In the early 20th Century, several U.S. cities had laws that actually forbade people with disabilities from showing themselves in public.
These were the notorious “Ugly Laws.” For example, Chicago’s law forbade anyone who was “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object from being in the public view.”
Those laws are gone now, but there are still people who would prefer not to have to look at those of us with disabilities. And one of them appears to be our president.
Recently, President Trump met with several members of the U.S. Paralympic team, to congratulate them on games well played. But while he was honoring them and calling them “inspirational,” he also said he had only watched “as much as I could” of the games. This was because, “It was a little tough to watch.”
I have attached links below that show President Trump’s remarks, as well as the very eloquent response to him by the U. S. Paralympic organizers. I will let this information speak for itself.
But isn’t he really saying that he would rather not look at us unless he has to, and wasn’t it this kind of thinking that created the Ugly Laws in the first place?
We’re all on information overload these days. So much seems to be coming at us from all sides. Worse yet, it’s very hard to tell if the information we’re absorbing is accurate. And it can be even worse if you have a disability, because you’re more likely to be isolated and not as able to access the people or documents that can help you work towards the truth.
Speaking of disabilities, one of the areas rife with misinformation is the AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT (ADA) and other laws designed to help people with disabilities get as fair a shake as possible in our society. That is why I am writing this series about some of the most common mistaken beliefs about these laws.
Today, I’m going to shed some light on the myth that an employer cannot fire an employee with a disability.
If an employee with a disability cannot do her job, the employer cannot fire her but has to hire someone extra or make other employees do the work.
Like with anyone else, an individual with a disability does not have an automatic right to stay in a job unless she can actually perform it.
But the ADA is different from other discrimination laws in this respect: If an otherwise qualified employee needs reasonable accommodation in order to perform the essential functions of the job, the employer must provide the accommodation unless it would result in an undue hardship to the employer or cause a fundamental alteration in the workplace.
An office receptionist with a spinal deformity cannot sit for more than an hour or so at a time. It would probably be a reasonable accommodation for the employer to let him get up and stretch his legs for a few minutes every hour. This would allow him to do the job, and would result in little or no cost to the employer. But if his condition worsened to the point where he often had to leave his desk in the middle of customer calls, it would likely become an undue hardship for the employer to tolerate this situation.
As previously discussed, the ADA challenges both employers and employees to put fresh eyes on workplace tasks and determine whether they can be done in an effective (and possibly non-traditional) way. The law also requires that employers and employees work together to determine the best way for that to happen.
In this case, one option might be for the employer to purchase a desk that allows the employee to stand up as needed to do the job. Another might be to supply a cot or couch where the employee can answer the phone for part of the day. There are many potential solutions to this problem, and one of the best places to find them is at a government website called the JOB ACCOMODATION NETWORK. https://askjan.org
Who knows what’s true anymore? Is the above photo a joke or would an airline really have to allow an “emotional support elephant” on a flight?
Spoiler alert: The photo is obviously a joke. But there really is a tremendous amount of misinformation out there about what our disability laws require. So in the next few posts, I am going to try to correct some of these “urban legends” that add to the already misleading view of people with disabilities.
Myth:The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to hire people with disabilities, even if they are not the most qualified applicants for a job.
Fact: The ADA specifically states that it does not prevent employers from hiring the most qualified person for a position. What it does prohibit, however, is employers imposing job requirements that BOTH screen out people with disabilities AND are not “essential functions” of the job.
Example: A law office needs to hire a legal assistant. That person’s job is to do legal research and draft court pleadings. Occasionally, that person may be asked to drive to the courthouse and file papers, but there are plenty of other people around who could do that if s/he were not available.
Andrea applies for the job and would be the leading candidate, were it not for the fact that she has a nerve disorder that prevents her from driving. If the employer decides not to hire her for this reason, the employer might be violating the ADA, because it is not essential that Andrea be able to do that task.
