Some intersectional New Years Resolutions

Happy new year! Hope this time, which is generally a winter break for us academics – at least in name, has been relaxing and recharging for you.

I was going to write today’s post about my employment angst*, which is fairly high as a late stage graduate student who is (hopefully) graduating by the end of this new calendar year. It means I’ve started poking around at future job opportunities, especially postdoctoral research opportunities. I’ve started fretting about the timing of postdocs, as it seems highly unlikely that when I finish graduate school will magically line up with the start of any position (especially more prestigious/flexible agency- or foundation-funded postdocs).

But I can’t.

I can’t in good faith talk about my employment or unemployment, at least not today. Why?

I was chatting recently about employment with a friend who is a scientist, black, and has a visible disability**. He graduated a few years ago and has struggled mightily to get full-time employment that matches his skillset and graduate degree level of expertise in his field.  Being scientists, we didn’t just share our own anecdotal experiences***, we consulted the latest statistics****:

The national unemployment rate is 4.3%.

The unemployment rate of men overall and women overall is 4%.

The unemployment rate of black Americans is 9.4%.

The unemployment rate of PhD holding scientists and engineers is 2.4%.

The unemployment rate of people with disabilities is 82.9%.


Let that last statistic just sit with you for a minute, and you will understand why I cannot in good faith sit here and whine-type about my employment prospects. Statistically, as a (hopeful) future PhD holder and a white woman, it seems HIGHLY LIKELY that I will end up with some kind of job.

Yet my colleague, as a black male with a disability, has no such odds in his favor. Only 17.1% of American adults participating in the workforce (this doesn’t include folks not looking for work) with a disability are employed. That does not separate out full- and part-time employment, let alone under-employment. That also doesn’t include the intersection of race or class with disability status.

Unemployment of people with disabilities is actually higher now than before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Twenty five years later, this is abysmal and unacceptable. Let’s be clear: it’s been unacceptable the whole time, but becomes even moreso the more time passes.

So to get to the title and the point of this blog post, I want to share a few ideas on how we (especially white women) can be better intersectional feminists in the academy in 2016 to our colleagues and students with disabilities. There is a long history of people, especially in the academy, saying women cannot do things because of their status as women – part of our task as intersectional feminists is to work against this BS bias for race, class, and disability. This problem is not unique to the academy, but that’s where the TSW community works, so we’ll start where we are.

Always post equal employment opportunity/anti-discrimination notices in your job ads. Make sure that others in your lab, department, or institution do the same. This may seem superfluous, as your employer likely (read=better) have a policy and template language explaining how they do not discriminate. But as someone who is on the lookout for postdocs, I’m appalled to see how few ads include this statement. Even fewer ads provide the relevant contact information for a Human Resources person who can answer questions about and organize appropriate and legally required accommodations in the job search and interview process for applicants. This is critical, as applicants should *not* have to contact their potential future supervisor – this provides an opportunity for those future employers to (unconsciously or not) discriminate against potential employees before they even have a chance to interview, because they can make (very wrong) assumptions about what applicants can do.

This leads me to:

Never assume you know or understand a person’s disability status or identity. The necessary corollary: never assume you know or understand the accommodations (or not) that a person would like or will need. Many disabilities are not visible. Even if a person has what you perceive to be a visible disability, you cannot (should not) make assumptions about their abilities – or about how they navigate their work tasks. People with disabilities are people; they will let you know, if relevant and on their own terms, what they need from you as a coworker/boss/place of employment.

But please understand that many people reasonably fear the perception that they need accommodation in the workplace, because of the biases of and discrimination by employers. Despite a well-known Department of Labor report entitled ‘Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact’ states that ‘accommodating’ workers with disabilities costs only $500 on average, it is unfortunately common to hear from people with disabilities that once they reveal their disability status, job opportunities often disappear. While these applicants can’t prove it, likely the fear of the burden of accommodating them weighs into the (ILLEGAL) decision not to hire them.  Should I say it again? ILLEGAL. This is again why it’s critical to ensure that applicants (and then employees) have HR contacts outside of their ‘chain of command’ to discuss and line up accommodation if needed.

Educate yourself. Read/listen, reflect, re-evaluate and keep learning in 2016. There are so many great blogs and articles online written by PWDs*****. This is a great time to point out that another role of mine as an ally and intersectional feminist is to direct you to the voices/words of persons with disabilities. Try starting with this newly created disability blogger link-up.

Like other kinds of intersectional awareness and allyship, it’s on us as individuals to educate ourselves about our role and responsibilities – and to ensure that organizations we participate in are in compliance with the letter and spirit of anti-discrimination law and local policies.


These are just a few ideas, so please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. I don’t just want to hope that 2016 is a better and fairer year for my friends and colleagues – I want to work to make it so. I look forward to hearing and learning from your experiences, ideas, and success stories.



