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Good Jobs, Good Benefits (But Not for Disabled Workers)

by Harlan Hahn

EDITOR'S NOTE: Last October, a leaked Wal-Mart management memo made headlines. To hold down insurance costs, said the memo, the company should "discourage unhealthy job applicants." News of the memo created a furor. But many companies look for ways to keep "costly" employees out of the labor pool. Here's a report on the practice at the university level.

Phrases like "moral hazard" and "risk management" are seldom heard in everyday conversations about jobs. But they are part of a little-known language that is now being used to impose the latest forms of employment discrimination upon disabled adults, including highly qualified professionals. As employers increasingly try to hold down the costs of health insurance and retirement benefits, they are re-examining these concepts in the search for new methods of reducing expenses by removing disabled personnel from the labor force.

Perhaps the first thing to be learned about this language is that its terms are presented from the employer's, or the insurer's, point of view. From their standpoint, the most desirable health insurance plans, for example, are those that result in the fewest claims for reimbursement. The term "moral hazard," which is sometimes used in conjunction with the notion of "adverse selection," was developed centuries ago to designate a departure from a rational profit-maximizing calculus made on another basis such as a desire to include all members of the work force within a single insurance pool. To avoid the depletion of capital, if management feels compelled to offer any fringe benefits at all, they might prefer to sell policies only to employees who seldom need to use them. Hence, the concept of "moral hazard" is sometimes applied to disabled workers or others who could be expected to file numerous claims in comparison with a total pool of otherwise young and healthy policyholders. Since most private health insurance is available almost exclusively from employers, there is a strong incentive to reduce the share of disabled personnel to the lowest number possible.        

The principal means by which businesses and insurers try to restrict the proportion of disabled employees in the labor pool is by placing ubiquitous questions about "pre-existing [health] conditions" on application forms. Obviously, workers with a permanent impairment may find it difficult to hide or disguise a chronic health problem indefinitely. While Sec. 5.5 (f) of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits disability discrimination in "fringe benefits available by virtue of employment," both the absence of any landmark appellate court decision applying this protection to a specific case and the general drift of the Supreme Court in a right-wing direction may indicate that legal defenses in this matter are beginning to evaporate.

Occasionally, especially when insurance companies introduce a new plan, they may waive the "pre-existing conditions" barrier. Thus disabled individuals can sometimes slip past the screening intended to exclude them from the work force and the insurance pool. But they frequently can expect to encounter other obstacles to attempting to keep a good job.

An increasingly common device for removing disabled workers from employment and insurance rolls has developed under the rubric of "risk management." This concept has been broadly adopted to describe practices intended to accomplish what the name implies, that is, to reduce the risk that an employer or insurer may incur some loss or expense due to increased job hazards, including the possibility that an employee could threaten or engage in unacceptable behavior or misconduct. Since many employers frequently bear an unacknowledged and unspoken aversion or distaste about the presence of visibly disabled people in their midst, the principle of "risk management" may be invoked to support action to terminate a disabled workers who could be identified as a trouble-maker or someone who might reduce the profits of an institution that had--perhaps unwittingly--hired them during a time when the ban on "pre-existing conditions" was temporarily lifted.

Like many other disabled persons, words such as "moral hazard' and 'risk management" were little more than abstract notions to me until I began to see their impact on my own life. When I was young, I had foolishly believed that I had found an answer both to my own joblessness and to the persistently high unemployment rates among most disabled persons (which I later learned is more than two-thirds in the U. S.). It then seemed to be in front of me in the American dream: get a good education, a secure job, work hard, and save money to afford the increased cost of attendants I would inevitably need in order to perform all the tasks that might not be able to accomplish by myself when I got older.

I thought (I realize now in retrospect) that I had done it all: I earned four advanced degrees (including a Ph.D. from Harvard), I found a stable job as a college professor with tenure (which meant that I ordinarily could not be fired without a damn good reason), I pursued a frugal lifestyle, and I managed to get by without an attendant until my late fifties.

But I failed to realize that, with increased seniority, my salary also grew to the point were the university wanted to fire me in order to spend the same amount of money on two or more junior professors whom they believed would bring them more benefit than one old senior professor who stubbornly continues to study disability law and policy (which they claim is not "sexy" enough to attract more students).

Now my employers is engaged in legal maneuvers (supposedly based on one class session when I had to raise my voice to quiet some disruptive students) to destroy my tenure and to get rid of me. I will continue to fight their unethical practices, but I think secretly that the outcome will be determined by which side has more money to hire lawyers, and that is a battle that I know the university will ultimately win. Meanwhile, I am still receiving my salary, but I have been prohibited from teaching again "until further notice."

Words and theories have consequences. Employers and insurance companies still are able to enjoy a distinct advantage over employees because of concepts such as moral hazard, pre-existing conditions, and risk management that were developed years--and even centuries--ago by judges who were more sympathetic to the prerogatives of employers than to the rights of lowly workers. My hope is that, by understanding the ways these concepts have been manipulated to reinforce employment discrimination, other disabled persons will be able to escape the fate that appears to be awaiting me.

