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Black Latinos with Disabilities: Limited Access to Vocational Rehabilitation Reflects African American Societal Challenges

Article about Keith Wilson's research on Black Latinos with disabilities

by Joe Savrock (October 2008)

wilson_keith.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Black Latinos with disabilities have more difficulty securing services from vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies than White Latinos with disabilities. These reported barriers mirror the challenges that African Americans face in various aspects of the larger U.S. population, says a Penn State researcher.

Keith B. Wilson, professor of rehabilitation services and African and African American studies, says that skin color (i.e., phenotype) plays a definite role in the likelihood that a Black Latino with a disability will not secure VR services when compared to White Latinos with disabilities in the United States. Wilson is an expert in cross-cultural and multicultural issues of persons in minority groups who have disabilities and the relation of cross-cultural and multicultural issues to the vocational rehabilitation system. He has published numerous papers on the topic.

Wilson is co-author of a chapter in a newly released book, Racism in the 21st Century: An Empirical Analysis of Skin Color (2008, Springer), edited by Ronald Hall. Wilson, along with Julissa Senices ‘06 Ph.D., authored a chapter titled “Skin Color and Latinos with Disabilities: Expanding What We Know About Colorism in the United States.” Senices, who earned her doctorate in counseling psychology from Penn State, is currently an adjunct faculty member at the University of Miami and is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Florida.

In their chapter, Wilson and Senices point to a high correlation between VR acceptance rates and color: Black Latinos are more likely to be denied access to VR services than are White Latinos.

Vocational rehabilitation agencies are state-run units that are funded primarily by the federal government. Vocation rehabilitation offers services for people whose disabilities prevent them from obtaining and/or maintaining employment. The agencies offer a wide variety of programs, including counseling, education and training, diagnostic services, transportation, and job placement.

Many of the reasons Black Latinos are more likely to be denied access to VRs are based largely on societal biases—both intended and unintended, says Wilson. One bias is the perception that Blacks are less “qualified” than other groups and thus are less likely to benefit from VR training and job placement services.

Wilson lists three broad examples of biases that have evolved over generations: gender bias, racial bias and discrimination, and cultural attributes. He and four colleagues—Debra Harley, Katherine McCormick, Kristine Jolivette, and Ronald Jackson—identified and described these biases in a 2001 paper, “A Literature Review of Vocational Rehabilitation Acceptance and Explaining Bias in the Rehabilitation Process, published in 2001 in the Journal of Applied Rehabilitation.

 “These biases have been reinforced by societal institutions,” he says. “The biases are norms in our society. Our culture is such that society believes Blacks are less capable than European Americans or White Latinos.”

Wilson points to empirical studies indicating that when variables such as education and socioeconomic status are held constant, African Americans/Black Latinos are still denied services at a higher rate than their European American/White Latino counterparts.

Counseling psychologists in many fields—including job placement and education as well as vocational rehabilitation—need to be aware of intentional and unintentional biases that might contribute to the issues of unequal access, says Wilson.

Although his work examines a narrow slice of the populace, Wilson says the access gap between people with disabilities who are Black and White Latinos can be expanded to the wider American society. “This is a microcosm of the gap between Blacks and Whites in the broader society,” he says. “The views within vocational rehabilitation agencies represent the views and the same kinds of problems that exist in the schools and other institutions.”

Wilson notes that there is very little data that examine the consequence of skin color among minority groups such as Latinos, much less on minorities who have disabilities. Most research studies have applied to the general African American and European Americans populace.