The Media Edge:

Late-breaking news:
Once again, for the first time, people with disabilities are recruited into the workforce.

By Arnold Birenbaum.

Arnold Birenbaum, Ph.D., is the Associate Director of the Rose F. Kennedy Center University Affiliated Program for People with Developmental Disabilities, and Professor of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is the author of the recently published Disability and Managed Care: Problems and Opportunities at the End of the Century (Praeger).

photo of women welders

The current labor shortage is making it possible for large numbers of people with disabilities to make inroads into the workforce. The March 20 Business Week Online chose to report on this trend by leading its story with "the wild man in the wheelchair," now working -- and entertaining -- at a Gap store in Manhattan.

It's not the first time work opportunities have appeared. Like the women in the award-winning wartime documentary Rosie The Riveter, disabled people were mobilized to replace workers serving in the military during World War II. Unlike the women, though, people with disabilities were not the subject of swing tunes.

Starting in 1941, public policy began to recognize "the handicapped" as a vital source of labor. "Daily I see big, able-bodied men going into light defense jobs that I know very well could be handled by handicapped persons," H. J. McMahon wrote in a letter to The New York Times published late that year. This, he wrote, would permit "the relinquishment of the big husky fellow for more arduous tasks in industry, or agriculture -- Washington says there is a shortage of farm labor -- or in the armed forces."

New York Times stories about"the handicapped" on the home front during the labor-short Forties may have lessons for us during this longest period of economic expansion in our history (and the lowest level of unemployment in 27 years).

A December 9, 1942 story reported on amputee training; the training was considered necessary so that power drill presses could operate despite labor shortages. Heralding the first graduates of this new training program as pioneers, the Times never questioned why it took a war to make this kind of vocational rehabilitation available.

A June 21, 1942 story had reported on human service professionals' ideas for employing "the handicapped": work camps " . . . in which segregated boys and men who could not make good in private employment would be used in a program similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps, and city camps, in which the same kind of individuals would service municipal public works programs." Hitler's Germany also believed that work would be liberating. Why am I reminded of the labor camps of the Third Reich?

Two days earlier, the Times had reported on less extreme solutions for employing the "exceptional" in its story "Role for 'Unusual' Sought in Parley." Reporting on a three-day conference at Columbia University's Teachers College, the Times reported on speakers who had noted that even persons with low "I.Q.s", were able to ". . . perform perfunctory factory tasks with as great a facility as 'intelligent' people, . . . and sometimes prove to operate with greater efficiency at monotonous work."

The War Manpower Commission, responsible for finding labor to support those at the front, commended a large defense plant in Williamsport, Pennsylvania whose workforce consisted of 33 "physically handicapped workers" ( "Disabilities Turned into Capabilities," New York Times, January 17, 1943). The quest for integration, either racial or otherwise, was not a very important political and social issue in American life until after the war.

Toward the end of the war, vocation rehabilitation began to focus on veterans with disabilities returning to civilian life. "New Field is Seen for Women," reported The Times in an Aug 12, 1944 story, noting the expanding field of physical therapy. In December, the paper reported "Many Handicapped Available to Jobs." Engineers were exhorted to design work environments that not only would be safe but also could efficiently employ people with disabilities -- a concept that would be most welcome today in the disability community. But none of the stories about the new programs ever noted they could build on the experience with people with disabilities who mobilized during the war.

Research assistance provided by Bianca Lopez.


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