The place I work does a lot of trainings for other organizations on health care programs. A number of health care programs are available only for people with long-term disabilities, so the trainings always include a fair amount of discussion of what disability is and who is disabled.
My organization is relatively progressive and puts a priority on protecting vulnerable populations. We have a section of the training talking about the government’s requirement to provide translation and interpretation services for people who do not speak English. We discuss programs for minor children who want to obtain family planning or pregnancy services without their parents being notified. We highlight the special rules for homeless people to work around their lack of a fixed mailing address or phone number.
When it comes to disability issues, though, there isn’t always the level of awareness and sensitivity that I would like. Recently, I was sitting with two co-workers talking about potential interactive activities to add to the training. One co-worker suggested making a poster with photographs cut out of magazines that we should show to the trainees and ask them to point out who is NOT eligible for Medicaid (the U.S. goverment health program for very low-income folks).
“We can use the photos to show them that people on Medicaid aren’t just homeless people pushing shopping carts on the street,” she said. “And it’s also good to remind people that you can’t tell someone’s disability status just by looking at them.”
“Yeah,” responded another co-worker. “It’s always good to remind them that someone could have a mental health disability or something like fibromyalgia that you can’t see just from looking at them.”
HURRAH, I thought. People who are aware of these issues of disabilities that aren’t immediately apparent by looking at a photo. People who want to include this information in a training, want to highlight it with an interactive activity, to make sure everyone understands that. This is progress. This is positive.
“We could Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan on the poster,” my co-worker continued. “Nobody knew how crazy both of them were at first! I mean, who would have imagined that they were so totally loopy and unhinged? They’re SO CRAZY!” And then she and my other co-worker laughed and laughed.
I froze. Do I mention that we don’t actually have access to their medical records or diagnoses so have no idea what’s going on with them other than what’s reported in the not-at-all unbiased mainstream media and gossip columns? Do I mention that if we go by what’s been reported, I have the same diagnosis as Britney and could be considered just as “loopy and unhinged”? Do I distinguish between drug and alcohol problems and mental health disorders? Do I argue that laughing at people with disabilities that way undermines the message they’re trying to convey with the activity?
I didn’t say anything. I’d already used up a lot of my “humorless” allotment arguing against using an example of a welfare recipient as a single mother with 11 kids so felt that to make any inroads on this issue, I’d have to disclose my own status, which I just wasn’t willing to do. So I let it go by.