A few weeks ago, I was asked to appear on ABC News 24 to discuss an issue relating to the recent Queensland Election campaign. The reporter had read my work for another publication, and wanted to know if I would be able to do a live interview based on my article in their Brisbane studio. Before agreeing to participate, I had to ask the same question I always have to when going to a new environment:
“Does the studio have wheelchair access?”
One can assume these things, but you always have to check. Thankfully, I was in luck and the studio was very accommodating, but I always hate asking that question. I feel from that moment on I cede control of my professional life to my disability.
I am a political academic writer and academic by trade. Most of this work has nothing to do with the fact that I have Cerebral Palsy and use an electric wheelchair as a tool for movement. In work and in life I’ve always had to strike a balance between carving an identity, which is independent of my disability, whilst acknowledging that I will always have physical limitations that will require some form of assistance.
Those who may not have had exposure to people with disabilities in the workplace may feel that a failure to disclose my diagnosis is devious. However, I want my work to be judged on its merits, both in terms of quality, and in terms of how I am perceived by the wider community. I do not want to be known as “An academic in political science who has a physical disability’”.
My work is independent of the challenges I face on a daily basis. I do not want to be the “crip” who is employed merely to fill an equal opportunity quota or as a success story so my employer can brag about how they employ people with disabilities.
I was reminded of this a few months ago while reading an article on Triple J newsreader, Nas Campanella, who is visually impaired. In an article by Broadsheet Media that was widely shared on both Facebook and Twitter, she
described the accommodations that Triple J has made so she could do the job that she was employed to do.
The comments on both social media platforms were as atrocious as they were predictable. Instead of acknowledging Campanella’s contribution to the radio station, commentators chose to praise Triple J for choosing to employ a person with a disability based on merit. Even worse, many of the same commentators labeled Campanella ‘an inspiration’ merely because she has chosen to be employed in a field that is not contingent upon her disability. The decision that Triple J took to employ Campanella and to create a supportive work environment should not be an exception: they should become the norm.
Let’s be clear here. There are two struggles that people with disabilities face when trying to find employment. The first is obvious. Employers need to recognise that employment of a person with disability is not a burden, and with the necessary modifications (if required) they cannot only contribute, but thrive in an organisation.
Perhaps the bigger challenge comes when this tall hurdle is conquered. Once people with disabilities are employed in a supportive workplace, work must be judged on its merits. Disabilities should not be a factor when evaluating our performance.
We have the right to work if we desire to. However, employers have the responsibility to not let our disability to determine our performance.
I have never used my disability as an excuse and employers should not either.
Todd Winther is a PhD candidate in political science. His work as a political commentator has been published in The Conversation, Brisbane Times and ABC Online. He blogs at http://toddocracy.com.
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