But let’s change the facts a bit: This is a small office and the legal assistant must be depended on to file court papers on a regular basis. In that case, it would probably be legal for the employer to pass over Andrea, because she would be unable to perform the essential functions of the position.
As is clear, phrases like “essential functions” and “job descriptions” become crucial in analyzing these kinds of cases. And the ADA requires that each situation be judged on its own facts, to determine the meaning of these phrases in each particular setting.
So essentially, the ADA is requiring employers (and everyone) to free ourselves from outdated and unwarranted assumptions. And that would be a desirable step forward, even without the law.
For more information, to to the “employment” link on this website or to www.ada.gov.
I love including emojis in my emails. If somone is taking a trip, I’ll often insert a plane or train. If they have accomplished something, I’ll sometimes insert some people dancing and clapping.
Emojis do more than give clues about the writer’s state of mind – they provide a whole extra layer of communication to a very limited medium.
When one peruses the thousands of available emojis, they will find “people” of all different races and cultures, and a seemingly infinite amount of sports, dancing and other activities. But when I was recently looking for something symbolizing a person with a disability, I found only ONE: the above, very familiar (and dare I say boring?) symbol of someone in a wheelchair.
That’s why it was so encouraging to read the Huffington Post article below. It describes a number of new emojis that are being considered for distribution. And for the first time, they all feature people with disabilities.
Is this a big deal? Probably not. But anything that encourages inclusion (rather than stigmatization) deserves at least a smiley face🙂.
In the last week, I have read several articles (two of which are attached below) about both the Paralympics and the death of Steven Hawkings. Various viewpoints have been expressed, but the ones that got my attention were the ones who were critical about the emphasis by the press on disabilities.
The main objection seems to be about the press’s focus on Mr. Hawkings and the Paralympians “overcoming” their disabilities and being a source of “inspiration” for others. The critics refer to this as “ablest” discrimination, of putting people with disabilities in a separate human category and not thinking of them and their accomplishments in the same way as people without disabilities. In this way, the argument goes, they are trapping these people into a stereotype. And a natural consequence is that this “differentness” easily slips into a license to discriminate, consciously or unconsciously.
While this is a very understandable viewpoint, I wonder if we might be in danger of missing the bigger point here. I have definitely been a victim of disability discrimination, with people being both overly patronizing and overly judgmental. And while these attitudes have definitely had negative consequences, I don’t think it helps if I respond by trying to ignore my disability. It is part of who I am. And I have learned the hard way that if I try to minimize or ignore it, I run the risk of injuring myself, both physically and emotionally.
So when I read about people like Steven Hawkings, Helen Keller and Ed Roberts, I am inspired – not just by their accomplishments but by the way they have dealt with their disabilities. Dr Hawkings made no attempt to divorce himself from his disability when he suggested that we “look up at the stars and not down at our feet,” and that he had traveled the universe “from my wheelchair.”
Tonight is Oscar night, and much has been made about the fact that Hollywood is finally becoming more diversified. There is a lot of buzz over films like “Get Out” and “Black Panther,” as there should be.
But how is Hollywood treating peoplewith disabilities these days? One could easily point to heavily nominated films like “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri” as evidence that people with disabilities are finally coming into their own.
But are they really? I have attached two articles written by people with disabilities, who have a decisively personal take on these movies. The first, by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, discusses her reaction to the main character in “Shape of Water.” As a woman who uses a hearing aid and has vision difficulties, she could relate to much of what the heroine (who is mute) goes through. But it was gut-wrenching for her to hear the heroine say that she was “lesser” than other people, and she was glad that her love interest (a monster) did not realize this.
“At its core,” writes Sjunneson-Henry,”…the Shape of Water asks us to consider what a freak is. Is a monster a god? Is a disabled woman a freak? An outsider? Can she be loved or understood by her own kind, or are the monsters the only ones who can truly understand her?”
In “Three Billboards,” one of the main characters is a dwarf. To the movie’s credit, he is portrayed by Peter Dinkladge, an actor who is in fact a dwarf. But to Eva Squiers, a writer who herself has a form of dwarfism, there was still a whole lot wrong with the way the character was portrayed.
