Monday, August 10, 2009

Good work if you can get it

Back in July, the Victoria Advocate, a newspaper out of Texas (that also has run at least one story about microwrestling) ran a story with the headline, “Victoria teenager with dwarfism, finds job at mall.” At first, the headline reminded me of the social stereotype facing all types of people with disabilities. Stereotypes that place such low expectations on people with disabilities that a routine activity for people without disabilities – securing a drivers license, riding the bus – becomes a significant accomplishment for someone with a disability. Most of us who are not financially independent need to find a job at some point in our lives, people with dwarfism included. Why then would a newspaper focus on a young woman with dwarfism finding a job.

Reading the article, I worked through my own sensitivities about media portrayal of disability and dwarfism to realize that finding a job was a big deal for Brittany Rios, not because of her dwarfism, but because of the general population’s lack of awareness around dwarfism. According to the story, Rios spent two years applying for jobs before finding work at a pretzel shop. Though the article reported, “[Rios] was never denied employment because of her dwarfism,” I wonder how many other teenagers spend two years searching before landing an entry level job. In other words, I would bet there were times when Rios was rejected for a job in favor of someone similarly, if not less, qualified, but who doesn’t have dwarfism. I’ll bet this is true because there are stories of other people with dwarfism who have spent long periods of time looking for work. My favorite story is that of Paul Miller, formerly of the Clinton Administration and now with the Obama Administration, who was rejected at scores of firms in favor of less qualified applicants when he was just out of law school. Far from a lawfirm, but similar in spirt, this story was posted on a listserve by a person of short stature in 2008,

In a mall with my kid sister a place was hiring. I asked for a form, they said they forgot to take the sign down. My sister went back and not only got the [application] but was hired on the spot. No, she didn't take the job.

In the case of the person who applied at the mall, he or she probably could have filed a discrimination complaint, but in many cases, proving discrimination is difficult. My hope is that the community of people with dwarfism and that Little People of America will make resources available and known so that in the future, people with dwarfism will be able to pursue employment with an awareness of their employment rights. And, my hope is that stories about people like Brittany Rios and other positive portrayals of people with disabilities will wield a positive machete in the employment search, opening up the minds of employers and clearing a path of success for other job seekers with disabilities.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Disability Pride Parade -- 2009

July 25 was the sixth Annual Disability Pride Parade. The parade takes place in Chicago every year and is usually organized out of Access Living, the disability service organization where I earn a living. Because location makes it so easy for me to be involved with the parade, a few years I've volunteered a lot of my time to help organize the parade. In 2004, the inaugural year, I handled registration, and in 2005 I handled logistics. In 2006, I coordinated the program after the parade.

Though I was involved, I rarely felt a strong desire to march in the parade. In 2004, I coordinated the registration process, but I was out of town on the day of the parade. In 2005 and 2006, my parade responsibilities took me away from the march. While thousands of people paraded up the street, I was setting up in the park, getting ready for the post-parade celebration. Though the actual marching captured the spirit of the parade -- was the moment to show off your pride over who we were as people with disabilities-- I was content doing my part to help, even if I didn’t march.

Until this year. In 2007, the Windy City Chapter of LPA organized a contingent to march for the first time. I marched with the group, but didn’t know about the contingent until just before the parade. LPA marched again in 2008, but I was out of town for a family vacation. This year, I knew well ahead of time about the LPA contingent. And more than any other year, I really wanted to march. I have been involved with the Chicago Disability Community for ten years, and groups like Access Living and ADAPT, which I’m a part of, are the heart of the Chicago Disability Community, but it is to LPA that I most closely identify as a person with a disability.

Six of us from the Windy City chapter marched. Holding an LPA Banner, we marched behind the 2016 Float (the committee organizing Chicago for 2016 Olympics and Paralympics), which carried about 20 people, some of whom danced about on the float, jamming to songs like “Celebration” and “It’s a Beautiful Day.” The weather was great, sunshine but not hot or humid -- the way too many summers are. Thousands of people didn’t line the sidewalks like they do on St. Patrick’s Day, but a few did. As the six of us paraded up Dearborn carrying the banner, we waved, smiled and in some cases, paused quickly to pose for pictures.

The pictures are what reinforced to me what is important about a Disability Pride Parade. As a person with dwarfism living in a large city, I am always alert for strangers with cameras. I often hear stories of little people getting their image taken by strangers without permission. It’s happened to me at least three times. Perhaps the photos shouldn't be such a big deal, but it is pretty insulting to get your photo taken without permission. And nowadays, with websites and youtube, who knows where and in what context the photos will appear.

So there we were on July 25, six of us smiling and inviting photos from strangers, putting ourselves on display, but under our own terms. Even if some of the people holding cameras were strangers, I was happy to get my photo taken. Who knows where some of those photos may show up, but after six years of a parade, I felt in my heart what it means to be disabled and proud.