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Employment Disparities for Minority Women With Disabilities

by Diane L. Smith and Reginald J. Alston

The 2000 U.S. Census estimates that 16.8 million civilian, non-institutionalized Americans from ethnic and racial minorities have long-lasting disabling conditions or impairments (Waldrop, 2003). When looking at the relationship between disability and employment, researchers have found that minorities with disabilities are often at increased risk for unemployment (Smith Randolph & Andresen, 2004). In order to understand and address the unique issues of minority women with disabilities in relation to employment, one must consider how the issues of gender, race/ethnicity, and disability intersect.

Framework of Triple Jeopardy

Separately and collectively, women, persons with disabilities, and persons of color have been viewed as minorities. In representation theories, the term "minority status" refers to groups that share a history of being denied access to resources and privileges, such as economic opportunity, communicative self-representation, and preferred lifestyle (Foucault, 1986; Wirth, 1945; Habermas, 1987). Wirth expanded this concept by defining minorities as "a group of people, who, because of physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from others in society...for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination" (p. 347).

In his theory of simultaneous oppression, Stuart (1992) identifies three areas in which African American people with disabilities' experiences can be seen as a distinct form of oppression. These are (1) limited or no individuality and disability identity; (2) resource discrimination, for example, inequitable access to financial opportunities; and (3) isolation within the African American community and family. Vernon (1999) argues that the concept of simultaneous oppression is too simplistic an analysis to capture the day-to-day experience of those who possess negatively labeled multiple identities because it overlooks the importance of social class positioning. The author argues that the reality of being a multiple "other" results in shared alliances, as well as oppositional interests between different groups of others (Vernon, 1996c). Thus, African American people with disabilities, women, gay men and lesbians, older people, and those from the working class all experience oppression singularly, multiply and simultaneously depending on the context (Vernon, 1996a, 1996b).

The employment experiences of minority women with disabilities fall within all of these frameworks. This population experiences the limited access to resources and privileges described in the minority status model; simultaneous oppression when they experience discrimination based on gender, race/ethnicity, and disability; and the multiple "other" framework when they are not completely included in any of these groups. These issues, singularly or collectively, affect their ability to attain and maintain meaningful employment.

A number of factors need to be addressed to improve employment outcomes for minority women with disabilities. The remainder of this article will touch on three: educational preparation, participation in vocational rehabilitation programs, and work-role stereotypes. Although the effect of minority status appears to be prevalent among all non-Caucasian women, the majority of research has been conducted on women with disabilities who are African American. Therefore, results and assumptions in this article must be approached with caution when addressing those who are not African American.

Educational Preparation

A National Council on Disability (2004) report to the President and Congress found that although legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and No Child Left Behind had improved the condition of students with disabilities, they generally continue to be at risk, and minority students with disabilities are particularly at risk, for inadequate preparation for employment. The problems they face are discussed in a report by the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, and include inability to speak clearly and poor assertion skills. In addition, youth of color are less likely to have had their disabilities recognized and addressed earlier, and their parents are less likely to have been the first to identify their disabilities and request services.

Vocational Rehabilitation Participation

Another issue to be addressed is participation in vocational rehabilitation programs. Minorities with disabling conditions and impairments make up a significant and important group of people who can benefit from focused rehabilitation efforts. Brown (1997) found that Caucasians receiving vocational rehabilitation services were employed successfully more often than African Americans, received more vocational rehabilitation services than African Americans, and were more likely to be employed in professional, technical, and management positions. Additional studies have confirmed these conclusions, finding that Caucasians are more likely than African Americans to be accepted for vocational rehabilitation services (Capella, 2002; Wilson, 2002), achieve closure (Moore, Feist-Price, & Alston, 2002), and experience higher rates of competitive employment (Olney and Kennedy, 2002).

Rehabilitation services designed to assist individuals with disabilities appear to be less accessible to women and minority groups, although they comprise a larger percentage of persons with disabilities (Capella, 2002; Moore, Feist-Price, & Alston, 2002; Olney & Kennedy, 2002; Wilson, 2002). Minority women with disabilities would be most likely to suffer from exclusionary practices. Minority women may also be unaware of services they are eligible to receive, in part due to advertising confined within the agency or support agencies.

Work-Role Conflict

Similar to minority women who are not disabled, minority women with disabilities often encounter work-role stereotypes such as the belief that women should seek employment in traditionally female (and often lower paying) occupations (e.g., nurse, secretary, child care worker) (Bielby, 2000; Hollingsworth & Mastroberti, 1983). In addition, African American women may experience greater difficulty with multiple role conflict as a result of group-specific factors such as a higher number of offspring, greater likelihood of single parent status, and greater work environment stress (Branch, 2007; Staples, 1985; Sue & Sue, 1990; Richie, 1992). The impact of this conflict may compromise the employment of minority women with disabilities through decreased work opportunities due to lack of flexibility on the part of the employee. For example, some careers may demand more time than a single parent is able to provide as an employee. Less demanding (and potentially less profitable) careers may provide more flexibility for a working single parent. Thus, it can be argued that these factors heighten role conflict for African American women with disabilities (Alston & McCowan, 1994).

Ideas for Improvement

There is a need for more study of the unique experiences of minority girls and women with disabilities in relation to education and employment, and better identification of factors that support their success in the workforce. Meanwhile, the following are some practical strategies to immediately address some of the issues identified in this article:


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Diane L. Smith is Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science, University of Missouri, Columbia. She may be reached at 573/882-8403 or Reginald J. Alston is Associate Department Head, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He may be reached at  


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Parent, W., Foley, S., Balcazar, F., Ely, C., Bremer, C. & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Summer/Fall 2008). Impact: Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities, 21(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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