Accumulatively, the attitudinal barriers of indifference, misconceptions, discomfort, ignorance, and prejudice that many relevant stakeholders (such as employers, co-workers, service providers, government, educators, and professional associations) have towards professionals with disabilities may be their greatest barriers to finding sustainable and rewarding livelihoods.
Fear is a major theme in this attitudinal barrier mixture. It can range from fearing to say or do the wrong thing around people with disabilities, to how others will cope in having a workplace colleague with a disability, and to fear of being reminded of one’s own mortality and vulnerability of becoming disabled when being around people with disabilities. Unfortunately, how many people handle such fear is to avoid being around people with disabilities.
There is even some backlash against people with disabilities. A few people are under the mistaken impression that people with disabilities are being given unfair advantages and special treatment in the workplace and in acquiring employment. Some assume that people with disabilities are already well “taken care” of and want for nothing and should not be asking for so much nor vie for jobs that people without disabilities want. Simply put, they believe that people with disabilities should just accept their lot in life, or if they do want to compete for jobs or keep jobs, they should not be given any type of accommodation, as that is a form of “special treatment”.
Some of these detractors even wrongfully assume workplace accommodation and other disability supports means that people with disabilities are getting easier work requirements. In some cases, a few of these critics have the misconception that such supports indicate a diminished mental capacity and an increased dependency on the part of the person with a disability. They may even believe that such supports may imply that the person with a disability has other impairments that could negatively affect their other senses, character, and ability (however, a person with a disability does not need to have disability supports for some people to believe this anyway.).
With high unemployment/underemployment, great numbers of unsupported and under supported disability related concerns, widespread poverty, and generally a lower quality of life for most people with disabilities, these facts will tell you that most are not living well, nor are they reaping the benefits of improved employability because more of them are skilled and educated. All that people with disabilities want is to have an equal opportunity and a level playing field to participate in employment as well as to have full acceptance and appreciation of their skills, knowledge, and abilities in the mainstream workforce. Furthermore, if there is a need for accommodation, it is not special treatment. It supports people with disabilities to meet the same job standards and expectations as other co-workers, as it reduces the barriers to employment entry and full workforce participation.
To sum it up, as long as all these attitudinal barriers persist, relevant stakeholders can make all the disability accommodations needed in the work and community environment, but if the workplace or community culture and ethics do not accept people with disabilities, no accommodations in the world will make a difference.
A professional with a disability still portrays an atypical role for countless people and it clashes with many people’s expectations of what a professional should look like. A professional means being seen as a decision maker, leader, specialist, expert, advisor, and/or manager. Many people are still not use to having people with disabilities being in such positions. There is still a misconception that they are dependent rather than independent, weak rather than strong, and that they are followers rather than leaders.
As long as others believe (or exploit the concept) that people with disabilities are burdens, inferior, helpless, tragic figures, should be pitied, and/or cannot care for themselves, those beliefs will continue to elicit doubt in the competencies of people with disabilities from others. As a result, it will make it that much harder for people with disabilities to secure and sustain employment that is commensurate with their skills, knowledge, and abilities.
After all, if so many people wrongfully assume that people with disabilities cannot care for themselves, it is harder for them to believe that people with disabilities are capable of taking care of others and carrying through on responsibilities. This is part of the reason why there is such high unemployment amongst people with disabilities as such attitudes are allowed to prevail.
Furthermore, at the other end of the spectrum, being seen as remarkable, courageous, triumphant, and inspirational (even for the most mundane things) are also damaging beliefs that many people have of people with disabilities in general. They fuel the stereotypes that people with disabilities are “different” and “special” from the rest of the population and that anything that they do is to be seen as “out of the ordinary”. Furthermore, contrary to what many people may believe, people with disabilities do not go out to conquer life. Like everyone else, they simply go out to live one. Even the wrongful belief of the “super disabled person” character/label/stereotype does not encourage the acceptance of diversity, as it too implies being “different” and “special” from the rest of the population and even amongst many people with disabilities.
People with disabilities are no different from people without disabilities. They are just ordinary people. Most will not feel anymore innately inclined than people without disabilities to become such figures as accomplished world pianists and entertainers, daredevil mountain climbers and skiers, elite athletes, Nobel Peace Prize winners, revered leaders in science, or well-known sages.
