I was born wired to work.
I turned 16 and was stoked to get my first job at Jack in the Box.
That’s right, ya boy was a fry cook! From curly fries to egg rolls, I loved keeping up with the busy ebb and flow of our store – especially when we saw a noticeable spike when customers rolled through around midnight with a case of the late-night munchies.
I’d worked there for close to six months when our store manager was let go. We never heard why, but quickly found ourselves under new management. I didn’t really give it much thought because I Knew I’d show up and keep hustling like I’d always done.
But I got a phone call within a week of our new manager taking the helm. She’d never really interacted with me, but called me out of the blue to say she was concerned about my future on the fryer. Nary an incident to my name, she told me it might be safest if I serve the store in a different way – to which she suggested I come in for a few hours each week to tidy the lobby and restroom areas.
I didn’t know much about discrimination to this point. I mean, I’d been picked on for being blind, but never had I faced the reality of an older adult showing explicit discrimination toward me because I’m disabled. I was shocked, hurt, frustrated and confused – because remember, I’d done my job without fail this entire time (which in the fast food world, six months is nearly an eternity.)
I didn’t cause a fuss, call an attorney or boycott those tasty, yet terribly unhealthy monster tacos. In fact, I didn’t do anything. I hung up my apron and never went back.
As I reflect on a notable anniversary for the Americans with Disabilities Act this evening, I’m reminded of how it took legislation for disabled people like me to find liberty and protection in areas like employment, education and transportation. Activists and advocates had to challenge culture and policy makers relentlessly to codify personhood for me and so many others.
And still, with a record and reputation of being a dependable team member, I was dismissed on the basis of my disability. I wish my story were an outlier and disabled people weren’t cast aside like this in the workplace, but it’s a dangerous reality we need to face.
To this day, we hear bloated figures on the staggeringly-high unemployment and underemployment rates in the disabled community. And more often than not, it isn’t because there’s a physical, technological or communications barrier in the way. No, it’s the less visible, more sinister sting of attitudinal and systemic barriers that, 30 years later, we still have yet to topple.
My external reaction to that moment was quite passive, regrettably. I should have spoken up and stood firm – not just for myself, but for every other disabled person that manager would discriminate against along the way.
But internally, I was an absolute wreck and dealt with issues of confidence and self-worth for most of my teens and twenties. In fact, I had at least a dozen professionals over the next few years tell me I couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to pursue my vocational goals – many of which I have or continue to pursue to this day. (Boo on you!)
So, what do we do with all of this, friends? Where do we go from here? While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the things jumping out in my mind right now (and I encourage others to add theirs’ in the comments.)
- We have to stop seeing disability as something to fear, pity or cause discomfort. Like a pair of pants, disability is something I live with and embrace as part of who I am. It doesn’t make me brave, inspiring or powerful. We must challenge the idea disability is more than an identity and an aspect of diversity to be valued. I’m no superhero, saint or charity case – I’m a totally blind husband, father, trusted professional, drummer, writer, coder and so much more.
- We must recognize the role society plays in disabling individuals. When I attend an event and don’t have access to the printed information available to other attendees, my eyesight isn’t the barrier. The disabling factor is that the materials are in print and haven’t been provided in alternative formats for people who consume information through other means of access. When we create a video and don’t include captions, we create a barrier for people who need audio to be transcribed to access spoken information. We are the source of these barriers!
- We also need to extend greater grace to the people around us. While we pretend to know everything about someone based on what we see of them, there’s no way you can ever know what someone is navigating by a glance. Stop thinking everyone who walks into the store after parking in an accessible parking spot is faking a disability. Or trying to “diagnose” every public figure based on what you see through a lens. WE do harm to disabled people when we make presumptions or fit the narrative around our idea of these identities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 today, – and while it’s meant more open doors than disabled people had in the 90s, you can’t look at me with a straight face and say we’re anywhere close to where we should be.
We all win if we ensure equitable access for everyone. Opportunity is anything but when we limit who has access. Challenge yourself, recognize barriers and promote equity inside your sphere of influence – and we’ll value the diversity of disability rather than see it as another problem to solve.