Happy November, readers!
Today I had yet another Vocational Rehabilitation meeting, to introduce myself to yet another new counselor. She’s the fifth or sixth counselor my area has seen in not quite as many years. In most cases, the post in my town is a stopover until the person gets something bigger or better, like in the city. So I was kind of dreading the whole thing, as in, “Here we go. Another meeting, another new counselor, another occasion where I have to explain for the 7,948,353rd time what I do and do not need from employers.”
But I got a pleasant surprise today. It turns out the new counselor has cerebral palsy, too.
Of course, her manifestation isn’t exactly like mine. As I have said before, no two people with CP or any other disability are ever exactly alike. But it was wonderful to commiserate on a new level with someone who has dealt with and overcome the same stereotypes, stigma, and misconceptions that I have. It was wonderful to see someone in the “expert” position who truly knows what her clients are experiencing. It is my hope that this will help her to think more outside the box than any of my previous counselors have.
Now as we know, a person does not have to have a disability themselves to want to, or be able to, help people with disabilities. Furthermore, to assume PWDs can only benefit from each other is an ableist construct. It occurs to me, though: not enough persons with disabilities are the experts. They’ve been told all their lives what to do, when and how to do it, and by what time they should master it, courtesy of “experts.” They aren’t treated like the experts of their own lives. More importantly, I rarely see a person with a disability who is an expert in a workplace field of any kind, especially those that are not disability-related.
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a person with a disability in any kind of management or leadership position? If you did, was that person working with people of different ability levels, like my new counselor–or was he or she relegated only to a certain group of people? When was the last time a PWD supervised you in your job, or you answered to him or her in any context? When was the last time a PWD’s opinion was sought above all others? When was that opinion listened to?
My guess is “rarely” or “never,” because PWDs are often not afforded seniority and privileges in their jobs. Like temporarily able-bodied people, PWDs have the right to these things, but they often do not happen. That can occur for many reasons. For instance, a lot of people with disabilities, yours truly included, have to “job hop” to find environments that work for them. But every time we enter a new environment, we have to start over. Sometimes PWDs get downsized or worse, unjustly fired. When that happens, it is often assumed that they shouldn’t get privileges in the next job, if there is one. Sometimes, PWDs don’t get seniority and privileges because it is simply assumed, “They can’t handle that” or “They’ll mess it up.” Ableism alert!
These constructs not only make it harder for PWDs to become respected experts in their fields, but to gain confidence in their positions. It also makes it more difficult for PWDs who are not experts, to believe they could become so. For instance, I admit doing a double take when I walked into my counselor’s office this morning and saw a walker against a wall. Because I didn’t want to assume she had a disability, I said nothing, but as we talked, it became clear she did. Let me repeat: I had never met a person with a disability in her position before. And God help me, if I had, I might have had the tiniest moment of doubt that that person could help me. I work every day to excise doubts like that, but they still exist, especially in people who do nothing to acknowledge, let alone excise, them.
It comes down to a few key things, readers. I won’t spend a lot of time here because we’ve already discussed some of these concepts, but let me sum up:
-People with disabilities can become the experts in their fields. This should always be allowed and encouraged.
-People with disabilities are not experts only on their disabilities, but never forget: When dealing with a disability of any kind, the first person you should speak to, is the person who lives with it every day.
-We still live in an ableist society, where even PWDs do double takes when they see their fellow people in management, supervisory, or expert positions. Frankly, should I ever get that far, I would not be surprised or offended if somebody walked or rolled up to me and did a double take, too. But we must work together to get past the double takes. Seeing a PWD behind the desk or running the show should be as commonplace as seeing a black, Asian, or Hispanic person.
-People with disabilities must keep asking, and demanding if necessary, seniority and privileges (NOT begging and groveling. You do not have to grovel; we are past the era of the tin cup). You can’t become an expert unless you’re allowed to move up, and if you’re not moving, you need to ask why. Sometimes it’s a matter of having the right mentor and doing the right things. Sometimes your supervisor may invent excuses, either because that person is an ableist or a flake, or because outside circumstances are adverse. (For instance, my last supervisor never let me move from junior to senior level, or to higher pay grades, but that was because our clients kept changing the expectations and rules every five minutes). Do you want or need a raise? A chance at more challenging opportunities? Say it! If you’ve worked hard and done what is expected of you, and shown aptitude, this should not be a problem. If it is, you may be dealing with discrimination, and it is your right to confront that issue.
So, what if you are a person with a disability who is an expert in his or her field? Congratulations! Keep these things in mind:
-You earned it. You didn’t get here because you’re an inspiration, to meet a quota, or to make somebody feel good (and if you find out you did, that counts as positive discrimination).
-Treat your colleagues, especially those underneath you, as you want to be treated.
-Mentor others where and when you can; show new people the ropes where and when you can.
-Remember that in some situations, you are the “they.” In other words, if you’re the head of the university disability services department, you’re the one students are talking about when they say, “They won’t help me. They don’t listen. They don’t have what I need.” I understand that sometimes, hands are tied. Any system, governmental, academic, or what have you, is going to have problems because humans run the system. But never–I repeat, NEVER–become a faceless “they.” Instead, convey the attitude of, “I understand–on a deeper level than most–that this is frustrating. We’re going to try A, B, and C, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try D.”
-Remember that no two people, TAB or with disabilities, are the same. Serve the person before the disability, the skin color, the religion, what have you.
People with disabilities have “experts” telling and showing them what to do all the time, but we have a dearth of PWDs who actually are the experts. So my challenge to you is, go forth, work hard at what you do, nurture your passions, and rise. Say to yourself, “I can be an expert!”