Yet, when talking about success, inspiration, exceptional, courage, and willpower, this group of people with disabilities (many of whom fall under the “hero worship” following) seem to be more profiled in the mass media than others with disabilities whose: lives may not be high profile, sell stories, and/or provide a publicly appealing image; and/or accomplishments may be more low key, subtle, selfless, challenging, and important. As many high profile people with disabilities will concur, this latter group of people with disabilities do not often get (or do not want to get) the credit and recognition that they deserve even when they may have a more profound positive affect on what they did in their lives (and others) and/or on current and future people with disabilities and society in general. Inspiring (in the truest sense of the word), achieving, and succeeding should not be measured by how big, larger than life, or well-known one is, but for many people with disabilities that may be the only “role models” they see for “successful” and “inspiring” people with disabilities.
Furthermore, stories that appeal to the public’s sentimentality of people with disabilities overcoming the odds and doing astonishing things to make the public feel good (and often at the expense of marginalising people with disabilities even further) more often than not also obscure the realities people with disabilities face.
For example, a feature about a person who became a lawyer while being blind, and then a successful partner in a respected law firm is an important story, if it is presented in the right way, does not gloss over the disability related barriers to getting to where they are, and does not pander to sentimentality, stereotypes, sappiness, “feel good” sound bytes, and portraying the professional as an “iconic superhuman character” rather than as a real person that people can relate to. It is important for the public to see the capabilities of people with disabilities and for other people with disabilities to see their career options and professionals with disabilities doing them as well as learning what these professionals had to do and what barriers they had to face in order to get to where they are today.
Such positive stories must also be balanced with ones about what many professionals with disabilities still face. So many are still struggling for their basic rights, equal access to opportunities in employment, and wanting a sustainable livelihood. The public needs to have greater awareness in how they can modify their attitudes and actions in a more positive and healthy way in how they relate to and think of people with disabilities.
The Canadian Association of Professionals with Disabilities believes in mutual obligation and support. That is, stakeholders (such as employers, coworkers, service providers, government, educators, and professional associations) affecting a professional with a disability’s career must be actively committed, supportive, and accountable to the career success of a professional with a disability as is the professional with the disability is to them. A professional with a disability’s ability to succeed cannot just be solely based on their skill, willpower, and having the right, positive attitude, but also being in an environment that is truly supportive, inclusive, and accepting of them.
In the disability movement, there is much talk about empowering the person with a disability. The Canadian Association of Professionals with Disabilities recognises the importance of that, but we are also well aware that many professionals with disabilities are already empowered, and the problems facing them more so are the result of being disempowered at the same time – such as from systemic and employment related barriers and relevant stakeholders’ damaging attitudes and expectations. As a result, the emotional response to empowerment and disempowerment are continually at odds with one another.
Society is judged by how well it treats people on the margins of society. The professional with a disability is a “canary in the mine” on how well society treats people with disabilities. If professionals with disabilities in general are still at the receiving end of being ignored, not taken seriously, dismissed, and discriminated against like so many other people with disabilities despite their education, skills, abilities, experience, career success, or status, what does that say about how far Canadians with disabilities have been truly accepted and included?
As is true for all people with disabilities, total respect for, and acceptance and inclusion of all professionals with disabilities is something that society, as a whole, must work on together.
There cannot be flavour of the week disabilities in regards to which people with disabilities should be supported in employment opportunities and which ones are good for “optics” in employment. All people with disabilities are important.
The only thing that separates a professional with a disability from one without is the disability itself.
Professionals with disabilities have the same ambitions and aspirations as any other professional. They too want to reach their potential. They are also just as likely to want positions that are rewarding and challenging as well as desire career development and advancement opportunities.
Issues affecting professionals with disabilities are about equality and social justice. Equal rights, access, and opportunities are as important to disability as they are to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and age. Furthermore, providing “access” (in all its realms of interpretation) for professionals with disabilities cannot come about as token gestures of generosity, but be seen as a matter of course that accepts them as full and contributing members of society. They cannot be treated like second-class citizens.
Finally, it is so important that the issues affecting professionals with disabilities be addressed and resolved. These issues cannot be ignored nor can they receive “it is not my problem” mentality, as disability is the club that anyone at anytime can join, and most people will become members at some point in their lives.