Harlan Hahn has had more than 40 years of teaching experience in higher education, including about 30 years at the university which is the subject of this article.

I am a Walmart customer and am appalled that they are trying to use "fancy wording" to keep "special" people from working there. In my opinion it costs the public more not to have "special" people working. "Special" people in many ways are more dependable then "normal" people who call off when they are not sick etc. Then who becomes more expensive to keep on board? They need to rethink their hiring policy if they want to keep a good customer base.

I have a "special" person in my family who will eventually be an awesome asset to society.

Once in a while I will harp on the fact that we are in very deep need of "National Health" which should end the rampant descrimination upon the disabled. They also could get rid of some of the programs that really don't work to help pay for it! Right now we have a non Demorcrate president who has done some harm to the disabled with this new "Drug Plan" moving the medicaid people under it. Wake up we need national health!

To Dawn:

I am a person that was born with various congenital physical disabilities and my only child was born with Autism and Mental Retardation. Me and my only child ARE legally classified AND medically classified AS PWD (People With Disabilities). I am a Disabilities Activist, and a Disabilities Advocate, and a Disabilities Self-Advocate. Me and my only child ARE extremely proud to be PDW (Persons With Disabilities) and extremely proud of being members of the Disabilities Community and extremely proud to publicly express "Disabilities Pride".

Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) do NOT like the words "Special" and "Special People" being put on them and being attached to them for various reasons.

Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) see the words "Special" and "Special People" to be extremely offensive to them and extremely degrading to them for various reasons.

Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) see the word "Special" and "Special People" as divisive words that separates people into different categories and that PWD (People With Disabilities) are abnormal, different, fragile, and/or sick people.

Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) see the words "Special" and "Special People" as extremely offensive degrading words that dehumanizes them as people and devalues them as people.

Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) see the words "Special" and "Special People" as extremely offensive degrading words that invokes pity. Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) do NOT want pity. Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) want DIGNITY and RESPECT for who they are and what they are!

Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) do NOT like the words "normal" and "normal people" either. It is like saying that PWD (People With Disabilities" are not normal people and that PWD (People With Disabilities) are abnormal, different, fragile, and/or sick people and that PWD (People With Disabilities) are not healthy people. PWD (People With Disabilities) CAN BE healthy. There ARE ALOT of PDW (People With Disabilities) who ARE healthy.

Having Disabilities and being a PDW (Person With Disabilities) does NOT make a person an abnormal, or different, or fragile, or sick person.

Even though me and my only child were born with various Disabilities, we are NOT abnormal, we are NOT different, we are NOT fragile, and we are NOT sick people. Even though me and my only child were born with various Disabilities, we both ARE "normal" healthy people in having "normal" desires, "normal" dreams, and "normal" goals of wanting to be healthy happy successful productive people in life. Having "normal" desires, "normal" dreams, and "normal" goals of wanting to be healthy happy successful productive people in life does NOT make me and my only child to be abnormal, or different, or sick people. Me and my only child ARE "normal" because of living in a house or an apartment, buying food, paying bills, paying taxes, doing our banking, going shopping, getting the mail, driving, doing errands, cleaning house, doing laundry, living in the community, going out in the community, seeing friends, being a friend, having a spouse, being a spouse, being a parent, being a grandparent, having a job, engaging in various hobbies and various entertaiment activities, getting an education, and doing other "normal" daily activities that people WITHOUT Disabilities also do. Me and my only child ARE "normal" because we see, hear, taste, touch and feel sensations, smell, eat, sleep, play, cry, laugh, worry, getting scared, being happy, being sad, wanting friendship, getting married, getting divorced, and doing other "normal" things that people WITHOUT Disabilities also do.

Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) have "normal" desires, "normal" dreams and "normal" goals of having healthy successful productive happy "normal" lives within the General Mainstream Society. People WITHOUT Disabilities ALSO have the SAME "normal" desires, the SAME "normal" dreams, and the SAME "normal" goals of having healthy successful productive happy "normal" lives within the General Mainstream Society. Having healthy successful productive happy "normal" lives ARE "normal" desires, and "normal" dreams and "normal" goals for EACH AND EVERY PERSON ON EARTH whether or not they DO or DO NOT have Disabilities.

Me and various other PWD (People With Disabilities) prefer the "People First Language" which puts the PERSON FIRST IN FRONT OF the Disability (Disabilities). "People First Language" does NOT create any LABELS that can be put on people and attached to people.

Personally, I see the words "Special" and "Special People" to be extremely offensive and extremely degrading to myself and my only child.

Personally, I highly resent the words of "Special" and "Special People" being put on me and my only child and being attached to me and my only child.

Me and other PWD (People With Disabilities) see the words "Special" and "Special People" as "LABELS" that can be put on them and be attached to them.

Me and various other PWD (People With Disabilities) do NOT want to seen as "LABELS" and various "DISABILITIES" ! Me and various other PWD (People With Disabilities) want to be seen AS PEOPLE, FIRST!

I can't even begin to tell you how many times I have been turned down for a job because of insurance and more recently been let go for it. I am an incredible worker who receives performance reviews that say things like "twice as productive as other employees" and I've never had a rating less than "meets expectations of a fully competent employee." I'm about to buy a new wheelchair, so we'll see what happens...

Dear PRCA,

I have tried to explain how to properly address a person with a disability to many people, but you said it best. Thank you!! :)I thank you on behalf of my son, whom is still learning he is as successful and "NORMAL" as any other child.

Dear MB,

You are very welcome. I am glad that my words has been helpful to you and your son. :-)

Unfortunately, the Temporally Able Bodied (TAB) general mainstream community sees "Normal" AS being healthy, perfect, Non-Disabled People. This IS a wrong approach for the TAB general mainstream community to take when interacting with People With Disabilities (PWD). The word "Normal" should NOT be used to define on whether a person is or is not a Person With Disabilities (PWD). The word "Normal" used in this context separates and divides People With Disabilities (PWD) and Temporally Able Bodied (TAB) people into TWO different categories. (TAB People are people WITHOUT Disabilities.)

I see "Normal" in a completely different light.

I see "Normal" AS being able to do various "Normal" things that the TAB general mainstream community do in their daily lives, like playing, crying, laughing, worrying, talking, seeing, getting scared, being happy, being sad, working, paying bills, and etc.

I see "Normal" AS being various "Normal" things that the TAB general mainstream community are, like being a spouse, child, parent, cousin, friend, worker, and etc.

I see "Normal" AS wanting various "Normal" things that the TAB general mainstream community wants, like having healthy successful productive happy "Normal" lives in society and etc.

People With Disabilities (PWD) who might be in state institutions, nursing homes, groups homes, and etc. ARE "Normal" because they talk, see, touch, hear, smell various smells, taste, eat, sleep, feel sensations, cry, laugh, worry, being scared, getting happy, being sad, being a friend, being a cousin, being an aunt, being an uncle, having parents, having grandparents, and etc, etc, and etc.

ALL People With Disabilities (PWD) ARE "Normal" in the context of the way I see "Normal".

The word "Normal" used in the context in the way I see "Normal" UNITES People With Disabilities
(PWD) AND Temporally Able Bodied (TAB) people into ONE category.

The way I see it, the word "Normal" CAN be applied to People With Disabilities (PWD) AND Temporally Able Bodied (TAB) people both. :-)

I live in NYC. I have ADHD. Some say that it's not a real disability..try telling anyone with learning disabilities (most people with ADD/ADHD also have some learning disabilities).

Although my language skills are good, my math/science skills are practically non-existent.

I try to hide my disability by making a joke of my deficiency. I always say something tothe effect that... I use a calulator to add 2+2. While thats a slight exageration, its is not to far off.

Another symptom of my ADHD, which rears it's ugly head, has gotten me in trouble in jobs over the years. I am hyperactive, and, my wife keeps on telling me, sometimes quite impulsive. That includes, unfortunately, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I know alot of people suffer from "foot in mouth disease", but it can, and in my case has cost me sales jobs in which the lack of discretion was my downfall.

When at work, I can sometimes see the effects of a bad joke (or my attempt at spontaneous humor). The blank stares speak volumes. Since I'm to big to crawl under the table :(, I just wait for that one uncomfortable moment until someone else decides the time has come to bring the conversation back to earth.

I beong to a support group for adults with ADD/ADHD (http://www.maaddsg.org). Afer our meetings, a group of us typically goes out for dinner. I can see the difference immediately when talking with these people. Even though they are very intelligent, there seems to be extra tollerance & compassion for my sometimes lack of discretion. They are sypmathetic to my plight, as some of them suffer from the same issue.

But make no mistake. What we lack in social skills, we make up for in apparent intellect. I for example, have an rss feed on my browser, and always look to see what the top news stories are. I try to skim thru as much as possible, so that no matter the topic, I'm somewhat prepared. If only it was this easy at work:):):)

I am a young person with a disability, and I think that studying disability law is not only necessary and right, but it can be be SEXY too. Having a disability has forced me to try harder, to climb up Sisyphean hills and fight "the man"--prevailing societal notions-- more than my able-bodied friends.

I have had a helluva time paying for my outrageously expensive meds for my arthritis. I have been fired because, as the manager helpfully explained, hiring me was like "hiring someone without any arms". I never even knew that I had a disability per se-- that is, until I moved to Alaska and began working (an amazing fluke!) for the Kenai Peninsula Independent Living Center. Now I am starting to get it.

What I am trying to say is, keep fighting. I'm here for ya. Keep them guessing. Even though it doesn't feel like sometimes, there is a community backing you. We'll help you kick their asses. I just graduated from college and I can tell you-- good teachers are hard to come by, and they are simply NOT replaced by 2 junior professors.

Keep us posted!

Dear Dr. Hahn:

I'm also in So.California and have been thru the same experience with "risk management" after having been outed by my coworkers from the campus Disabled Services who identified my condition behind my back.
Please feel free to contact me if you wish.

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