5 Despicable Ways We Keep Disabled People Chained to Poverty

According to 2012 census data, roughly 28% of disabled people between the ages of 18 and 64 live in poverty. Among those without a disability in the same age range, the figure rests at 12.5%. As of 2006,median income for individuals living with disabilities was $17,000, as compared to $28,000 for nondisabled Americans.


For too many disabled people, poverty is an ever-present wolf at the door, whether they are already living in scarcity or contending with the threat of low-income in their lives. This is not the result of happenstance or coincidence; rather, it is a consequence of the myriad social structures that actively conspire to reinforce poverty for disabled people in America. Here are five major contributors to the pernicious poverty rate among America’s disabled community.

1. The Poverty-Disability Connection: Limited Educational Opportunities For Those Born Disabled

Historically, one of the most reliable ways to get out of poverty has been to get educated. The higher your educational attainment, the more money you are likely to make, through a combination of increased employability and skills. But disabled students begin life at a profound disadvantage when it comes to education, and things don’t get much better for them as their school careers progress.

To start, we know that disability and poverty are inextricably linked from a child’s earliest days, as research on socioeconomic status and disability strongly suggests that people born to low-income families are more likely to experience disabilities. Low-income parents have trouble accessing reliable prenatal care and are more likely to live in areas with pollution that can contribute to congenital disabilities. Poor children are also more prone to malnutrition and injuries that can cause disability in the early years of life.

Students living in high-poverty areas, in turn, are the victims of underfunded schools.Wealthy children have the advantage of living in districts that have more funds, and they benefit from parental wealth and social status. Poor students are more likely to remain poor, and that goes double for disabled students, because with limited available funding, schools often struggle to provide necessary disability services.

Low-income districts also tend to have a higher percentage of students diagnosed with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, putting even greater pressure on already challenged schools. Though some suggest that the elevated diagnosis rate (2 to 2.5 times higher than in wealthy districts) may actually be due to attempts to access additional funding for disabled students, such as Title 1 grants, or to confusion between disabilities and behavioral issues, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Some schools may be making a bid for funding, others may be confused about diagnoses—and others may be recognizing that a large number of their students have learning disabilities, which may be be linked to their socioeconomic disadvantages.

One thing is for certain: Disabled students are not keeping pace in school environments. Instead, they’re starting their lives at a disadvantage, and that doesn’t get better as they move through adolescence and into adulthood. Without dedicating more funding to low-income districts, equalizing school funding, and incorporating radical inclusion for disabled students at every step of the way, disabled people will consistently start with a disadvantage in this society.

2. Poverty-Level Benefits for Disabled People Receiving Government Assistance

The state of disability benefits in the United States is grim, effectively creating a situation of enforced poverty for those who rely wholly or partially on government assistance. The funds offered are not sufficient for survival, yet disabled people who make money working part time have their benefits limited accordingly (i.e., if a disabled person is awarded $560 in benefits and makes $150, the government will pay out only $410 in benefits). This prevents them from ever truly getting ahead, and imperils their access to needed health benefits, as funding for government health programs like Medicaid drops as individuals increase their income. In some cases, income can render people completely ineligible for Medicare and Medicaid, forcing individuals to then purchase private insurance, which can be costly. Consequently, disabled people are actually discouraged from working, pushing them into sustained poverty.

Many people barely skirt the poverty line with their benefits, which typically include basic healthcare services, but not comprehensive ones: dental and vision needs, copays, and any procedures, medications, and devices not covered by insurance are the financial responsibility of the individual, who often has no means to pay those bills. The structure of the benefits system is designed in extremely complex and labyrinthine ways that can be quite difficult to navigate, whether someone has relied on benefits her whole life or is just getting started. Critically, a number of supporting documents are required to access and retain benefits, and once someone is on benefits, they can be subject to adjustment, evaluation, and reallocation in response to relatively small life events (like progress in physical therapy that helps a patient with a mobility disorder a wider range of motion, or improvement in occupational therapy that increases a patient with CP’s ability to complete tasks of daily living independently). While the Right is fond of saying that disability benefits are rife with fraud, that’s actually not the case – but treating them like they are makes it harder for disabled people to get services they need.

Disabled people, like many social groups, suffer from the social funding gap; their benefits are very often withdrawn before they are fully able to support themselves, which discourages them from attempting to support themselves independently, as they’re aware that they could be left in the lurch, with work income insufficient to meet their needs and no social safety net to catch them. This could change, however, with passage of the bipartisan ABLE Act, which would establish tax-free disability savings accounts, allowing disabled people to keep more than $2,000 in assets, which has been the historical limit.

It’s not enough, though. The US needs to restructure its funding system for disabled people, and to concentrate particularly hard on helping disabled people achieve independence through more logically stepped benefits that allow people who want to (and are able to) work to seek employment without jeopardizing their survival.

3. Disability Discrimination in the Workplace

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers disabled people a protected social group, that memo hasn’t yet been adopted by employers, as evidenced by the slew of disability-related lawsuits involving employer discrimination. Despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and despite disability advocacy and protest, many employers preferentially hire nondisabled people even when confronted with disabled job candidates who are equally or even more qualified than their counterparts— and the situation doesn’t improve on the job. Consequently, disabled people are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as nondisabled people.

When disabled people apply for jobs, they are subject to intense scrutiny, especially if they have evident physical disabilities or signs of cognitive, intellectual, and psychiatric disabilities. While employers are barred from asking questions about a prospective employee’s medical status during an interview, that doesn’t stop them from making assumptions, and once a job is offered, it can be made conditional on passing medical screening. While such screening must be required for all employees if employers opt to use it, it can still be a tool for subtle discrimination.

