As a Latina with a disability and a disability rights advocate, I am often asked to write about the situation of Latinos with disabilities in the United States, especially in regard to employment and independent living. This is a nearly impossible task because we are a diverse group of people with a variety of experiences finding and securing employment. Nevertheless, I am able to describe my personal experience concerning employment and some trends I’ve seen as a disability advocate, with an emphasis on ethnic minorities.
In many Latino cultures there is a great deal of social stigma attached to having a disability. When I was eight months old, for example, my doctor discovered that I’d probably never be able to see. My parents felt an overwhelming sense of self-blame, guilt, helplessness and fear for me. They knew that as a Latina and a person with a disability I would have to struggle to survive, much less thrive, in mainstream society.
Unfortunately, one common manifestation of social stigma in the Latino community is for a person with a disability to be seen as a family’s problem. As such, the family may limit the individual’s contact with the outside world. This practice is perceived as caring for and protecting the person with the disability. The person with the disability is often not expected to work; instead, he or she may contribute to the family by doing domestic chores. The result is isolation, preventing the individual from accessing employment opportunities and interacting with peers.
Isolation among Latinos with disabilities is so marked that many make it to adulthood without meeting any other Latinos with disabilities. Even though my family was proactive about assimilating me into society, I did not meet another blind person who was doing anything interesting (besides one of my sisters who is also blind) until I was 17. And it was a couple years later yet when I first met a blind person of color. Many Latinos with disabilities don’t have access to Latino role models with disabilities who can tangibly show them a wide range of employment possibilities.
Isolation, families’ paternal attitudes toward their family members with disabilities, low expectations of people with disabilities from society and other forces can cause some Latinos with disabilities—especially those who have not had exposure to Latino role models with disabilities—to think they are not capable of getting jobs or having careers.
Many Latinos with disabilities are also unfamiliar with the social service delivery system and employment culture in the United States. This is especially true among Latino immigrants and other native-born Latino groups, who are often highly isolated. Frequently they are not aware of services available to them or of their rights under United States law. Some avoid accessing services for fear it will affect their legal status, while others are shamed by the idea of asking for help. In addition, in the U.S. employment culture, jobs, employment information, job training and career advancement opportunities are often gained through informal networks. Individuals who are outside traditional networks, who are not familiar with American customs, and who are disconnected from the service delivery system are less likely to access services or secure employment.
Latinos with disabilities who are cognizant of employment support programs, such as vocational rehabilitation and one-stop career centers, sometimes find these programs difficult to access because of language and cultural barriers, although in recent years many agencies have started to hire bilingual and bicultural staff and to make materials available in Spanish and other languages.
When I was a child there weren’t any efforts made to bridge the language/culture gap. Doctors, school administrators and teachers would raise their voices when speaking to my mother, though of course this didn’t help her understand them. Nobody ever spoke to her in Spanish or offered interpretive or translation services. Today, culturally competent service provision is more common but is still not available in many parts of the country. Despite efforts to increase participation of Latinos in employment support programs, the framework of the system operates upon the experiences and values of predominantly white and middle-class adults with disabilities, making it, to some degree, inherently less accessible to Latinos.
A counselor at the department of rehabilitation placed me in my first job. I think the counselor saw my Latinoness ahead of my disability, and I was placed in a menial job, in line with the stereotypes of the day about the occupations appropriate for Latinos. At that time blind women were typically placed as telephone operators or as typists in typing pools. I was given a job at a lock factory and considered rehabilitated.
I ran a punch press, completing this rather dangerous task alongside undocumented workers. These were the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so we literally had three minutes at a specific time to go to the bathroom and get back to work. I had a lot of trouble with this schedule. I couldn’t negotiate everything and be back to my machine before the bell rang. As my coworkers—mostly the Latina women—got to know me, they figured out a system to help me. I became sort of the property of the whole, with all the Latina women in the factory taking an active role in supporting me. This group support was very different from my childhood experience in a predominantly white environment, where I had been in a Girl Scout troop and had been given as one person’s assignment.
The assistance the women at the lock factory provided to me was an accommodation. With their help I was able to get back as quickly as everyone else. I was lucky, because the employer did not offer me an accommodation (e.g., a few extra minutes’ break), nor did I ask for one. Even with the ADA, Latinos may not get accommodations at work. Either they do not know they are allowed to request accommodations, they are ashamed to request them, or they are not offered accommodations by their employers.
Latinos with disabilities also sometimes experience feelings of inferiority at work because of their dual status as ethnic minorities and as people with disabilities. This self-incrimination is an example of what is sometimes referred to as internalized oppression—a result of prejudice and society’s low expectations of Latino employees with disabilities. Sometimes employees live down to low expectations and are not self-confident or ambitious in their jobs. This behavior keeps Latinos with disabilities relegated to lower-level jobs and out of leadership positions.
Along with other groups that commonly have lower incomes, Latinos with disabilities often work more than one job, a situation frequently made more difficult by logistical problems such as unreliable transportation, difficulty securing childcare and scheduling dilemmas when balancing shifts at different jobs.
The Latino culture holds well-educated professionals and authority figures such as managers and supervisors in high esteem. In many cases Latino employees do not question or second-guess their superiors’ authority. Latino workers are frequently eager to please and hesitant to refuse any request that a superior makes of them. This reverence is taken to the point where a Latino employee with a disability may not even mention a problem or issue he or she is having at work because it is seen as bothering an authority figure or putting that person out.
These examples of how Latinos, and Latinos with disabilities in particular, can be disadvantaged in obtaining employment and performing at the workplace are fairly common. Over the last five years, a few programs have been initiated to respond to barriers faced by Latinos with disabilities. These include the Center for Capacity Building on Minorities with Disabilities Research, through the University of Illinois at Chicago, which aims to help agencies serving minorities develop culturally competent services. The University of Texas Pan American is home to Project Enhance, a program to support students with disabilities in higher education, with an emphasis on Latinos. Finally, Proyecto Visión, headquartered at the World Institute on Disability in Oakland, California, is a national technical assistance center connecting Latinos with disabilities to employment opportunities. Proyecto Visión provides a steady stream of bilingual information and technical assistance through a toll-free hotline, website, newsletter, annual conference and series of trainings. The program’s Bridges to Employment conference, to be held this year in Raleigh, North Carolina, provides a national forum for issues concerning Latinos with disabilities. Each year the event brings together employers, jobseekers, and disability and Latino service providers for bilingual and bicultural capacity-building and training.
by Kathy Martinez
Kathy Martinez is the project director of Proyecto Visión and the deputy director of the World Institute on Disability, a nonprofit research, training and public policy center promoting the civil rights and the full societal inclusion of people with disabilities.