October 22, 2013

The other side of the coin

National Disability Employment Awareness Month sheds light on a stigma that still has to be overcome.

We all suck at something. Thankfully, if that flaw is ever brought to light in the professional world, we can always turn it around and distract potential employers, or whomever we’re trying to impress, with another skill. Yes, I may not have much work experience, but I do have the sharp skill set of a recent college graduate. Ah, you saw the D that I got in physics? Oh, but look here at this shiny A in Democracy in India!

Our “flaws” are usually not direct faults of our own, but simply consequences of our different characteristics. These differences in personality are neither purely positive nor purely negative traits; each is like a coin, and has two potential sides to display. For example, the “seeking practicality” coin could be viewed as either “high-strung” or “efficient.”

To market ourselves as desirable candidates, we learn to capitalize on these differences and develop them from mere characteristics into talents. We pour time and energy into polishing every ridge and indent of whichever side of the coin we choose to present.

But imagine walking into an interview with a potential employer that doesn’t care about any of that. As much as one side of your coin shines and gleams, nothing matters to her but the other side. All the effort you may have put into the good side of the coin is useless. In fact, to her, you’re not someone with coins. You just have one big, ugly, and fundamentally messed up rock. Your “flaw” is not a multifaceted characteristic that can be used in many ways, but rather an inherently negative feature of who you are. No matter how much you try to prove to her otherwise, she’s already classified you as incompetent based on an unfounded assumption, and it’s a lost cause.

Forget her, then. She’s just one person, one opportunity, in a sea of others. But what if it’s not just one person, and just one interview. What if it’s the entire world, and every conversation you ever have?

That’s life for someone with a disability.

Let’s be honest. As much as we’d like to think that federal regulations on equal employment opportunities are changing America’s workforce, employers and managers today would probably prefer a new hire for whom they don’t have to rearrange their office space or order new software to comply with cumbersome regulations.

Historically, the disability rights movement has fought for many different unrecognized rights for people with disabilities. Its efforts have established regulations to guarantee equal treatment in federally funded programs, removed physical barriers of inclusion—such as requiring ramps and wheelchair lifts for buses—and overcome numerous other constructs that limit disabled people from participating as equal citizens of society. The eradication of negative social perceptions and stereotypes, however, has yet to make progress, at least in comparison to the progress made by race and gender movements. In a world where first impressions play a crucial role in the hiring process, this creates distinct employment disadvantages for people with disabilities.

Preferential hiring for people with disabilities has had positive results, but it still seems like a temporary patch to ensure everyone the benefits of equality, instead of ensuring equality itself. It’s difficult to imagine a world in which disability doesn’t connote inferiority, much less beneficial qualities. Disability, and every negative assumption associated with it, seems inextricably tied to identity. Could a stranger passing a disabled person on the street ever just think, “That man has brown hair,” or “He has a weird hat on,” without first thinking “He has no arms”?

Hopefully, yes. The world has proven itself to be capable of seemingly impossible change before.  A hundred years ago, who would’ve thought that a college professor would be able look at one of his African-American students and not have his first thought be “This black man can read?” but instead “He has the wrong edition of Arabian Nights”?

Equality does not eliminate trait-based classification, but rather acknowledges that no trait is inherently lesser than another. I personally have characteristics—I’m a girl, I’m Asian-American, I’m a political science major—that make me a unique individual. Maybe because of those traits, I have a slight accent when I talk and I can’t do multivariable calculus, but also because of those traits, I’m bilingual and am well versed in Montesquieu and Marx (well, at least someday). Those traits differentiate me from, but do not subordinate me to, others.

I don’t see why a disability has to be understood as any different.

Maybe some need their documents to be read out loud to them, or they need to be facing their boss to know they’re being spoken to. As a direct consequence of those same “disadvantages,” though, maybe they are also able to organize large amounts of abstract information in their head, or have extensive communication and mediation skills, sharpened from years of having to accommodate to a world that is reluctant to accommodate to them.

Maybe they have the ability to recognize what everyone else sees as a rock for what it actually is: just another coin.

Grace Koh is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.