You sit in your car in the parking lot and watch as a man collects shopping carts for a large retailer. You guess him to be in his mid-fifties. You quickly judge, based on his appearance and physical movements, that he has some kind of developmental disability. Although he is measured and deliberate as he goes about his task, he seems to be able to do an adequate job. However, your immediate reaction is one of pity, and you think to yourself that it is very kind of this business to hire someone like that.
You are having lunch at a casual restaurant, and you see a young woman with Down syndrome come out of the kitchen pushing a cart. Starting at your end of the room, she begins to bus the tables. Although she is efficient and seems to perform each step with no issues, it makes you nervous to watch her because you’re afraid she will drop a plate or spill something. You are certain you know how these individuals really are. They mean well, but they are clumsy and not able to think like other people. You wonder if she has to pay for all the plates she breaks.
You are walking through an office building and you notice a small crew of people cleaning a suite of rooms. You stare intently at one of the men because you believe he has an intellectual challenge. While waiting for an elevator, you watch him sweep. It appears to require all of his concentration to perform this simple task. He is diligent, but his efforts are noticeably slow. You wonder how he manages to keep the job, and if his coworkers resent the fact that they work faster than he does.
Here are three different people with disabilities, in common employment situations, who are each attempting to perform their assigned tasks to the best of their capabilities.
Against tremendous odds, which they’ve been forced to struggle against throughout their lives, they have a job. They are showing up and doing their work. They are enjoying inclusion. They are employed alongside people who do not have disabilities. They are being paid a fair wage. They are contributing to society while they learn vocational and social skills.
But, unfortunately, these examples illustrate that far too often, even though these men and women are giving maximum effort, there is still a lack of respect for them as human beings.
Why is that? What will ever be enough for them to receive the appreciation and acknowledgment they deserve?
When you encounter a person with an intellectual challenge who is working, you are witnessing the power of the human spirit to overcome obstacles that are both unfair and unjust.
It can be hard for anyone to find a job, but when we cling to bias and misconceptions about what a person can or cannot do, it becomes far more difficult to find an employer with the vision to provide opportunity to individuals who deserve the chance to try.
Instead of looking at a person with a developmental disability as someone who should be pitied, we should try to understand the courage it took for them to overcome their feelings of insecurity and their fear of rejection. If we will do that, we’ll realize that the person we are seeing is someone whose accomplishments should be respected.
Instead of automatically assuming that a person will eventually fail at something, just because they have specific challenges, we can be supportive so that if they do fail, they are encouraged to try again. After all, that is the way we all learn.
Instead of wondering whether an individual with a disability is able to produce the same volume of work as his co-workers, we should focus on the benefits his co-workers receive by working with someone who can open their eyes to the beauty of diversity.
The fact that a person with an intellectual challenge has a job is a testament to their perseverance and tenacity. It is evidence of their desire to reach their potential. It reflects their drive and determination to take their rightful spot in the community.
Because of their positive attitude and willingness to push past the limits placed on them by others, they have achieved what many thought was impossible.
When men and women with developmental disabilities are included in the workforce, it is a learning opportunity for everyone. Having the chance to interact with those who deserve to be treated as equals, make us a more understanding and accepting society.