Most are familiar with the notion of pay gaps— when different groups of people earn different amounts of money for doing the same work. Much scholarship has been devoted to gender pay gaps, and in recent years, to the pay gaps experienced by people of color. These conversations are essential— for these disparities deeply impact the daily lives of many people, and ricochet outward into society. They can influence social policies, laws, economic opportunities and— at the core of it all— who, and what, we truly value.
However, there is a pay gap that gets very little attention, even though it’s right there under our very noses: the disability pay gap.
While the statistics can vary, a disabled person earns an average of 15-37% less than their able-bodied counterpart. Given that many disabled people have added disability-related expenses that nondisabled people don’t have (higher medical costs, added transportation costs, adaptive technology costs, etc.), these pay disparities are extra damaging to the livelihoods and independence of disabled people everywhere. It’s worth noting, too, that these numbers can even be worse for disabled women and disabled people of color, as they also face the additional gender and racial pay gaps, too.
There are many reasons for these pay disparities. To fully grasp the heart of this issue, though, we must shed light on some of the ableist viewpoints that have made the disability pay gap what it is today:
Ableist Myth #1
— “Paying a disabled employee less is okay because a disabled person is not as productive as a non-disabled person.” This myth is the cornerstone of the disability pay gap. Despite some evidence to the contrary, most don’t believe disabled workers are as productive as their able-bodied counterparts. So, this notion is used to justify lower pay for disabled people.
Ableist Myth #2
— “Disabled people get lots of help from the government, so there is no need to pay them the same as non-disabled people.” The myth is a double-edged sword. First of all, not all disabled people qualify for disability benefits. Secondly, for those that do qualify for assistance, the broken benefit system forces the disabled to subsist on poverty-level (and often sub-poverty level) resources and aid. So, what the disabled actually receive from these programs is far less than society believes.
Ableist Myth #3
— “I’m doing the disabled person a favor by hiring them in the first place. So, to expect me to pay them the same as a non-disabled employee is just asking for too much.” There is a lot to unpack in this. In fact, there’s so much to dissect that we’d need a steamer trunk and three overnight bags to fit it all. But, at its core— this is Ableism 101. And disabled folks have been hearing stuff like this for decades. Society’s view of a disabled person’s worth and potential is often so compromised by generations of ableism that even imagining that they should pay a disabled person the same as a nondisabled person feels unreasonable and demanding.
Ableist Myth #4
— “If I hire a disabled employee, they’ll just end up suing me for something… and I just don’t want to deal with that.” There is a pervasive myth that disabled people are litigious— whether it be suing businesses for ADA violations or suing employers for discrimination. But, in reality, it is very difficult for a disabled person to sue anyone for anything. As lawyers work on contingency, and lawsuits are arduous and expensive, such legal actions are out-of-reach for the vast majority of disabled people. So, these lawsuits just don’t happen— especially on the scale that people think they do.
Ableist Myth #5
— “Sure, in theory, it would be nice to hire a disabled person, but they just aren’t qualified for this job.” This myth is very widely believed, and by people who, in many ways, want to do the right thing and be ‘inclusive.’ But ableism can be a tricky and insidious thing, often overriding all else— even well-meaning intentions. Of course, this myth also has it wrong. In reality, disabled people are more often overqualified for the jobs they seek. Given the pervasiveness of ableism and discrimination, disabled folks are driven to accept jobs that are beneath their capabilities. And at a lower pay rate, of course. They are also forced to seek advanced degrees and other qualifications or certifications in order to try to stand out in the applicant pool— knowing full well that being disabled is a mark against them.
These myths are just a small glimpse of the ones floating out in the world. You’ve probably heard variations of these, but possibly never had need to examine the impact such misconceptions could have on others.
Now that we’ve learned more about the disability pay gap, we can look to see what we can do to help. After all, it will take lots of allies to unravel these foundational disparities. First of all, we must vote for candidates that support disability rights issues. Read their platforms. Make sure they are actively seeking policy change in these areas. And we need to hold them accountable for it! Next, we must support businesses that hire disabled employees. Your dollar has power— use it wisely. Further, the barriers of finding and maintaining homecare can be a substantial challenge for disabled workers (something that is exacerbated by the pay gap, as well). So, we must tackle that issue, too, so as to fully support the disabled workforce.
Lastly, if you are an employer, there is a big thing you can do. Hire disabled employees!
It’s important to acknowledge that many disabled people are understandably cautious about the jobs they feel comfortable or safe pursuing. So, if you are an employer, perhaps you could add a line at the bottom of your job listings? Something like, “This is a disability-friendly workplace. Inclusivity is a top priority. We welcome people who share this goal.”
While seemingly a small gesture, this could be a signal that brings qualified and valuable applicants to your business. By including disabled workers in all employment-related discussions, you make your business more equitable and forward-thinking.
It’s a win-win for all.
So, let’s get started! Together, we can make these myths a thing of the past.