Inequalities in pay rates are another concern, especially in workplaces where workers are discouraged (or barred) from discussing their pay rates and salaries. When disabled people are not paid on par with other people in their class, it’s a clear case of discrimination, and one that can be difficult to prove, as employers may dredge up justifications for the practice. Notably, disabled people are actually excluded from the minimum wage, allowing employers to pay them less than minimum wage with full legal protection.

Disabled people may not be hired or may be harassed in the workplace because of their need for accommodations, and are often forced to jump through excessive hoops to access even basic accommodations, like modified keyboards or working with a job coach. One woman with diabetes was fired for drinking a bottle of orange juice at work to address a hypoglycemic crisis, illustrating how petty such terminations can be. This creates a chilling effect in the workplace for disabled employees, especially when their employers require doctor’s notes for any accommodations requested, or invent reasons to request new medical testing for disabled employees to determine their fitness to return to work.

Aside from their employers, disabled employees can also face discrimination, harassment and abuse from their coworkers. Hostile attitudes towards disability may lead coworkers to make unpleasant comments, sabotage work, or cut disabled employees out of workplace conversations, both casual and work-related. When such activity creates a hostile work environment, disabled employees may be hesitant to report it or request assistance from human resources for fear of attracting attention or being treated as problem employees.

The net result of disability discrimination in the workplace is that it’s hard for disabled people to break onto the employment market, hold on to jobs, and receive equal pay, all of which can equate, in the long term, to a sentence of entrenched poverty.

4. The Caregiver Conundrum: Undervaluing Caregivers, Endangering Disabled People

Caregivers can play an intimate and vital role in the lives of disabled people. Some provide intensive assistance, including skilled nursing tasks like changing intravenous lines and administering medication. Others help people with tasks of daily living like bathing, cooking, shopping, and cleaning. Some caregivers and aides help their clients with light cleaning, or travel with them to offer ongoing support with a variety of tasks. Advocacy groups like Caring Across Generations are working to change the landscape for caregivers, but it’s an uphill battle.

The government often assumes that family members and intimate partners will act as unpaid caregivers for their loved ones, refusing to provide compensation for these individuals when they’re involved in a family member’s care. This can result in situations where family members are forced into the role of 24/7 caregiving, an unsustainable state of affairs, especially when they themselves can’t work because they need to be at home to provide care for a loved one, without compensation for their labor.

This can force disabled people and their families not just into a state of emotional distress, but also into poverty. When family members cannot work because they’re caring for disabled people in their homes, the whole household suffers, as it cannot survive on disability benefits alone. The insistence on unpaid family caregiving leaves generations vulnerable to poverty.

Among the ranks of paid caregivers, labor abuses are rampant. Many paid caregivers are immigrants, in some cases undocumented, and the vast majority are women. This perpetuates poverty beyond disabled people and into other groups of people who also traditionally experience poverty and oppression; immigrant women, for example, who are often forced to work multiple jobs to support themselves, and have few workplace protections.

Speaking of workplace protections, it’s important to note that caregivers are exempt from many of the protections the government extends to other classes of workers and are thus a vulnerable class of workers. The decision to classify caregivers as effectively less important than other workers makes it easier to underpay them and deny them benefits, further contributing to inequality.

When the government does provide funding for caregivers, it’s often limited. Disabled people may be forced to make the choice between compromising their well-being and independently hiring caregivers for additional shifts, which is another source of financial strain. Situations like these could be easily remedied by ensuring that disabled people get as much support as they need.

There’s another connection between poverty and caregivers that is often overlooked. While many caregivers are dedicated to their work and focused on providing great care for their clients, others don’t share that attitude. They may abuse, neglect, and exploit their clients, and that includes economic exploitation. Caregivers have committed fraud, theft and other economic crimes against their already vulnerable clients.

5. Ableism and Social Attitudes

One of the biggest contributors to disability and poverty is also one of the most ephemeral: Ableism, the belief (backed by action) that disabled people are lesser than their nondisabled counterparts. This acculturated belief plays a key role in discrimination at every level, from shoving disabled children to the back of classrooms to refusing to accommodate disabled college students to creating hostile work environments for disabled people to not prioritizing caregivers. 

While it’s possible to pass legislation barring discrimination and setting out penalties for the same, it’s much more difficult to address embedded social attitudes. Ableism can’t be legislated away, requiring a much deeper engagement directly with society to reach out and shift perceptions of disability and social value.

Children learn ableism from the adults around them, taking this social attitude into their own lives and applying it to the disabled people they interact with. Despite the significant percentage of the population that identifies as or has experienced disability at some point in the past (estimated at around 20%), disability is still viewed as alien, frightening, and other. Attitudes about disability are primarily framed around tropes, stereotypes and exceptionalism; thus, disabled athletes are held up as models of what all disabled people should aspire to, even though nondisabled people recognize that not every nondisabled person can perform at the Olympic level.

In our current universe, the unequal treatment of disabled people feels reasonable to many nondisabled people who have never dealt directly with disability, and by extension, it leads to a lack of interest in the lives of disabled people, and the poverty so many of them live in. As with other social groups who have a suspiciously high poverty rate, disabled people are left out in the cold in a society that prizes bootstrapping and exceptionalism, rather than investing in a robust safety net for us all.

Addressing disability and poverty isn’t just about creating new policy frameworks to support disabled people with more robust protections, creating more funding for those who need benefits to live, and adding support for caregivers. It also requires changing the cultural attitudes that surround disabled people. Confronting these attitudes requires a mix of outreach, education and the will to change the culture we live in.

Disabled activists have been fighting for civil rights since the 1800s, often alongside other social movements. Isn’t it time to finally bring disability in from the cold?

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