Kicking off his presentation, Patrick expressed that today we are still
overcome 1,000 years of prejudice and vilification towards people with disabilities. For, as he noted, historical opinions that aren't critically questioned and are left unchecked in the moment become the background assumptions that lead to prejudice.
The following are some of the key background points he made in his compelling and well-received presentation.
- In the Bible, Leviticus states that no disabled man can offer food to a priest. Such Biblical injunctions start the process of stigmatization.
- Disability has long been viewed as an immutable condition caused by supernatural agency. From the Spartan practice of eugenics known as "exposure" to today's PAPP-A tests to screen for the potential of Downs Syndrome, societies have long sought to punish or remove the disabled from society.
- Disability doesn't just affect the individual with the disability, but it costs society, and so the individual should be discarded.
- In literature and the arts, a person with an external "deformity" is often presented as a person with an inner flaw, employed to point to some sort of psychological disability. Examples include Captains Ahab and Hook. By internalizing their difficulty in viewing their disability, such characters are often either compelled to save the world (Jake Sully in the movie "Avatar") or are quite dissolute (Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises").
In addition to pointing out the historical roots for current cultural practices and attitudes regarding disability, Patrick shared some eye opening statistics. Using the medical model of disability, 1 in 8 Americans, or 51 million individuals between 18 and 64, have some kind of physical impairment. People with disabilities constitute the single largest minority group in the United States, cutting across the lines of race, religion, ethnicity, and socio-economic class. Most people with a disability are under- or unemployed.
According to the National Organization on Disability, three times as many people with a disability live in poverty. Twenty-six percent earn less than $15,000 per year. Twenty-two percent report having experienced some form of job discrimination. Only thirty-five percent are employed full time, making them a very large, untapped workforce. People with disabilities are twice as likely to drop out of school and to have inadequate transportation, and most lack health insurance.
Patrick shared that in order to shift to healthier employment practices and help individuals with a disability to find employment, we must overcome our imbedded prejudices. One way to do this is to look at how we define and speak of disability - the words and the "model" we use. For, as Patrick explained, how we use words can change things.
There are three different models regarding disability: the medical model; the person-centered model; and the social constructionist model. Each of these offers a slightly different way of talking about disability.
The medical model focuses on impairment or the loss of a specific behavior or major life activity. Here disability is seen as a "loss", as "impairment". In this model, the doctor has a duty to cure and return one to "normal function".
Patrick shared the practical implications of this model in his own life. While grateful to have a doctor striving to heal his injuries, his experience has been that doctors will often look away from him, seeing him as a "wheeling insult to their inability to fix him". Nurses, however, usually act differently because their training model is based on providing care as opposed to returning one to full function. Physical therapists, in Patrick's experience, are the most enlightened as they have a much more intimate sense of disability and ability and look at it along a gradient.
|Aristotle on pity |
Continuing on, Patrick expressed that while we want our physician to
be focused on achieving a cure, this focus can also lead to a tragedy or pity model, where one feels sorry for you for losing function. Patrick expressed that while pity is good and important as the basis of empathy, it can also be misplaced, as well expressed in this profound quote from Aristotle:
"We pity in others, what we fear in ourselves."
Patrick pointed out that it's not so much that we feel sorry for the person with the disability but rather we feel sorry for ourselves because we feel fear.
The second model is the person-centered model, which focuses first on the person and then their condition. These guidelines from the American Psychological Association for person-centered terminology are followed in the workplace and medical realms. For example, one would say "the boy with Downs' Syndrome" or "a man with paralysis" (instead of "a paraplegic"). Such language affirms a person's dignity and respects their autonomy. Patrick pointed out that people will often complain about this focus on being "politically correct", and while it is true that person-centered language calls upon us to change our speaking habits, in the process it also empowers and creates a new reality that counters the prejudices of other ill-chosen words and their histories.
Speaking of history, Patrick then shared the history of the word "handicapped", which comes from old English tradition. Beggars who were disabled by war would ask for alms with their cap in their hands; over time the connotation has become that a person with a disability is a beggar. However, as Patrick said, by challenging ourselves to think differently and use new language, we allow new worlds and possibilities to open up that allow a person with a disability to flourish on their own terms.
Finally, there is the social-constructionist model, which holds that disability is defined not by the attributes had by an individual but rather by conditions created by our social environment. This model looks at individuals with physical, developmental or intellectual disabilities as people first and resists defining them by their attributes. It understands that one person's disability may be another person's ability. For example, a peer counselor in a rehabilitation hospital who has a disability may have an advantage in her work over her non-disabled colleagues.
As he began to wrap up his presentation, Patrick posed these questions: Why should we care (about hiring a person with a disability)? Why should we try to make the world a better place? How does this affect me?"
Here is his response to such questions. First of all, he feels it is the professional and moral duty of employers to hire a person with a disability. In addition, however, it is also in the self-interest of each of us.
In the disability rights community a person without a disability is often referred to as a "TAB", or "temporarily able bodied" person, because disability happens. It happens to everyone. You may not have a physical or perception disability now but you will - perhaps not to an alarming level but this is a reality of aging and of living in an industrial society. According to the insurance industry, people under 35 have a 1 in 3 chance of becoming disabled; by age 42 that rises to 40% chance.
We acquire disability in a variety of ways - at birth, through a catastrophic accident, due to a genetic load that expresses itself later on, and through general aging. Therefore, it's in each of our best interest to make the world a better place, because after we become disabled, each of us will still want to get up, go to work, go out, pay our bills, and integrate fully with society.
|Suj Desai |
Finally, in conclusion, Patrick shared the example of 27 year old Sujeet Desai, who is a concert pianist, 2nd degree Tae Kwon Do black belt, graduated with honors and a 4.3 gpa from his high school, and built his own website. He also, by the way, was born with Downs Syndrome. In looking at him, Patrick said, some might jump to the conclusion that he is "disabled" - but that word and his condition are irrelevant to what he has achieved in life. With that example in mind, Patrick gave these marching orders:
"Disability isn't relevant. If a person is otherwise qualified, you should give them a chance and opportunity. You might see that it benefits your business and is an all-around boon for society"
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So, reflecting on Patrick's presentation, we invite you to consider: Do you hire individuals with disabilities in your organization? Do you use terminology related to disability in a positive, person centered way? How do YOU "employ" disability?