> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

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There are no final victories when it comes to providing equal opportunities for groups that have suffered from historic discrimination and exclusion. This is true in the United States. This is true everywhere else in the world.  Attitudinal barriers that belittle and marginalize, originating in class, racial, or religious prejudice, may triumphantly come down in one generation only to be resurrected in the next – or even sooner if some shock to the body politic is great enough.

Thus, watchdog groups like the Center for Financial Inclusion’s Smart Campaign, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League can never call it quits and declare victory. Backsliding into bigotry is more likely the rule than the exception with our tribal species.

To bolster this glum supposition is this example of the ongoing difficulties facing another beleaguered minority: Twenty-five years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there is new evidence about employment discrimination from researchers at Rutgers and Syracuse University.

According to The New York Times, the researchers applied for thousands of accounting jobs, sending resumes and cover letters on behalf of fictitious candidates, some with disabilities, some without. Employers followed up with candidates via phone or email 26 percent less frequently when those candidates disclosed that they had a disability. The study ensured that disability was the only differentiator among the otherwise identically qualified candidates.

But another study from the Kessler Foundation shows signs of workplace hope. The foundation’s recent national employment and disability survey shows that once on a job about 16 percent of persons with disabilities (PWD) report negative attitudes related to their disability on the part of their supervisor. However, over 41 percent of these same individuals say that they were able to overcome this barrier. How? I believe it is likely that in many cases the employee with a disability gained acceptance because she demonstrated her pride and personal agency in completing tasks that challenged her boss’ presumptions about her inferiority. Attitudes change because of this assertion of self. Once on the job, daily performance makes the difference.

At the Center for Financial Inclusion, we are running the Financial inclusion for Persons with Disabilities program to encourage the microfinance industry to become more disability welcoming and friendly. Consonant with the Kessler study, the Center has found that the most effective way to change negative attitudes among the staff members at financial institutions is to have them get to know persons with disabilities. Familiarity in this case does not breed contempt but can open new pathways to acceptance. Our work in India, for example, has included the creation of tools and an operating model for MFIs to incorporate PWD, and disability awareness trainings for institutions across the country. Some of our partners now have more than 15,000 clients with disabilities. When given a chance, persons with disabilities make excellent clients.

While many supervisors’ prejudice can be defeated in the workplace when real, multifaceted people take the place of abstractions, a robust law really matters for the other roughly 60 percent of supervisors in the Rutgers/Syracuse sample whose prejudice appeared unshakeable in spite of contact.

The Rutgers/Syracuse study showed that Fortune 500 companies tended to discriminate significantly less than smaller firms. Demonstrating a lack of interest in candidates with disabilities was most prevalent at firms with fewer than 15 employees. Notably, businesses this small are not mandated to be inclusive under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So a recipe for the greatest success seems to be a combination of laws with teeth and human connection. Neither alone does the trick. And one reinforces the other.

But while incremental societal change certainly does happen, vigilance without end to protect our vulnerable populations is a necessity. A willingness to play well with others is critical for human survival but in most cases the people played with are from the same tribe. The daughters of today’s supervisors, when they move into leadership positions themselves one day, will have to relearn the lessons of nondiscrimination against people who are different, all over again.

And that is why the Smart Campaign, the ADA, and other human dignity watchdogs, along with enforceable laws, are so central to the human rights enterprise.

Have you read?

Disability Inclusion, in Ecuador and Around the World: An Interview with Larry Reed

Happy International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Attitudes toward Persons with Disabilities in Indian Microfinance Institutions