John Pring, Disability News Service - July 3, 2015
You don’t have to understand the intricacies of disability policy in the UK to realize that this article is about the enduring conflict between two approaches to disability advocacy … Activism vs. Awareness.
There are many ways to define these terms. What we see here is two different ways to accomplish roughly the same goal, significantly improving employment prospects for people with disabilities.
The Awareness approach is to persuade employers to hire more disabled people. It’s based on the assumption that the unemployment is high for disabled people mainly because employers don’t understand disability and harbor misconceptions about the capabilities of disabled people. If we can just reach all he employers, sit them down, explain where their thinking is off base, and maybe introduce them to a few highly capable and charismatic disabled people, then things will change for the better. All this requires maintaining more or less friendly, patient relations with employers. Employers don’t have to attend our seminars, and in fact, hiring itself is basically a matter of choice, not obligation, so accusing and alienating employers won’t help.
The Advocacy approach focuses more on structural issues that hold down employment of people with disabilities. This may include work disincentives, (in which you actually lose money due to reduced benefits when you take a job), a mismatch between open jobs and applicants’ qualifications, inaccessible workplaces, and both deliberate and unconscious discrimination. After decades of anti-discrimination laws that often seem toothless, it is easy to conclude that employers will never change their practices unless forced to do so. In this view, disability awareness seminars, corporate-level networking, and aspirational slogans are wastes of time. Worse, they can function as cover for people who don’t want to do anything of substance, but need to appear as if they are.
The Awareness approach is generally optimistic, but runs the risk of being naive, and coopted and hijacked by the people we are trying to persuade. As the article linked above suggests, it is frighteningly easy for bureaucracies to cynically adopt progressive rhetoric that bares no resemblance to their policies and practices.
The Advocacy approach is, at least on the surface, pessimistic, and many people unpleasant, but may be more realistic and effective when carefully targeted. Personally, I prefer Awareness as an activity, but I have more actual faith in Activism to actually accomplish things.
Within the disability community, these two approaches are not just strategies, they are separate subcultures.
Activists and awareness people rarely work together or talk to each other. And people seem to gravitate towards one or the other approach naturally, based as much on temperament as philosophy. Some of us enjoy teaching and shmoozing. Others prefer campaigning and protesting. For some, asking people to change feels like begging. Others don’t like the anger and sometimes irrationality they perceive in activism. It is both a strategic and a personal choice.
I still think there are arguments on both sides when it comes to improving the employment picture for disabled people. I’m skeptical that mere persuasion and “disability awareness” will ever make much of a difference in employment. Yet, I’m equally doubtful about how effective any sort of hiring quota or mandatory system would be in the long run. Both approaches seem rather futile to me.
How do we dramatically improve employment for disabled people? It’s one of the few disability rights questions I really don’t know how to answer.