Sarah Cole: Legislative leaders spread biased tropes about disabled Kansans in crusade against Medicaid (Column)

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Recently, Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins and Senate President Ty Masterson were quoted as calling Gov. Laura Kelly’s campaign to expand Medicaid a “welfare” tour for “able-bodied adults” who “choose not to work.”

This deception is both a wildly inaccurate portrayal of uninsured Kansas who could benefit from Medicaid expansion and also directly harmful in its disability-related stereotypes. Though I should note that we disabled people do not need to work to deserve dignity, decent living situations and have our needs met (as well as a reasonable amount of our wants). We deserve legislators’ respect.

Hawkins and Masterson are playing into well-rehearsed tropes and biases. I will seek to spread some facts to these dishonest politicians, who are supposed to be representing all their constituents, about disability and employment.

Before I get to that, however, I’d like to quickly point out that the Medicaid expansion Hawkins and Masterson are railing against likely would benefit both the Kansas economy and many hardworking Kansans, according to a Wichita Eagle report. Also, despite their claims that Medicaid expansion would be welfare for able-bodied people who do not want to work, according to WIBW, 74% of the non-elderly, uninsured, working-age Kansans these men represent, are, in fact, working.

With that aside, let’s look under the hood at that comment, which clearly also seems to be a dog whistle for several profoundly harmful stereotypes. These include the idea that flocks of able-bodied people fake disability and that disabled people don’t want to work. Both stereotypes ignore the immense barriers and biases that disabled people face while looking for jobs, the numbers of disabled people who are working for substandard wages and the substantial barriers disabled people face to receiving the education necessary to even have a foot in the door for many jobs.

​To dispel the idea that able-bodied people are pretending to be disabled to receive welfare benefits, numerous reliable sources, including the Social Security Administration itself, find that Social Security fraud is less than 1%. Let’s also look at the statistics of how many disabled people self-identify as preferring to work, according to the index of Marta Russel’s 2019 collection, Capitalism and Disability.

“That figure?” you ask. It’s 68.4%.

The employment-population ratio for disabled people, as provided in the same index, was 19.2%. Some current articles will praise the rise of that ratio to 21% or 22%, and yet that statistic is still remarkably low compared to the 65.4% of able-bodied working age people in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Astute readers checking sources might notice a discrepancy between the Russell-provided survey statistic showing many disabled people preferring to work and the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics above noting that most disabled people did not want a job. I would note here that asking disabled people if they preferred to work if they could is a vastly different question than do you want a job right now, without clarification, consideration of physical and mental limitations, or elaboration on the circumstances and accommodations offered.

That same set of U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics points to some advantage to disabled workers in having earned bachelor’s degrees or higher education levels, (across all levels of education, able-bodied working age people were far more likely to be working than disabled working age people, no matter what their educational attainments). Unfortunately, the barriers to education are severe enough that about 30% of disabled people are able to achieve a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 74.8% of non-disabled people.

Let’s also look at the number of disabled Kansans working for far below minimum wage in sheltered workshops with sub-minimum wage certificates, which some GOP Kansas legislators tried to create tax breaks for and increase.

According to Russell, at least 420,000 disabled workers nationwide were working in these sheltered workshops, which paid 25-50% of the minimum wage. Goodwill was listed as one of the largest of these sheltered workspaces, paying disabled people as little as $2 an hour.

Not only do these figures indicate clear employment and education-based barriers to work for disabled people, they also show a large number of disabled people would prefer to be working if they could find jobs. Even Forbes Magazine has written about why businesses should focus on hiring disabled people, the benefits in doing so, as well as the significant gifts that disabled people bring to the table, including higher retention rates and significant adaptability.

In sum, though disabled people are often prevented from doing the work they would prefer to be doing, the statistics make clear that most, if not all, of those barriers come not from within disabled people but rather from the outside world.

​Hawkins and Masterton won’t likely tell you the truth about the complex relationship between work and disability under capitalism. They won’t be likely to grant disabled people any kind of dignity or appropriate representation, and in fact will likely continue to spread lies and harmful stereotypes surrounding disabled people and other marginalized groups.

This is why careful research and nuanced discussions surrounding these issues are so important.

I’d like to end with a quote from Forbes article “Seven Reasons to Hire People with Disabilities,” by Karen Herson: “People with disabilities, including veterans with service-connected disabilities, have lower rates of employment than the general population. This is true despite people with disabilities often exemplifying the qualities employers seek, including adaptability and resourcefulness.”

Sarah Cole is a recently licensed, disabled LMSW who graduated from the University at Kansas in Lawrence.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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