The Employment Puzzle: Maybe It Is a Numbers Game

I have heard some fair criticism lately of the amended regulations around Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, requiring all federal contractors to work to bring their work forces up to 7% people with disabilities.  And it’s true, targets and quotas can backfire. On the other hand, I have seen some interesting examples which demonstrate to me the value of increased numbers in promoting the inclusion of minorities in employment, and there is some reason to believe that raising percentages might finally begin to solve the perception problem in disability employment.  To me, this is at least as important as intentional discrimination and failure to accommodate.  Let’s look at some other minorities for a moment.

Nobody that I know is concerned that Joe Biden is a Catholic, and despite all of the drama around the withdrawn candidacy of Susan Rice for Secretary of State, as far as I know, her gender was not a significant topic of discussion.

Yet, when John F. Kennedy was running half a century ago, his Catholicism was a major issue, and when Madeleine Albright became Secretary of State a mere 15 years before Rice’s candidacy, her gender was, if not controversial, at least monumental.

So what changed?

In the case of Catholicism, one could argue about the vast change in American society’s approach to religion in the last 50 years, and, one can make an only slightly less convincing argument about gender since the 1990s.  I’m not convinced by these arguments, however.

I think the changing attitudes are a result of experience and familiarity taking these concepts from uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and thus informed mostly by lack of knowledge, to concepts so familiar that they are barely noticed.  After all, Rice would have been the fourth Secretary of State to be a woman (even the second woman to be Secretary Rice, oddly enough), and, in presidential races, both of the last two Democratic tickets have had a Catholic candidate. (Three if you count Obama Biden twice.)

At a certain point, it becomes unremarkable, and that’s a good thing.

Taking it out of the political arena, I have noticed this trend, albeit more slowly, applying to women Rabbis.  Though my movement of Judaism has been ordaining women since before I was born, and the Conservative movement followed suit before I was five years old, when I was a child, women rabbis were something of a novelty.  I knew several, as my life has always been replete with rabbis, but, even for me, it seemed worthy of notice and comment.

By the time I left home and was traveling more broadly, women rabbis were no longer a novelty in my life, but it was not uncommon to hear people remark that such and such a congregation had hired a new Rabbi and to add, in a surprised tone “She is a woman!”

These days, at least in the Jewish communities in which I have lived in Boston, New York, and Cincinnati, women rabbis, at least in junior and mid-level roles, no longer seem to draw comment.  Only non-Jews ever seem to react with confusion when I tell them that my sister is a Rabbi.

This is not to say that women rabbis don’t still suffer discrimination, as they certainly do.  It’s also not to say that there is not still progress to be made, as their most certainly is, as the dearth of women in senior rabbinic positions demonstrates.  Rather, it is that we appear to have moved beyond a societal perception that the rabbinate is an all-male environment.  Even in the Modern Orthodox circles in which I sometimes travel, while there an unwillingness to ordain women as a matter Jewish law, I think that in countering a woman Rabbi from another movement is considered unremarkable.

So, how does this relate to disability?  Disability employment numbers are abysmal.  As a practical matter, this probably means that the majority of Americans do not have, or at least unaware of, any coworkers with disabilities.

It is not uncommon at social events for people to be quite surprised to find out that I’m a lawyer, not because lawyers don’t hang out in the yuppie Jewish circles that I do, but because people in large power chairs don’t fit their preconception of lawyer.  I have experienced going down 6th Avenue in a full suit, and been stopped by passersby who try to give me change, because in their worldview, as a person with a disability, I must be destitute, regardless of what my expensive clothing should be telegraphing.

Why, then, should we expect that the perception is any different in a job interview.  Perhaps not even consciously, the interviewer is likely filtering my answers through a perception bias telling him or her that I am not what a lawyer at their firm or corporation looks like.  Some will overcome this, either recognizing their bias or simply privileging my qualifications and answers over vague unease, but many others will find my candidacy inexplicably lacking, in part because that unease prompted them to so find.

Quotas, well administered, and focusing on quality of recruitment and substantive jobs, rather than just second-class box checking, are a huge factor in changing that.  Simply by drawing the connection between disability and coworker in the mind of an interviewer, or disability and gainfully employed in the mind of society, the attitude begins to change.  Familiarity breeds acceptance.

More importantly, if people with disabilities are present in sufficient number, and not set up to fail, they don’t need to be mind-blowing employees, inspiring all with their abilities, to change perception.  (This is not to say that they do not need to be competent.)

The comfort with Susan Rice’s gender was not because the average American made a reasoned decision based on the tenures of Secretaries Albright, Rice, and Clinton, (in fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the American electorate who is partisan for both Clinton and Rice), but rather because, after three female Secretaries of State, covering about 75% of the time since Albright’s confirmation, the American people have become accustomed to the concept that women can occupy this role.  Those that object now are overtly sexist, rather than unconsciously so from long term associations.

Similarly, though on a much larger scale, (hence the Rabbi example) the quota system could help eliminate the disability discrimination based on unconscious perception, even as the ADA can serve as a remedy for intentional discrimination and discriminatory policies.

I feel that this has worked for women Secretaries of State, and is working, even if still a work in progress, for women Rabbis.  I thus believe that it can work for people with disabilities.  I certainly hope so, because nothing else has yet.