By Samantha Gilstrap
KU Statehouse News Service
TOPEKA – Kansas is going to use tax incentives to help increase employment opportunities for disabled people. But it hasn’t always been a priority.
Before Dot Nary received her Ph.D. and began working at the University of Kansas as an assistant research professor at the Research and Training Center on Independent Living, she had been discriminated against while entering the workforce because she uses a wheelchair. Nary is currently researching ways to expand independent living for disabled people, and teaches others about disability in order to lessen the stigma.
“I went to a temp force company and I took the typing test and did fine,” Nary said. “I had a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, but I didn’t get one call. I think they didn’t want to send out a person in a wheelchair.”
Although the Kansas Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating against candidates with disabilities, the unemployment rates for these individuals remains higher than that of the average citizen. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that compared to an average of 4.2 percent, the unemployment rate for disabled individuals is about 9.2 percent. These numbers don’t account for disabled individuals who never enter the workforce.
According to the United States Census one in five Americans have a disability according to the broad definition of disability with only half having said that their disability is severe enough to interfere with their day-to-day life. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that means one in five will have a much harder time finding work. Nary says discrimination is largely due to the stigma of what it is like working with a person of disability.
Kansas’s House Bill 2044 is just one step toward bringing more disabled individuals into the workforce. Most recently Nary held a forum at KU in the Dole Center to talk about proper language when speaking to or about a disabled individual. She regularly holds similar equity talks that are open to the public to come and learn. She believes by educating and normalizing disabilities, the stigma will dissolve and society will begin to see disability as part of our everyday culture.
Nary, along with the director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, Stephanie West-Porter, wants to let the public know how capable these individuals are and how providing them with an employment opportunity can benefit companies. West-Porter discussed her own struggle with disclosing her mental disabilities WHAT ARE THEY? to coworkers.
According to West-Porter, invisible disabilities can be just as stigmatized and dangerous to finding a job if known. West-Porter defines invisible disabilities as mostly mental illnesses including anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and others.
Tax incentives from this bill would bring more disabled individuals into the work force and West-Porter believes that she sees it as a way to rid society of the discrimination that she and Nary have experienced.
West-Porter talked about a time that she did disclose her disability, saying “I actually had a coworker, after I told her I had bipolar disorder, said “You’re not going to come in with a gun and kill us all one day, are you?’”
This type of misinformation is a reason why finding employment remains tough.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for. Nary says that employers could be scared of this idea because it makes the person seem more difficult to work with but oftentimes, depending on the disability, accommodations aren’t hard to make. Sometimes, like Nary, only the office desk must be lowered for wheelchair access.
The Research and Training Center on Independent Living hopes to keep the conversation going and plans to hang up posters across KU’s campus indicating what a person should or shouldn’t say to a disabled individual. They hope alongside the new bill, that by lessening the stigma and starting a bigger conversation, people with disabilities will then be given further opportunities.
The House passed Bill 2044 with only one nay and sent it along to the Senate. After hearing the bill in the Committee on Commerce, the Senate passed the bill Feb. 27, with only one nay as well.
Samantha Gilstrap is a University of Kansas senior from Charlotte, North Carolina, majoring in journalism.