Time to Change Our Thinking About Disability in Kentucky

Kathy Sheppard-Jones, Ph.D., is executive director of the University of Kentucky Human Development Institute (HDI).

November 21, 2022

Roughly one in three people in Kentucky have a disability. Recent data found 75% of Kentuckians without disabilities are employed, compared to 32% of those with disabilities. Before COVID, 84% of Kentucky employers had job vacancies. Now the workforce itself is undergoing shifts, as workers quit their jobs, reimagining their worker-identity and work preferences, and restructuring their work-life balance.

However, we can bridge these gaps. Kentucky is an Employment First state, making competitive integrated employment the expectation for people with disabilities. This can build an inclusive workforce, if we are willing to meet the moment, and break the cycle of economic insufficiency for disabled Kentuckians.

Disability is a variable, not an outcome. Disability continues to have so much stigma attached to it, that we try to distance ourselves from it. For those of us who experience disability, it is part of who we are. Yet, we are continually reminded that disability is not valued. We try to minimize it. I had a conversation with a colleague who said, “I have a disability, but I hide it as best I can.”

Another colleague mentioned helping a family member find a job, remarking, “He’s ADA, but never brings it up, and isn’t going to be a problem for anyone.” The ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act. While this law is necessary and ensures basic rights of people in community, employment and public programs, it is often insufficient. By calling a person ‘ADA’, we de-humanize people and set the stage for adversarial encounters.

We must raise expectations about what is possible and what good careers look like from the earliest ages. It is never too late, but it is much easier to start planning for transition from school to work when we read to our children, and dream of what could be. Early childhood can be a time of wonder and exploration. Families need to be able to dream about the future too. It is up to us to share the stories of people who are working, living safely in their communities, and who have the supports needed to make choices about their lives.  

Let’s provide intervention to injured or ill workers at risk of leaving the workforce. Too often, it’s not the injury or illness that is the biggest issue. It’s the cascade of events that happen when one becomes disengaged from their job, loses their paycheck, and faces the resulting economic instabilities. We also must remember that many work tasks can be accomplished in different ways.

We have to stop equating disability with disability benefits. The presence of a disability does not mean that someone cannot work.

More likely, the supports for successful work are not available. There are many misconceptions about people who receive disability benefits. In reality, the systems where people find themselves are often broken, complicated, and siloed. People with disabilities are too often put on pipelines that are very different than the pipelines for talented, skilled workers. Education and training help advance careers. These avenues must be accessible, available and welcoming to all.

Consider this definition of inclusive workforce: An inclusive workforce is one in which the unique skills, contributions and diversity of qualified individuals, including those with disabilities, are actively recruited, valued, and integral for success. It is an environment where the engagement, development, retention and advancement of an increasingly skilled and diverse workforce is promoted and supported across all employment sectors and levels.

Let’s re-think what disability means. Let’s work together for a healthier, more robust, more inclusive workforce.

This article represents the opinions of the author and not that of the University of Kentucky.