So, a quick, cursory count of the number of International “Days” last year came in at just over 200. With 365 days in a calendar year, that sounds like a lot. Frankly, I thought there’d be more. But…that isn’t meant to sound cynical. In fact, if your life is profoundly impacted by what the “day” was declared for, it’s really important.
The problem I see is for every person passionate about a cause, I imagine thousands of eyes rolling at yet another “Day”, so do these commemorative events lose their actual reason for being? Well, the idealist in me hopes not but the realist in me sincerely sees this as being a potential problem, especially among our youth.
Frankly, until a very recent client, CWB Financial Group, hired me to do a webinar with a spotlight on Canadian Disability Employment Awareness Month, I’d never heard of it. I’m embarrassed. Not because I have no arms. I just try to keep tabs on these things.
By the way, CWB has also been recognized as “Best Workplaces in 2021” and “Most Admired Corporate Cultures in 2020” (not made up titles). I do not believe their accolades are a surprise when you consider their considerable investment in the event I spoke for on a virtual platform this week. Why should they care? Or…do they really care? I can appreciate why a cynic would think that, and therein lies my reason for writing this blog…
I think it’s counterintuitive to believe that an employee with a disability can be a valuable asset to a corporate culture. I think some view it as being “window dressing” to pacify the politically correct. I can hear it: “Look Ethyl. McDonalds has a kid with Down’s Syndrome cleaning tables and taking out the trash! What a great gesture.”
Yikes. I’m not sure what is scarier. People saying it or the huge number who think it.
But allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. I’ve personally known countless fast food restaurants who hire people with Down’s Syndrome to bus tables and handle trash because…it’s a real job! Someone has to do it. I completely get how this sounds coming from me. But it’s the truth, as stereotypical as it sounds. Let me expand this huge “generalization” with a very old learning moment.
When I was 21 years old, I got a job with the Saskatchewan Council For Crippled Children & Adults. It was a nonprofit organization with four workshops across the province and they “employed” adults with intellectual disabilities. The bulk were indeed, people with Down’s Syndrome. But there were also adults with brain injuries, or even cerebral palsy. These workshops weren’t completely popular for some members of the public who believed these were demeaning environments using the handicapped for sweatshop labour! One of my responsibilities at my job in community and public relations was addressing ignorant attitudes like this. What actually helped make my job easier was when1981 was declared the International Year of Disabled Persons by the United Nations, it was actually a “first”. Of course, it was viewed as a very kind gesture and people generally were supportive. How can you “dis” the disabled?
The Angry Activist
It also bred an entire culture of advocacy or its more uncomfortable cousin, “The Angry Activist” (my invention, by the way). It was actually pretty funny to me when I took the job with the Council because people assumed it was the only place I could get a job. If you recall, I was a disc jockey working in Classic Rock Radio in Regina, Saskatchewan. Lots of people, especially my parents, were shocked when I left my dream job to be a speaker. It wasn’t difficult to get work because people were pursuing me as so many events sprung up to recognize the IYDP.
I even moved to Wetaskiwin, Alberta for a few months to work with my pal, Lee Bussard to visit almost 200 schools across the province. Lee had cerebral palsy and was really difficult to understand, but he was a perfect example of how we must learn to acknowledge so many people’s different “disabilities”, not to mention the hidden ones. Lee also ran a summer camp for kids with special needs and when he went to camp, I went to Saskatchewan.
I moved to Saskatoon and began my job with the Council For Crippled Children & Adults. I expanded the Community Relations scope to include a program I called ”The Disability Awareness Program” and the graphics had a slash through the “Dis”to focus on “Abilities”. In fact, that popular initiative led to an actual name change of the organization to the “Saskatchewan Abilities Council”, something I also played a significant role with. By the way, it’s now called…”SaskAbilities”.
I’m intrigued how powerful language and words can be and have always focused on a “positive vibe” which isn’t a strategy for marketing as much as one for life. People loved the tone of my message because it came with zero anger. I also included my own story to encourage people to consider the quality of life for a person with a disability could not only be on par with a so called “normal” person, but I believe, even better.
Say what? I know. Sounds silly, huh? Don’t all disabled people want to be “normal”? No! In fact, that’s the crux of the issue. I knew that about me, but at 21 years old, I had a lot to learn about others and I had zero experience dealing with intellectual disabilities, but that was about to change.
