Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Elephant in the Room

"I wasn't an artist who'd become an artist. I was an activist who'd become an artist. Ever since my mother had drummed it into me, I'd felt the need to fight injustice wherever I saw it, in whatever way I could. Somehow my mother had made me feel it was my job, my obligation. 'And don't ever give in,' I can hear her say still. 'Don't let them get you. You fight, boy. You fight.' So I'd spoken up, and done some marching, and then found my power in songs of protest, and sorrow, and hope." ~Harry Belafonte, from his book "My Song."

That resonates with me. Belafonte went through so much in his life in terms of discrimination and he fought it. With disability, while not to the same extent as what Belafonte experienced, those with disabilities may fight discrimination, or fight separation because of really wanting to be just like others with the same opportunities, or simply fight disability itself, trying to do everything like everyone else. Disability is often the elephant in the room.

Here on the front range (not in the mountains, strangely) of Colorado, we just got 2 feet or more of snow. It came fast and furiously. It left many stranded and unable to get out and where they wanted to go. For those with mobility problems, stranded feels mild. I've been emailing a few friends. We haven't been just stranded to our local neighborhood or cul de sac. We've felt stranded inside, to be safe.

I love to see pictures of friends and family doing things like sledding in the snow. I love watching my daughter and her friends play with all the snow in our cul de sac. If there's a positive, I don't have to shovel the stuff! But I wish I could do all those things (except shoveling, of course), but I can't do them without a lot of effort myself, but moreso of others. I now know why I love to ski - I actually get to be in the middle of things, outside, in the snow. This year I'm not skiing because I'm working on walking and trying to get my shoulder to mend a bit more. But when I go skiing, I enter the ski office and everything changes - the elephant in the room (disability) goes out the door and we ski!

So, this snowstorm has brought a mixed bag of feelings. As I said, the snowstorm has forced people with mobility problems inside more than those without. Limitations actually then migrate to affecting employment. How do different companies handle this? It's dangerous to go to work - maybe for everyone; moreso for people who have trouble walking or who primarily use wheelchairs. There are efforts to better employment for people with disabilities, but with snowstorms, disability and employment can mean the elephant in the room becomes bigger.

I did a quick survey of a couple companies and their reaction to the storm. At one company, all employees regardless of disability were told, the day prior to the storm, to be safe, and if they could work from home the next day, they should. At another company decisions varied by department. In some departments, all people were encouraged to work from home. In other departments, it was obvious that a person who uses a wheelchair should work from home due to safety, and others may have had the option to do the same. One person with a disability said "please, don't risk going out. People can slip, fall, break bones. You know how that goes. Then it's the hospital, and then the nursing home, etc." Bingo. In another department, trying to treat everyone the same, people were told that if they needed to stay home, they should take a day off. Problematic. A person with mobility problems might have been able to work from home and didn't want to go into work for fear of slipping, falling, etc... But without an accommodation, they were required to take the day off. Did the company think that if this employee fell, the expenses would be significant, and most likely not worth it?

For people without disabilities, there were choices. They could choose to stay inside. They could also choose to go outside. For people who have trouble moving/other concerns, most likely they stayed inside and watched the snow fall.

I enjoy seeing all the pictures of the fun people are having doing things like making snow angels - at the same time, I have to be honest and say it hurts to be stranded inside. I could go outside and watch - many parents do just that - but if something happened and someone needed help, I'd be an observer, unless a call to 911 was needed - I could do that! I think most with very significant mobility problems would love to not have these problems, to have a choice to take the day off and play in the snow, to have the choice to go into work or not.

Back to the decision... to take the day off or to come into the office. It would be dangerous to go into the office - that was a given. It was possible to work from home, but to treat everyone equally, the decision was made that working from home was not an option - take the day off or get into the office. Then a person with a disability, needing to work from home, had to go through a process of getting a note from their doctor - to make a "reasonable accommodation" that they should work from home in bad weather, rather than just doing what would sense and work from home. And that process of asking for a note from a doctor for an accommodation... it brings out the elephant in the room, especially to the person, who starts wondering why those without disabilities don't see the elephant, and don't appreciate the fact that they can wear boots and tromp through the snow, take the sled and sled with their kids, and make snow angels with the ability to stand up afterward. Those realizations come to the front of everything and hurt. The realizations hurt more than the elephant in the room, which is already forcing the person inside. To work from home could relieve realizations a bit - all those things where there were limits could be temporarily placed to the side, due to work, at least for a bit.

Unemployment of people with disabilities is the highest of any "group." In addition, the participation rate for people with disabilities is extremely low, not even close to other groups. That all means that of the approximately 20 percent of people with disabilities who want to work (compared to the 70 percent of people without disabilities who want to work), they still face the highest unemployment rate. Think about it. For a person with a disability in the first situation, they're probably happy and want to work. In the second case, where common sense was applied, I'd guess they still want to work. For the last situation, where they had to request a formal accommodation, my guess is it wasn't the first time. My guess is that at some point it gets old. My other guess, and it's a guess, is that more is happening there.

There has to be more going on in that last situation. It just seems so strange. What should the person do? How long is it worth it to fight? Has the person been fighting their whole life, like Belafonte did, and has it become more of their life than other aspects? "Don't let them get you. You fight." Protest, sorrow, and hope - how long? Belafonte stuck to his fight. If we're at a 20% partipation rate, I'm guessing many have given up the fight. And for those of us still in that 20%? I hope we continue to fight, and help others to fight, just as Belafonte did.

It takes a village to create significant change.


1 comment:

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