Crisis Economy and Disabled Workers: Past and Present Use of Crisis Narratives in Vocational Rehabilitation in the United States

Andjela Kaur, University of Massachusetts at Boston

Vocational rehabilitation has been an integral part of American labor economics since the eighteen century. In the early colonial era, problems of unemployment and poverty were addressed by local communities and then increasingly by state governments. To control their unemployed poor, these governments laid the foundation for what would become a national vocational rehabilitation system. Its main purpose has been to manage surplus labor in ways that abet the political economy of the capitalist state. To carry out this work, vocational rehabilitation professions have used the labor of those marked as unemployed due to disability; they have employed disabled workers to maintain rehabilitation institutions, to produce goods for sale by the rehabilitation industry, and to effectuate the problem of disability unemployment. This paper argues that throughout the history of employing the unemployed disabled people, vocational rehabilitation professionals have used the rhetoric of labor crisis to carry out their professional mission and legislative mandates to increase employment of persons with disabilities in the United States. The paper examines how to secure its own position in the labor market, one of vocational rehabilitation professions — rehabilitation counseling — has built a historical record of “employment strategies” through which disabled workers may be used to address periodic and perpetual economic crises in the United States. Further, this study shows that today the publicly funded employment service for disabled people and a major employer of rehabilitation counselors, the state­ federal vocational rehabilitation system (VR), uses this historical evidence to represent disabled workers as the best first responders to economic crises. On their publicly funded websites VR agencies disseminate business friendly descriptions about disabled job seekers who appear as obedient and affordable workers who are work-­ready and abundant. Above all, the VR suggest, disabled workers have been historically proven able to ameliorate various economic crises.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 192. Disability and Risk in the Workplace