*a happy start to the new year, right? Sorry.

** meaning that others can readily perceive it and make assumptions about him, it has nothing to do with his vision

*** although these are important! Data are just aggregated individual/anecdotal experiences after all.

**** these all apply to the United States.

6 thoughts on “Some intersectional New Years Resolutions

  1. Just a thought here, but I am going to submit that those numbers are far different in the academy. Think about how many people with disabilities that you see in the hall every day…in my world I see a ton of them. Just a thought.

    • I’d encourage you to think of the spirit of this post, not just the stats provided. Additionally, if you find other statistics of relevance, please post them. You cannot observe all disabilities – and just because you think ‘you see {them} in the hall every day’ doesn’t mean that they are being respected, accommodated, compensated equally, promoted, retained, etc.

      I’d actually wager the stats are worse in the academy – just as they are often worse for other URM groups

  2. Thanks for writing this! I, as a person with a recently-acquired “invisible” disability who’s embarking upon her own postdoc/post-PhD-job quest, barely understand the disability laws of the country I’m from, never mind the country I’m living in or the other countries in which I’m applying for jobs (two at current count). I have no idea how to navigate this world of disabilities in the workplace, either from a practical or ethical perspective, and I’ll definitely be reading through the links you’ve posted!

  3. I’ve been thinking about this on and off since the post went up. And I think this post omits the biggest obstacle. I think that most employers aren’t worried about the cost $500 for accommodations. That would be a small investment for a good employee, not a “burden.”

    The general financial risk for any organization when hiring are the costs associated with decreased productivity, delays, firing, and hiring and training a replacement if a particular hire doesn’t work out. A hire that doesn’t workout can be very costly. (Not to mention stressful.) In academia, if deadlines aren’t met due to personnel turnover, it might mean not being able to apply for/renew funding. And I imagine that for PWD’s, that risk of the hire not working out is perceived as greater.

    So then the question is, how to counter that risk perception? To me, I think hiring managers hearing from previous supervisors/advisors about the quality of the individual’s work performance early in the process would make a difference. (Often, references aren’t checked until the candidate pool is significantly narrowed, at which point, it may be too late.) Could a hiring manager contact references for such candidates early in the process? Or would this be perceived as evidence of discrimination/special treatment? Could PWD’s ask to be referred for open positions by contacts/references who can vouch for ones abilities when making the referral, working within their network?

    Maybe others have better ideas for how to address this issue?

    In the same context, I wonder if employers are concerned that they wouldn’t be able to terminate an employee with disabilities if problems did arise, as quickly as they could other employees, due to the Americans with Disabilities Act and concerns about lawsuit alleging discrimination. Again, these concerns may be unfounded, but might be having an impact as well. I imagine that an organization having clear, vetted uniform procedures for disciplinary actions and termination may help allay some concerns. But my impression in academia is that if these systems exist, faculty are not informed of them, and faculty handle issues on a case-by-case basis as they see fit.

    • Thanks for your comment, which I think relies on two assumptions or at least perceived fears by management: a) PWDs will not perform as well at work and we will have to fire them to hire someone else b) Firing them will be hard or impossible because of legal protections

      I first want to emphasize that even if these are employers’ fears, they should not be making hiring decisions about individuals based on them. It is discrimination, and it is illegal.

      To address each of these points more thoroughly, let’s first start with what employers are doing now, based on a review of 67 studies of employers and why they do and do not hire PWDs. You can read the whole thing here: They find 5 common misconceptions employers have about hiring PWDs. Surely, the first step to countering those perceptions is to know them, so that’s good. Much has been written to combat those stereotypes (unfortunately some it reinforces other stereotypes through tokenism, e.g. So perhaps the question isn’t what info is needed to combat these ideas – but why aren’t managers and other employers aware of them and complying with them? One thing that is clear from the review + previous studies is that a lack of interaction/social ties between employers + PWDs leads to many of their negative perceptions – basically, the people with the strongest ideas impacting the (not) hiring of PWDs don’t know any (or more likely, don’t think they know any). One way to challenge this comes from a failed amendment that would have required companies receiving federal contracts to employ at least 7% of their workforce as self-identified PWDs.

      B) The review above actually found evidence that PWDs are the “last hired and first fired.” Contrary to your perception or implied fear of managers, if there is a business downturn, employers seem to have no problem dismissing PWDs. And unless there is concrete evidence that it was discrimination, PWDs often have no recourse. [Anyone facing employment discrimination can and should file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – ] I could not find any hard stats on the # of complaints filed by PWDs or their success rate, but I did find research that showed only 3.7% of claims went to court (that includes all types of discrimination, not just disability related) and that compared to other types of lawsuits, judges are less likely to side with plaintiffs, give smaller settlement rates, and reversals through appeal are higher ( The low odds of success, fear of retaliation, and bar for proof likely discourage people from filing in the first place.

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