“Dinklage plays James, who introduces himself as the ‘town midget’and whose primary function in the film is as the butt of many jokes,” she writes. “In the cinema where I saw Three Billboards, the audience cackled whenever James spoke. This was painful enough as a response to the script’s cheap shots at short-person jokes – for example when James excuses himself to use the “little boys’ room” or is asked if he can juggle.
“But I was more baffled when the people around me laughed at distinctly unfunny scenes of James playing pool, holding a ladder or asking Mildred (Frances McDormand, whose performance has put her in the running for a best actress Oscar) out to dinner. The source of this hilarity seemed to reside in the mere fact that James existed and that he was short; how funny that he, with his non-conforming body, should have the audacity to present as a desiring subject! What a laugh! This clunky reliance on ableist tropes as a form of humour was disappointing coming from a film lauded for its “moments of sharp, cinder black comedy.”
There are a variety of opinions about both of these movies, and the two writers here do not necessarily have more of a “vote” than anyone else. But because their disabilities continue after the movie is over, they have a particulary knowledgeable perspective that should be heard.
The term, “politically correct” has taken quite a beating in recent years.
The phrase can mean a lot of things, but these days it seems to be used in an insulting manner – poking fun at people who are trying to be attentive to diversity in our society.
Granted, there are situations where “political correctness” is overdone. (Examples might be describing a janitor as a “sanitation engineer” or a bald person as “folically challenged.”) But for every situation where the wording seems a bit overstrained, there are several where in fact, an individual is consistently defined not by who they are, but by what they have. (Examples here would be calling someone in a wheelchair “a cripple” or labeling someone with mental illness “a psycho.”}
Words matter, and the attached article does an excellent job of providing alternatives to some of the labels traditionaly used to describe people with disabilities. If there is a common theme, it is the recommendation to use “people first” language, where the fact that someone has a disability is not the first thing you learn about her. Because quite often, it ends up being the only thing that is remembered.
Because Franklin D. Roosevelt had contracted polio, he was unable to use his legs. But he was counseled to hide this fact as much as possible, to keep him from appearing “weak.”
In the book, “Roosevelt’s Splendid Deception,” Hugh Gallagher chronicles the extraordinary lengths that Roosevelt took to hide his disability from the world. He believed that this would cause him to be perceived as “weak” in his ability to lead the country through very troubling times. Therefore, he asked the press not to photograph him in a wheelchair. And for the most part, the press complied.
Mr. Roosevelt also did other things to hide the fact that he was a wheelchair user. Although he had virtually no strength from the waist down, he built up his upper body and arm muscles so that he could literally hold himself up from whatever podium he was speaking from, disguising the fact that his legs were effectively useless. And in getting to the podium, he would enlist the help of someone (often his son) to walk with him. Grasping his escort’s arm, he would use that leverage and his upper body strength to propel his legs forward – one at a time – until he could reach the podium.
Was this the best way to handle his disability? It is hard to say – those were different times in a different world. But there are some myths and stereotypes that seem to have stubbornly persisted through the years – chief among them that people with disabilities are not quite “complete” and should not be treated as if they are. Perhaps that is why a doctor who is a wheelchair user recently wrote in the New York Times that her competence has often come into question – both from patients and colleagues. She also suggests that much of this anxiety might be mitigated if there were more physicians with disabilities on the scene.
As those with disabilities know, a common reaction to us is discomfort and anxiety. That can turn into fear, because people are reminded that at any time, they could join the ranks of the disabled population. And although Roosevelt did not mention his disability during his inauguration, surely he spoke from experience when he said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Note: The photographs below reflect a change in attitude that Roosevelt would have been very happy to see: The first one represents a perpetuation of the “splendid deception,” portraying him as standing tall and proud. Largely because of pressure brought by disability advocates, a new statue was added in the late 90’s. This one shows him as he really was – every bit as proud and presidential.
For more information about these statue changes, see the article below: