Getting Down to Disability Awareness
Notes on inclusion and access in employment from Qudsiya
It’s been a whirlwind of a month, hence my tardiness in sending out this newsletter. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and I spent the first half of the month engaged in the radical act of unplugging from work, disconnecting from the capitalist grind, and finding joy in art, music, culture, and sport as I took a couple of weeks off to travel. Don’t get me wrong, I am privileged to be able to engage in work that in many ways aligns with my values, where I have the opportunity to make the world just a tiny bit better for people. But I increasingly find that work does not define my identity. It does not encompass my whole, messy, imperfect, but joyous vision for what my life and the world can be.
This shift in my thinking does indeed feel radical. Especially in the United States, we are raised to believe in the primacy of individual grit, “success,” and “excellence.” These values align with white supremacist and ableist notions of what the “ideal” body should be and the amount of labor it needs to produce to be valued. This concept has been placed on a high pedestal. One’s ability to meet basic needs like healthcare, housing, and nutrition are intrinsically tied to it. Right-sizing the role of paid labor in my life feels like a revolutionary act of rebellion.
Like so many of my disabled peers, I have experienced discrimination at the hands of past employers because of my disability. This happened early in my career when I was less familiar with my rights and felt utterly disempowered against my employer, who held the keys to my access to healthcare, housing, and future employability. Because of the fears associated with disability disclosure, I was almost always the only openly disabled person in my workplace—I’ve never had a BIPOC disabled boss, or had disabled colleagues or mentors at my job to look up to, and who could guide me along the way.
There was little effort to make the physical space or the work itself accessible to me, unless I asked and was very specific about what I needed and why. Even then, abled employers would reject my assessment of what I needed in favor of an alternative solution that was more expedient for them, regardless of whether it actually worked for me.
Here, anti-discrimination laws were helpful in terms of asserting the right to reasonable accommodation and holding employers accountable when they did not treat disabled employees equitably. But the law alone is not enough. We need true transformation in cultural attitudes about disability, and a collective belief that all people have valuable contributions to make. Organizations need to value a commitment to access in all its forms.
After a lot of time and healing from the trauma that discrimination produces in its wake, I vowed that I would never allow what happened to me to happen to anyone else in any other workplace I entered. I began to demand access and inclusion, form collectives of solidarity with other disabled colleagues, and work to change organizational culture. I began to envision spaces where all people can contribute in sustainable ways, where disabled people are called on to lead and have a seat at the decision-making table, and where we are valued not for the volume of labor we can produce, but because of the gifts we bring when we show up as our whole selves.
As Disability Employment Awareness Month comes to a close, think about how you can advance access and inclusion for disabled people in your workplace. That might mean starting or joining an employee resource group, reaching out to a disabled colleague to ask them what sort of support they might need, or advocating with organizational leaders to change policies that have adverse impacts on disabled employees. If you want to be an ally in this work, let your disabled colleagues take the lead in terms of identifying what’s needed, and lend a hand in accomplishing those goals.
Check out this audit tool for integrating the principles of disability justice into organizations, particularly those created and led by non-disabled BIPOC communities. And go back to episode 5 of our last season to listen in on my conversation with Eli Dvorkin, author of a report about advancing employment for disabled people.
Laws like the ADA are powerful foundations to achieve equity for disabled workers, but we also need to dismantle ableist culture and reframe how we think about paid labor to recognize the intrinsic and essential value of every person, especially disabled people who bring their crip genius to the table every day.
Building Your Knowledge
Speaking of awareness, Here are four articles from the disability community that have nourished my soul this month. I hope they do the same for you.
Life with a Feeding Tube Doesn’t Mean I Go Without Nourishment (Eater)
This sumptuous and deeply personal essay from Alice Wong is a meditation on how to think about changes in our bodies and the impact those transformations have on our relationship to the experiences we love. Alice writes about her own transition to using a feeding tube, and its effect on her unwavering love of delicious food. I wholeheartedly agree with Alice that food is far more than a tool for nourishing our bodies—it is culture and community. It is a way to give and receive love. As such, savoring the flavors and textures of childhood, with their attendant associations, is not easily forgotten.
The Future Is Disabled: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha on Creating a More Humane Social Order (Ms. Magazine)
I am currently devouring Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s new book, The Future Is Disabled. As you wait for your copy, be sure to check out Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice for Leah’s gorgeous articulation of the joy and messiness that is care work. I’ll leave you with this quote from Leah on the strength of the disability community:
“We’re supposed to be the first ones to die, but we have technology and care skills that are going to end up saving all of us. The world is terrifying, but I keep betting on us because we know how to survive.”
John Fetterman’s Stroke Has Led to Ableist Criticism From Media, Politicians (Teen Vogue)
We need more disabled politicians. Full stop. We need access to become part of politics. If you are disabled, please consider running for office. We need you and your crip wisdom, and your ingenuity to reshape how we govern ourselves.
Growing Up as a Disabled Latinx Immigrant in America (Refinery 29)
This powerful essay, penned by my dear friend Conchita Hernandez Legorreta brought tears to my eyes. Conchita unflinchingly describes the experience of growing up Latinx, disabled, and undocumented in the U.S., and how those experiences fueled her to become an educator who champions the advancement of blind Latinx youth here and in Mexico. She calls out white supremacist, colonialist, and capitalist systems, and recognizes that we, as a disability community, embody the transformative change we want to see. Conchita is a leader I admire and look up to. I thank her for sharing her story so vulnerably, and I’m grateful to be able to share it with you all.
Check out Disability:In for some great resources on advancing disability access and inclusion in the workplace.
Support METAS International, an organization co-founded by Conchita Hernandez Legorreta to deliver services and training to Spanish-speaking blind youth and their families around the world.
And finally, if you live in the U.S., there’s an election coming up on November 8—please vote!
Thanks for reading our newsletter this month. Please feel free to share your thoughts, feedback, and ideas in the comments or email us at email@example.com. We’ll be back in your inboxes next month with more news from the podcast and the disability community!