Well, it’s Disability Awareness Month in Indiana, USA. Sound Bend, IN, network WSBT are raising awareness with a story about Sarah Schelstraete, who has Down Syndrome. It’s called Sarah’s Story: Hard at work despite disabilities. One thousand points if you can anticipate from the title what my major problem with the article was.
Now, impairments can make particular kinds of work, or work at all, difficult for people with disabilities, particularly when accommodations – be they ramps or particular lighting or a chair or whatever – are not provided. Leaving aside any accommodations Ms Schelstraete might utilise (it’s irrelevant and really none of our business) there’s no indication as to what impact her impairment might have that would make it hard for her to work at her job as the article title suggests. In fact, the article doesn’t tell us what her job actually is, but moving right along. Now, I’m not saying she definitely doesn’t have challenges related to her impairment, but rather that I have a problem with a particular narrative that this article taps into. This is a narrative that erases Ms Schelstraete’s individual situation, whatever that might be, in favour of conveying disability as something the poor dears must overcome! in their tear-inducing (to abled people) efforts! to live a normal life! which includes paid work!
Perhaps it is that push to gloss everything over that skews the narrative here, but let’s take a gander at the actual information the article provides. Ms Schelstraete is clearly a ‘dependable employee,’ as her supervisor Donna Martis says. She does her job well; interviewees are enthused about her being good at her job. There is not really a need, it would seem, to say that she is doing a good job in spite of her being disabled. She is good at her job. And she is disabled. Just like she is good at her job and a woman, good at her job and a daughter, good at her job and a resident of Indiana, good at her job and, I don’t know, maybe she likes detective shows or cupcakes or whatever. But time and again when disabled people are featured in the media, there’s a kind of shock that “those people” could achieve anything of worth – worth defined according to ableist standards around paid work, of course.
As such, I have a problem with wording like this in the article:
‘Martis said Sarah is a valuable employee who knows how to do her work, and requires little supervision.’
Or how about this?
‘Like any hard-working employee, Sarah knows one big benefit of having a job is making money. She often uses her paycheck to buy DVDs and CDs.’
Yep, just like everybody else – yet her competence must be uniquely examined and confirmed by all these people, despite her having been employed by the same laboratories for seventeen years. This is yet another example of the media trope in which PWD are achieving! through! the hardship! Would you like to know what a hardship is? For many PWD, sometimes more than our impairments themselves? Putting up with that condescending bullshit and fighting to be approached as actual people who should be approached with respect. Because handing out “well done!” stickers has nowhere near of the same value as does being treated like a person with things to offer.
These kinds of awareness-raising stories do little more than give abled readers/viewers/listeners a lift, a feel good story they can tuck away out of mind when they’re done. It’s easier for PWD to be a one-dimensional story, those people put there to light up abled people’s worlds with inspiration, prompting a whispered gratefulness that they’re not one of them. How about we raise some awareness of the social oppression attached to being disabled? Awareness ought to be raised about how many disabled people are out of work because, as Ms Schelstraete’s employment consultant Stacey Simcox says, many ‘don’t give someone the chance because they already have the mindset that they’re not going to be able to do the job even with the support’. About how disabled people so often are treated as though they’re being done a favour by being employed at all. About how work can be a struggle or impossible because of workplace bullying. Because of refusal to provide decent wages. Because employers won’t grant equitable working conditions or accommodations.
And let’s raise awareness about the valuation of work. There’s a nasty thread that runs through these kind of stories that holds disabled people to be societal leeches, a drain on resources. This kind of thinking defines human worth in terms of money, as though people are only good for how much money they contribute and how little they take from welfare or healthcare programs and such. It’s the kind of argument used against poor people who need that assistance, it’s the kind of argument that has led to women’s unpaid work in the home being so devalued. It’s thinking that tries to shame those who utilise thoroughly deserved government assistance, as though it doesn’t exist for a reason.
I am continually astounded by negative reinforcement of difference, but barely ever really surprised. You’d think efforts to raise awareness would require being aware.