Beyond The Stereotype
I will never forget “Danny”. He was a 30 year old man with Down’s Syndrome and he worked at the Council. He also lived in assisted living in a rather large complex. He came to work on a special needs bus operated by the Council along with around twenty others just like him. My small office happened to be in the hallway leading from their drop off point to their workshop.
So every morning like clockwork came what I affectionately called…“The Parade of the Smiley’s”. I so know what that sounds like in 2021. But it wasn’t 2021. And it wasn’t at all derogatory because it was true. I could always hear them first and it was a “happy chatter” and while they all passed my office, only Danny stopped…every day. He always called me “Mr. Alvin” and would basically say the same thing every day. “How are you today? Are you having a good day? Hope you are having a good day!”, and I would always reply with a positive response and then he would finish our conversation with;
“Okay. I have to go to work now. Bye”, and off he would go as if the world was bliss. Was it?
Look, let’s not get bogged down in the actual perceptions of intellectual challenges or clinical analysis. I’m also not nieve so understanding Danny and his co-workers wasn’t “simple” because “they”are simple like the stereotype. They are complex because Down’s is complex. My point is, every expert in our building told me if they didn’t come to the Council to make coffee mugs or other assorted nick nacks purchased by assorted customers, their life would be safe but void of engagement or stimulation. Why would they being stuck in an institution be any different than if it was you?
More to the point of this blog; I learned they are never late, never call in sick, never engage in office politics or bullying. They aren’t obsessed with raises or promotions or who has a better table or chair. They may be the “perfect employee” for completing the simple tasks they are trained to do and a bit of supervision is all they need. And yes, they can be “trained” to work in fast food establishments and an unlimited number of worksites.
If you then change the focus from intellectual obstacles to physics disabilities, it gets even more frustrating because my immersion into advocacy and speaking in schools and communities in the early 80’s taught me lots of folks think a physical challenge makes you intellectually lacking. Crazy huh? Oops, pardon the inappropriate reference. See. We may mean no insult, but back in 1981, the obscene word “retard” was also common language, so can we agree that those words needed to be eliminated. That annoys people as well, but what if you have the disability? Please consider changing seats. Imagine having no arms? Think about the incredible “intellect” required to overcome that alone? Think about the “Emotional Quotient” or EQ required just get through a single day. Then, add architectural obstacles, civil engineering, and other thoughtless flaws in our environment. I will always remember conversations I had with folks like this one; “We don’t need to build a ramp or cut curbs or install lifts because we don’t have anybody in a wheelchair”! No #$@t! You don’t have anyone in a wheelchair because your architecture is like a big sign…”People With Disabilities Not Welcome”! Does that resonate?
There are several studies that prove employees with a disability are significantly more loyal, trustworthy, efficient and most critical, grateful for the job, which studies also prove is a real problem with younger staff who are often known to be the opposite. What ever happened to loyalty?
And then there’s the irony of companies like CWB Financial I mentioned. Are they one of the best corporate enterprises in Canada “just because” they happen to have employees with disabilities and won the trophy for compassion and sympathy?
NO! They and similar companies understand that hiring people with disabilities is just good business because of the climate in the workplace. It’s a piece of the big picture around the real meaning of “diversity” which I believe is a practical reflection of our modern society, including LGBTQ, which is a whole other blog!
The most successful companies put a tremendous effort into the hiring of all staff and are, in fact, more focused on character than bottom line. So what happens, again ironically…the bottom line is enhanced, employee turnover is decreased, productivity goes up and customer satisfaction is through the roof!
Not everyone is a fortunate as I was to have a huge learning experience at the outset of my professional life that has stayed with me for forty years. I also acknowledge not everyone has the depth of experience I have of dealing with diversity and inclusion. But that is why we have yet “another” month, or day except this “month” isn’t superfluous. It’s so important to put a spotlight on something that can literally change to culture of our workplace and I believe, the world. It works because I’ve had a front row view to the immense growth of our relationship with people with disabilities not only since 1981, but 1960 when being born without arms meant I would never be independent or have any quality of life. I hope this blog helped answer “The Why”!