Common courtesy

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on November 14, 2019 # Mobility, Advocacy and Policy, Lifestyle

Media Access AwardsI spent a good chunk of last summer writing and publishing, along with my Media Access Awards partner, Deborah Calla, a Best Practices Guide for employing writers with disabilities in Hollywood. As with many areas of employment, there seems to be a reluctance in the film and TV business to consider workers with disabilities in jobs that they could do every bit as well as, if not better, than non-disabled applicants. A big factor is a subliminal mix of ignorance and fear -- ignorance of this vast pool of talent, ignorance of the ease of interacting with people with disabilities, and fear that something will go wrong, and the whole "experiment" will be a colossal failure. Which is why we wrote this guide.

The tips we included to make the whole experience as fruitful and beneficial as possible were specifically directed to producers and TV series "showrunners" in the hiring of writers and others with disabilities. But change a bit of the nomenclature, and the guide could apply to anyone in the human resources business. For instance, one question asked and answered was:

In meeting someone with a disability as a potential employee, do you bring up the disability right away?

The technical answer is no. Under the ADA, an employer may not ask about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability. This kind of legalese makes it sound like the Disability Police are going to bust into the room and handcuff you for asking a simple question like, "So, how'd you end up in that chair?" Beyond the fear of imprisonment, the practical, real-world answer is also no. Unless the disability bears directly on the job position, it's much better to focus on that person's qualifications and aptitude for the assignment. If the guy is a math whiz applying for a job demanding high math skills, what does it matter that he was born with CP? If you are uncomfortable around someone with CP, then that's your problem, not his.

In most cases like this, just engaging with the disabled guy or gal as two human beings will eliminate the uneasiness pretty quickly. As one producer pointed out for our guide, "When you meet a person in a wheelchair, you think, 'I'm meeting a person in a wheelchair.' Once you spend an hour with a person in a wheelchair, you are spending an hour with a person." If the applicant wants to say something about his or her disability, that's fine, but that shouldn't be the thrust of the conversation, in the same way, race or sexual orientation shouldn't be.

Another common concern is accommodation. In the entertainment business, for instance, writers are often asked to work insanely long hours and maneuver around production sets or locations. Your job may require someone to sit in front of a computer for hours at a time or attend endless meetings or fly to Detroit twice a month. Do not assume that a person in a wheelchair or with hearing problems, say, is going to demand special treatment that is going to be expensive and time-consuming. A little-known fact: people with disabilities are some of the greatest problem solvers on the planet. They are constantly faced with problems of access or fitting into a group dynamic. Layout the situation they'll be encountering and let them tell you the easiest, least costly way of dealing with it. Usually it's a matter of rearranging some furniture or another minor adjustment, like laying down a short ramp into the ladies' room. If the man or woman has the skills to succeed in the job – including the social skills – accommodation problems are rarely a deal-breaker.

But what about the other employees? Won't they worry about saying or doing the wrong thing in front of a disabled colleague? Maybe for the first five minutes of contact. As soon as they start talking about the work, those social fears dissipate. And since one out of every two Americans has a family member or close friend with a disability, they'll most likely see him or her as an interesting new colleague, period.

As a culture, we are way past the point where people with disabilities are considered inferior or cursed or damaged or useless. Even without a guide, most people in most situations intuitively know how to act. It's a matter of common courtesy. As another TV producer very familiar with dealing with disabled writers and actors in myriad ways put it:

"Treat everyone with respect, be aware of the issues you're dealing with, and respond accordingly."

Job recruiters of the world: open your doors to applicants with disabilities. It's not as thorny or fraught with peril as you might imagine.