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The elephant in the living room

A story in a special "jobs" section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday reports findings of a "recent study" by the Bobby Dodd Institute in Atlanta:

nearly half of the 200 human resources representatives surveyed in metro Atlanta said, "Disabled persons cannot adequately perform required work duties."

Nearly 90 percent of small companies and close to 75 percent of large companies don't employ any workers who have developmental disabilities. And nearly one-third of large companies and almost 60 percent of small companies don't employ any workers who have physical disabilities. . . . ( from Advocates work to boost employment of disabled)

I'd think any disability rights activist -- or anyone familiar with the concepts of disability rights -- or even just generic civil rights for that matter -- would see the prejudice leaping out at 'em in the "Disabled persons cannot adequately perform. . . . " statement.

Nowhere in the story, though, was there any mention of discrimination, or of any possible violation of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. The story by reporter David Hughes does say that the study "goes a long way toward explaining why the unemployment rate for people who have disabilities hovers at 70 percent overall -- and 40 percent for college graduates who have disabilities." But he never once mentions the "D" word.

This story is as good an example as I've come across lately of the elephant-in-the-living-room approach to covering disability issues: Whatever you write, don't notice the -- shhh! -- discrimination.

Hughes never quotes anyone who offers anything beyond the kind of "they need more training" blame-the-victim pabulum that's standard today in looking at disability problems. Even if it's not "blaming," exactly (although that's exactly what I think it is, really), it certainly does place the burden of the problem on either the disabled person -- who needs more "training" or more "motivation" -- or on "programs" that don't go far enough to "help" disabled people get jobs.

Hughes writes,

[T] hose who grapple with the issue cite several contributing factors:

  • Some receive Social Security benefits, which are lost if the recipient makes too much money.

  • Parents sometimes have low expectations, and the student underachieves.

  • Some students who have disabilities shy away from activities that look good on resumes, such as competing on the debate team or editing the school yearbook. . . .

Look at that last reason: students may "shy away from activities. . . "??? Any thought of Hughes reporting on why they might "shy away"?

Nope; that's the same elephant.

The disabled people referred to in the story (and, by the way, none are quoted; only professionals and job experts are allowed to offer reasons) face "stigma" or "challenges." Not bigotry. Not prejudice. Not discrimination.

No; the story's all about wondering what the problem is, and quoting folks from this or that jobs program who can "help."

Somebody ougtha help by catching that elephant and taking a good look at it.


Oooh, what patronizing language is "some students who have disabilities shy away from activities"--as if they're talking about blushing wallflowers, delicately avoiding situations too intense for their fragile little selves. All on their own, it seems--no hint of anybody discouraging them, warning them away with a blunt "NO" or "Forget it, kid." No fights in parent-teacher meetings over just such missed opportunities--the kids just "shy away." Can't be helped, you see.... Blech!

Amen, Mary.

Amen, Penny.

Now where did I put that elephant net . . . ?

Yes, there's discrimination. Yes, discrimination eliminates opportunities and yes, it's bad, very bad. However, WE are the experts. WE must keep getting out there no matter how many times the door is slammed in our faces. WE must change perceptions and create opportunities, one situation at a time if necessary.