Disability advocates fight for their right to join the workforce

Many people with disabilities want to work but face accessibility barriers.

July 11, 2024, 11:12 AM

Alexis Smith has decided that being diagnosed with cerebral palsy will not get in the way of her goal to become a journalist.

Still, Smith acknowledges there are obstacles, but she's working so that she -- and others -- will not face potential discrimination from hiring managers.

"I'm directly impacted by inaccessibility, so I would like to help in being a part of the change," says Smith, a 29-year-old disability advocate working in Chicago.

From first appearance, Smith says many people think she cannot do much for herself. However, she is not paralyzed, Smith said. She can feel all four limbs and wears leg braces to help her walk better. Cerebral palsy is a group of conditions that affect movement and posture. It's caused by damage that occurs to the developing brain, most often before birth, according to the Mayo Clinic website.

ABC News follows two disability advocates working for change and navigating life in Chicago.
ABC News

She explained to ABC News that many seeking jobs have the freedom of nondisclosure, where she doesn't have a choice. "I want to change the discrimination that they [companies] try to hide; when you get to the interview, the first thing that they see is the chair," she said, referring to the wheelchair she uses to get around.

One in every four adults in the United States has some type of disability and advocates say many want to work, according to the CDC. But accessibility issues and application processes often limit them from getting jobs, advocates say.

Smith told ABC News that one day she hopes a job in journalism will enable her to highlight stories of people who share her experience. She wants the world to know her disability doesn't stop her, that she has many titles, such as advocate, model, dancer, and that she loves to have fun.

Smith, armed with a bachelor's degree in communications, successfully navigated the job search in Chicago by reaching out to the Mayor's Office of People with Disabilities, which is led by a woman with a disability.

Rachel Arfa is the Commissioner for the City of Chicago Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. Arfa is the first deaf person to serve as a cabinet member in the Mayor's Office and according to the mayor’s office, is the highest-ranking deaf person serving in municipal government nationwide.

After learning how to advocate for herself, she wanted to advocate for other people.

ABC News follows two disability advocates working for change and navigating life in Chicago.
ABC News

"Here at the center we have a career placement call center and then we work with people with disabilities to help them find jobs," Arfa said. "Sometimes they may not know the applicant has a disability, but with the position, it comes up through the interview, and they can see if it's a visible disability."

Some people pass through the interview process without hiring managers detecting any sign of a disability. However, advocates say this presents additional challenges for people when they must consider whether or not to disclose a disability. Still, some people, like Alexis, don't have a choice.

Kate Caldwell, the Director of Research and Policy for the Northwestern Law Center on Racial and Disability Justice, said that many fear disability discrimination during the application process due to concerns about disclosure.

She told ABC News that people looking for a job question when to disclose. “Are they not going to invite me for an interview because now they know I have a disability? Or do I tell them in advance of the interview?”

Caldwell, Smith, and Arfa share the same mission of advocating for increased representation of disabled people in the workforce.

“Many times people with disabilities are not included, but we need to be included and we have so much to offer," Arfa said. "Disabled people are some of the best problem solvers due to the different barriers they face daily."

Caldwell echoed Arfa’s sentiments, saying that discrimination often comes from people associating those with disabilities with sitting back and collecting benefits, but the reality is people with disabilities work multiple jobs due to not getting enough hours of employment. However, even when job seekers do find a job, they face financial barriers due to disability benefits, Caldwell added.

ABC News follows two disability advocates working for change and navigating life in Chicago.
ABC News

“Americans who are relying upon disability benefits have savings and asset limitations. On average, it's around $2,000 a month that people are allowed to have,” Caldwell told ABC News.

Caldwell refers to this as a benefit trap. She points out that in order to qualify for benefits, you need to work and then demonstrate that you are unable to work.

"So you have to work and then show that you can't work so that you can receive the benefits," Caldwell said. "But you need to work while you're receiving the benefits. But then you can't work too much because then they're going to cut off your benefits. And so it puts disabled people in what's called a benefits trap."

Smith told ABC News that she has experienced first-hand getting money taken out of her account due to going over her asset limit. She hopes to get off Social Security Income one day, saying, "I want to make my own money without limitations or being told by the government how much I can make or how often."