With March observing Women’s History Month and National Disability Awareness Month, it is an important time to recognize the contributions of Disabled Black, Indigenous, Women of Color throughout history. We have much to learn from the incredible disabled women who came before us, like Claudia Gordon, the first Deaf Black lawyer in the U.S., who worked to enforce executive orders for individuals with disabilities in emergency preparedness. Achievements like those of Sylvia Walker, a Black Blind disability advocate who contributed to the drafting and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, demonstrated their power to create lasting change.
Through learning about the achievements of these Black Disabled women leaders, we are reminded of and learn to use our power. Our power to create change, transform our reality and make disability justice the center of discussion.
And this is especially true for the workplace.
According to the World Bank, an overwhelming 91% of disabled people are unemployed globally. In the U.S., the unemployment rate for disabled people was 7.6% in 2022, with an all-time high of 17.7% in 2020. Women with disabilities have an unemployment rate of 8%, and between 2020 and 2022, 66% of workplace discrimination charges were disability-related. Catalyst’s research of workplaces in five countries found that 51% of women from marginalized racial and ethnic groups reported experiencing racism in the workplace. Women with lighter skin tones were less likely to be impacted than women with darker skin tones.
These numbers indicate that disabled people and, even more so, disabled women who identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color are applying for job opportunities at higher rates than nondisabled people. Yet, they have higher unemployment rates and are more likely to be employed part-time than full-time. This could be due to bias against disabled individuals, lack of accessible infrastructure, or not having their qualifications recognized. Additionally, women of all races and ethnicities, regardless of disability, experience more hiring discrimination when applying for higher-ranking roles, and I’m one of them.
After attaining a second Master’s degree, putting aside a Ph.D. program, and reaching a certain salary level, I became stuck in a cycle of under and unemployment. Even though I’ve exhausted every avenue available to me, including but not limited to: independently hiring a career coach, taking a Career Academy course at the Starkloff Disability Institute (SDI), working with a SDI career coach, paying to have my resume professionally rewritten, working with countless recruiters, posting my resume on every job board I could find, and applying to jobs at every level and every paygrade. I’m the proud beholder of over 10,000 rejection letters for jobs I have applied for over the past decade. At one point, I contemplated publishing a coffee table book of these letters called “Rejected in America.” I still might.
A sneak peek at Chapter 1 of this book might read a little something like:
“You’re unfocused…” But my white Disabled male colleague who got the job is “adaptable” though he has no experience in the field, and I have 15 years of experience.
“Your qualifications don’t meet our expectations…” But when I changed my name on my resume to Kate, removed any mention of accessibility work, and applied after the deadline, my qualifications met the expectations enough to get an interview.
“We don’t offer visa sponsorship…” When I am a U.S. citizen and was never asked before this rejection letter about my right-to-work status.
“We need someone who has done most of their education in the U.S….” Except for my second MA and some study abroad through my U.S. universities, my work and education experience is solely based in the U.S., as shown on my resume.
As a bonus chapter to my coffee table book, I might add a collection of my favorite workplace one-liners like:
“If you can’t complete this task, it’s a problem…” But it doesn’t have to be “a problem” if we could openly speak about accessibility and support.
“You’re not a culture fit…” But I fit just fine until I started to unmask, be my Dyspraxic self, and use my pattern recognition skills and perspicacity to improve efficiency.
“We don’t need to focus on hiring Disabled BIPOC because we already hire People of Color.” But when all the hiring was done, everyone hired was a white Disabled man.
“I’m surprised you made it this far…” But you won’t support me in moving forward even though you have attested to the lack of access I have experienced thus far.
“You’re sour grapes…” But if I don’t speak up, how will anything ever change?
I have never been invited to interview at a company where I checked off that I was disabled on a job application.
I have never received application assistance when contacting a company’s application accessibility support team.
I have never had to not fight for accessibility support.
While there have been statistics that say the unemployment rate in the U.S. for disabled people hovers around 30%, the lower statistics we use are based on the number of disabled people on the job market actively looking for jobs. After years of application rejections, underemployment, unemployment, discrimination, inaccessible workplaces, managing health conditions, taking care of others, and trying to keep a roof over your head, how long could you stay “on the job market”? How long before your grapes turn sour? How long before you take charge of your destiny and turn those sour grapes into a rare wine that takes the form of your own business?
Yes, I am sour grapes, and I have used my sour grapes to create job opportunities for other disabled creatives whose sour grapes make authentic content that tastes so sweet. I started Disability Content Consulting because there is no place for me in this biased employment market. And I have found a whole vineyard of sour grapes ready to take charge of their destinies.
To move forward, we must create a society that is more accessible and equitable for disabled people. This means focusing on inclusive hiring practices, expanding resources available to disabled individuals, job training programs, and access to assistive technology. We must also recognize the unique challenges that disabled women of color face in finding employment and do more to address them. Finally, it’s essential to change our perception of disability; instead of viewing it as a burden, we should recognize it as a product of a lack of access in our society and celebrate how it has been a gift to the progress of cultural innovation.
Through championing disabled BIWOC and honoring the work of disabled Black women who have led in the way of human rights activism in the U.S., we can make a lasting impact. Let’s honor and recognize their legacy as our inspiration to create change in our everyday lives.
This Women’s History Month and National Disability Awareness Month, let us remember the power of our actions. As you reflect on the experiences of your colleagues, friends, neighbors, and family, ask yourself, how will you use your power today?
Hebatullah Issa (She/Her) is the Founder of Disability Content Consulting, a company focused on creating content about disability and accessibility in the creative, corporate, and education sectors. Rooting her career in justice, candor, and empathy, she has advocated for human rights and accessibility in higher education and workplaces. Putting her 15 years of media and communications experience to the test, she strives to develop equitable opportunities for Disabled content creators to gain career experience and financial independence. Hebatullah uses her public speaking engagement opportunities to educate others about inclusive language, accessible communication, equitable hiring practices, adaptive reasoning, and representational intersectionality.