a disability who can and wants to work. But as long as so many of us live with the fear of losing our right to live in the community, we must focus on freedom instead.


  1. Yes, agree with everything you are saying. And this is the challenge for working with the CRPD/human rights also. If we (pwd, the world, etc.) really mean what we say about equal human rights for pwd, it entails overturning all the systems of oppression. This is a huge challenge for many parts of the disability community as well as governments, and the development community. (And mainstream human rights organizations.)

  2. Marjorie Rifkin says:

    I agree that grassroots organizing and advocacy is key here. those in the vanguard of the grassroots movement for freedom recognize that integrated accessible living options must be the core objective. But there are and will continue to be multiple forces at work for full(er) employment, led by the “white shoe” advocates.
    Perhaps there’s less need for single-focus activism (freedom vs employment) than we previously anticipated…but with inattention I fear backsliding at the hands of state budget slashers.
    Could it be time to dilute “the people united” principle?

  3. cripchick says:

    i disagree with josie’s article on soooo many levels. it seems so disconnected with the reality and work of the majority of disabled people i know. rarely do i spend the little energy i have to address people (i do not know and do not feel accountable to)’s white privilege but taking the time to write this comment on your blog out of deep respect for you (and to be transparent, because i would love to get to know you).

    first, i think employment IS the top policy priority of the disability rights movement. deinstitutionalization and community supports may be #1 priority to ADAPT and the independent living community but the disability rights movement is much bigger than IL world and using the two interchangeably erases so much work being done, particularly done by people who have been excluded by that community.

    second, i think the fact that employment policy is our top priority is a problem. the unemployment rate for our community is disgustingly low and needs to be addressed but i think the way we approach employment is rooted in an assimilationist politic that does not do much to get our community free. the way we look at employment now prioritizes the needs of white, class-privileged disabled folks who speak well, who already are close to fitting dominant culture’s standard of productivity, and can use social movement language to regain privilege they may have lost because of their disability. it often focuses on creating incentives for nondisabled ppl to hire us or mandates to hire us… it does not do much to dismantle structural and attitudinal ableism that creates barriers for us to be employed.

    ableism rarely rears its ugly head alone. most times i see ableism in employment, it is so entangled in racism/classism/ideas about what is “smart” “productive” that it almost feels impossible to deconstruct into single strands. speaking as a queer disabled woman of color working in the southeast, i can’t think of a movement that is relevant to my life and that of my friends that began with privileged folks. the way that power works means that centralizing the experiences, voices and leadership of people on the margins of community is the only way to create a movement that truly inclusive to us all. the “bob” josie mentioned in her article is already being centralized and maybe it is just me but i have no time for a movement that will never free my people.

  4. Josie Byzek says:

    Hi Laura,
    I finally wrote a response to your entry. I hope these entries create more discussion — I’m thrilled with the quality of the discussion so far on Facebook, and on comments on our pages. It’s always interesting to me which entries spark interest.

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