Today in Journalism: Overcoming Adversity! Inspiration! Disability Tropes! It Must Be Tuesday
The Daily Gazette out of Colchester wants to apprise us of some ‘inspiring’ stories. No really. ‘Entrepreneurs’ inspiring tales are recognised.’ Says so right in the headline, so that’s one bingo square gone. Two people are profiled in this article, which includes ‘overcoming adversity’ in the first line (bingo square number two gone), and it’s the second profile that’s of interest to me.
Jim Ramplin was ‘made redundant’ from his job as a mechanical engineer in 2008, and he chose to get training as an horologist so that he could start a new career repairing clocks. Given the economic problems many nations are experiencing right now, a lot of people are being forced to change careers and come up with new ways to support themselves and this is a narrative playing out all over the world as people are released from their jobs and must find new ways to support themselves. Some are successful. Some are not. It’s a highly competitive market for jobs right now. It’s interesting to see which of these stories newspapers choose to cover; generally, they want to find some kind of hook to draw readers in, like a banker becoming a janitor. In Ramplin’s case, he’s of interest because he’s a polio survivor.
Yet another news article breathlessly reporting that, did you know, some people with disabilities like to work? And that, when people with disabilities who are working lose their jobs, they have to go find new ones! Wow, they really are just like real people. Such articles typically elide the barriers to employment for people with disabilities, like ableism in hiring practices, inaccessible workplaces, and of course poverty traps created for disabled people; if you receive government benefits, working puts your benefits in jeopardy, forcing many people who want to work to remain unemployed or underemployed.
Almost always, employment for people with disabilities in articles like this is framed as a personal problem; people just need to ‘overcome’ their disabilities and then they will be able to find work. The social barriers encountered while seeking work, everywhere from trying to go to college to get training for a job to trying to deal with workplace harassment, are simply not discussed or even acknowledged. This allows readers to rest secure in the idea that skyrocketing unemployment rates among people with disabilities are our fault because we’re not trying hard enough, and that there’s nothing they can do to confront unemployment in the disabled community. Not their problem.
Tiptree Clocks, his business, appears to be thriving, so kudos to him for finding a niche market and exploiting it, for being able to make a living when a lot of people are struggling. Clearly he’s a savvy businessman, and that’s got absolutely nothing to do with his disability. These articles aren’t talking about what makes a good entrepreneur, though. They’re not profiling people because they’re good at business, but because they have personal traits that make a convenient hook for an article.
This story frames people like Ramplin as having ‘grit and determination’ to ‘turn tragedy into triumph.’ The tragedy in the framing of the article isn’t his job loss, but his disability.
In another profile, Ramplin says:
I’ve never let my disability beat me. If I’ve wanted to do something I’ve always gone ahead and done it – I’ve always been independent. I also have diabetes and I do occasionally get back pain, and if I’m not feeling too good I just stop work and rest and then go back upstairs and carry on, which is the advantage of being my own boss.
It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t view his acquired disability as a tragedy, and it’s quite noxious that the media keep framing disability as a tragedy when many of us do not feel that our lives are tragic. This quote is a bit supercrippy, but it’s notable that he discusses creating accommodations for himself and alludes to workplace barriers for people with disabilities, although he doesn’t address them directly. Being able to stop and rest is not a benefit provided to very many disabled employees and the only way many people with disabilities can get workplace accommodations is by being self-employed, being our own bosses.
News articles about work and people with disabilities so commonly inhabit this patronising space which often leads me to feel like the writer feels that we are, for the most part, unemployable because most of us aren’t capable of ‘overcoming’ our disabilities. Since employment is often treated as the only viable way to ‘contribute to society,’ such articles underscore the idea that we aren’t contributing anything to our communities unless we’re working. Very rarely do I see journalists confronting the social attitudes that make it difficult for us to obtain employment and stay employed. I guess that wouldn’t make for such a feelgood article.