- Link to the scientific text: Bellia, A. (2021). Disability and happiness: the role of social policies [10.25434/bellia-asya_phd2021].
People with disabilities are less happy than people with normal abilities. This has been revealed by several studies on the economics of happiness. The most common explanation is that this difference depends on the health status of disabled people. We forget, however, that disability cannot be reduced to a mere health problem. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reminds us, on the contrary, that "persons with disabilities are those with enduring physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with barriers of various kinds, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others".
The social factor
In other words, disability is determined by individual factors (impairments that originate from chronic diseases) and social factors (barriers to participation in society). The combination of these aspects makes it necessary not only to have regulations to counter discrimination against people with disabilities but also laws that guarantee them the right to ‘reasonable accommodations’.
"Reasonable accommodation means necessary and appropriate modifications and adaptations that do not impose a disproportionate or undue burden adopted, where necessary in particular cases, to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy and exercise, on an equal basis with others, all human rights and fundamental freedoms," the UN Convention continues.
These rights have been formally recognized worldwide since 2006, and in Italy ever since the 1970s. However, they have remained largely on paper. Disabled people still do not have the same opportunities as able-bodied people. In Europe, for example, 29% of the disabled population (i.e., three out of ten persons with disabilities) is at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Among able-bodied people, the percentage drops to 19%.
Less able to access study or work, but happier than others when access is possible
The research reported here examined the effect of barriers to social participation on the happiness of people with disabilities and the difference (in terms of average happiness) between people with disabilities and able-bodied people. People with disabilities are less likely to study or work because of their disability. At the same time, the difference – in terms of happiness – between disabled and able-bodied people is smaller when students and workers are considered. In other words, disabled people derive greater satisfaction from studying and working than able-bodied people do. This is probably because they have to overcome considerable barriers to access both work and education.
What are these barriers? If we look at education, among the most common barriers, at least in Europe, are the lack of aids, inaccessible buildings (for students in wheelchairs), insufficient support from teaching staff (especially in the case of students with severe disabilities). Depending on his/her disability, a student may need adaptations of study materials (ebooks rather than paper books, for example), teaching methodology, or assessment methods. Dyslexic individuals are entitled to an additional 30% of the time to complete written tests. However, students with disabilities may be denied the support they need by teaching staff if the latter – poorly trained and informed – consider such practices to be a form of favoritism.
Things are no better in the labor market. There is still a widespread belief that people with disabilities are less productive than able-bodied people. This belief may induce potential employers not to hire candidates with disabilities, regardless of their qualifications. In addition, a lack of reasonable accommodations may force disabled employees out of employment. Reasonable accommodations are tools and strategies that facilitate workplace accessibility (for employees in wheelchairs), specific aids or software, but also changes in work hours or duties, and permission for employees with disabilities to work at home. Most employers have no idea what the rights or needs of their employees with disabilities are, and like many teachers in schools, they mistake requests for reasonable accommodations for requests for favoritism. Moreover, such adaptations for disabled employees often arouse the envy of able-bodied colleagues.
The individual factor
People with disabilities have (one or more) impairments. This has consequences both on the material level and for happiness.
On the material level, disability costs money. If buses are not wheelchair accessible – to cite an all-too-common situation – those who can afford it will call an accessible cab (the cost of which is not reimbursed by the municipality). Typically, the disability pension is not enough to cover these costs. Furthermore, people with severe disabilities have higher average costs. Hence it is no coincidence that having a higher income is a source of greater satisfaction and well-being for people with disabilities.
On a personal level, becoming disabled is a shock and, like other types of shock, it causes an immediate decrease in happiness. Over time, however, those who have become disabled adapt to their condition, and their happiness increases, although it does not reach the previous level. For this reason, persons who have been disabled for a long time are happier on average than those who have recently become disabled.
So why are people who were born disabled also less happy than able-bodied people in the same condition? It may depend both on the type of impairment and so-called ‘minority stress’, i.e., the (additional and daily) fatigue to which someone is subject as a member of a minority. Some disabilities cause chronic physical pain, such as fibromyalgia. In this case, a lower level of happiness is understandable. However, people with disabilities, as a minority, frequently experience various forms of discrimination to which most of the population is not exposed (the same goes for immigrants, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community). These ongoing discriminations cause higher levels of stress. It is, for this reason, that one talks in this case of ‘minority stress’. In its turn, stress harms happiness.
Other factors affect the happiness of people with disabilities: for instance, gender, marital status, and education level. However, it should be borne in mind that people with disabilities are not special: with very few exceptions, their happiness is determined by the same factors that contribute to the happiness of those who indicate themselves as able-bodied.
Different conditions for equal opportunities
Removing barriers to social participation for people with disabilities requires action on several fronts. One of them is cultural: justice does not mean ‘equal treatment’, but rather ‘equality of opportunity’.