“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” -Audre Lorde
It is that time of the year again, Disability Employment Awareness Month. This month people are paying homage to those with disabilities, especially the accomplishments they have and can make within the workforce. I have often said on and off this forum that disability does not mean inability. When given the opportunity, more and more people will begin to realize this fact. In terms of public figures, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Einstein, Vincent Van Gogh, Michael J. Fox, and Stevie Wonder are a few to step outside of the box that many people with disabilities are placed.
In society, we have the need to categorize others by assigning labels to them and forming judgements based upon those labels. But, what if those labels are just that, labels? So many people let their preconceived notions stand in the way of them truly experiencing what is around them. You don’t truly know unless you experience it yourself. It is very fitting that the 2016 theme for Disability Employment Awareness Month is “Inclusion Works.” Inclusion encourages, promotes awareness and enables people to challenge their preconceived notions. Inclusion makes room for people to have a conversation with themselves and others.
In my opinion, one step, and I believe should be the first one, to having the conversation is to address the stigma surrounding disability. What are your views regarding those with disabilities? Do they make you nervous? Do you feel they are your counterparts? Many people have stigmas, but are not honest with themselves or others about them, thus perpetuating a long stream of misconceptions. In the beginning of the month, I overheard the security guard at my building talking about me to a new guard, who was shadowing him. As I was passing by, I heard him telling her what I did and what floor I worked on in the building. Her response was, “She works?” Yes, I do work and am a contributing member in society. If given a chance, other people with disabilities can work too, and the unemployment rate within this group could be lower. It is not that people with disabilities don’t want to work, but they are unable to due to extenuating factors, the most pressing being marginalization. With this said, to aid people in having the conversation, the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council introduced a public campaign in April of 2016 called, “Let’s Think Again.” For a while the organization had volunteers post signs across various locations in the state that had controversial statements about those with disabilities. Statements that people would think, and sometimes say to a person with a disability. The campaign brings stigma to the forefront and not let it be hidden. On the campaign’s website, they have people with disabilities telling their stories as well as a quiz, allowing people to understand how much, if at all, they contribute to stigma. Check out Let’s Think Again: Stigma Project.
I encourage you all to reflect throughout this month… How has someone with a disability impacted your thoughts? As a result, how did your thoughts impact your actions regarding those with disabilities? I ask you to have the conversation, what do you have to lose? Nothing. You have a lot to gain… Understanding. To learn how you can help create awareness about disability employment, check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s main website at National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2016.