Sunday, August 28, 2011

Coach in Pacific Northwest initiates change within youth football

Back in March, I went to Freeburg, Illinois with my colleague Ethan. Freeburg's high school is one of about seven in the United States which uses the word midget for its mascot. We stayed in Freeburg for about 24 hours, interviewing groups of students, talking with the Superintendent and the Principal, touring the school, and presenting to the school board. Though Little People of America has identified the word midget as negative and derogatory, we did not ask for the Freeburg mascot name to change. We traveled to Freeburg with the hopes of raising awareness around LPA's perspective of the word. The goal was that in the future, if a question were to be raised about the mascot, the school would consider LPA's perspective. We felt that if the school ever were to change, the change would need to come from within the school system, not from an individual or organization that had very little to do with the school system.

Just over two years ago, when news of an FCC complaint against NBC for its use of the word midget and its negative portrayal of people of short stature gave Little People of America some national exposure around language issues, a Chicago newspaper columnist asked me if LPA would target our advocacy efforts around youth football leagues that use the word midget to identify an age division. I told him LPA would not. Similar to the way Ethan and I approached Freeburg, I told the columnist that LPA's goal is to raise awareness. We couldn't tell outfits like football leagues what to do. But, hopefully someday, the leagues would understand our perspectives and use that information to change the name of the league. Like midget mascots, change within the football leagues would need to come from within.

It appears that for at least one league in the Pacific Northwest, change may soon be here. Last week, news broke that a youth football coach near Seattle spoke out against use of the word to identify youth divisions within football leagues. He doesn't coach within a midget football league, but an upcoming opponent for his team was within the midget division. The coach is an uncle of a young girl with dwarfism. The family relationship with a dwarf gave the coach a perspective unlike anybody else a part of the football league. The coach spoke out publicly, claiming that the league should change its name. There seemed to be a bit of backlash against his comments and in support of the word midget to identify a division, but the coach's comments also generated support. Evidently, enough support to create change. Though I haven't seen anything in the news, I've heard that the league voted to change its name.

The division near Seattle is just one football league. My guess is that there are hundreds around North America that have a midget division. The majority of them probably won't be changing their names anytime soon. But the news of change from the Pacific Northwest is great. It indicates to me that change from within is possible, and that in some places around the country, it will come.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

EEOC complaint against Starbucks is settled

About three months ago, news broke about a former Starbucks employee who filed a complaint against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Here is a short blog post from late in May. Starbucks fired the employee, a person of short stature, just a few days into her training program. Evidently, the manager of a Starbucks in El Paso, Texas believed that a stool, which the employee had requested as an accommodation, would pose a threat to other employees. The EEOC complaint alleged that Starbucks discriminated against the employee on the basis of disability.

Earlier this week, the EEOC announced that the parties involved in the complaint had reached a settlement. The former Barista, Elsa Sallard, will be awarded $75,000 in damages. In addition, Starbucks managers in El Paso will attend Americans with Disabilities Act training programs. With the training programs, Starbucks will equip local managers with tools and information to address future accommodation requests.

The settlement announcement, especially so soon after the complaint was released to the public, is good news. I am happy that Sallard will receive compensation and I am happy that Starbucks is laying groundwork for an environment in El Paso, in front of and behind the counter, inclusive of people with disabilities.

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act, and well before the Americans with Disabilities Act, huge amounts of resources have been funneled to programs designed to support the efforts to employ people with disabilities in the work force. Despite those efforts, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is still much larger than the general population. For all I know, Sallard is working now at another job. But she could be, through no fault of her own, like many other people with disabilities, out of work despite all the effort put into employment. The resources are necessary. It will take those resources to change attitudes of employers reluctant to hire people with disabilities. Attitudes are the key.

I applaud Starbucks for implementing systemic change. And I believe it will make a difference, in El Paso and hopefully around the country. But in the face of stories about lawsuits and settlements, I would like to hear some stories about the people who are using simple accommodations in order to perform their jobs. These stories might help to change some attitudes. But even though the stories exist we won't hear them because the headline "man works at McDonald's with the help of a stool" is not as sexy as "Dwarf Barista sues coffee empire."

The stories should be told though. For the sake of people with disabilities in search of employment, and more important, for the sake of employers. If the stories are told, perhaps the next time a store manager, whether it be of a coffee shop, a Big Boy or a Gap, while pondering an accommodation request from a dwarf, instead of asking himself or herself, 'wouldn't that be dangerous?' would exclaim, 'a stool! Of course. why didn't I think of that!'

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Comfort Zones

Earlier this week, I attended a community forum on images of women with disabilities in the media. Speaking about the lack of representation of women with disabilities in popular culture and media, one panelist said, 'People just need to get comfortable with disability.' She wasn't referring to people with disabilities embracing their own disability. She was speaking of the general population getting used to people with disabilities in the mainstream. According to the panelist, existing discomfort explains why disability, particularly women with disabilities, is poorly represented in media.

There are good examples that indicate the general population is indeed uncomfortable with disabilities. A few years ago, a woman named Cerrie Burnell began appearing as a presenter on Cbeebies, a television channel for children produced by the British Broadcasting Service. Burnell is a young woman with a disability. Her right arm did not develop typically. It extends just beyond the elbow. Soon after she began appearing on Cbeebies, the network began receiving complaints, primarily from parents of children who watch the show. According the complaints, a "one-armed" presenter was scaring the young viewers. Clearly, the parents were not comfortable with disability.

Also, the Muscular Dystrophy Association recently announced that Jerry Lewis would no longer be hosting the annual MDA Telethon. This announcement has generated a response from individual disability advocates, some of who are founders of a group called "Jerry's Orphans." Advocates founded Jerry's Orphans in response to a concern that MDA Telethons were just as good as perpetuating disability stigma as they were at raising money. Many in the disability community feel the telethons reinforce images of people with disabilities as objects of pity, who are helpless, and in need of charity. This stigma is no different from physical inaccessibility at creating barriers to inclusion and opportunity. In response to the recent announcement from the MDA, disability advocates have spoken out, saying that this is an opportunity for the telethon to change it's model from one rooted in pity and cures. In a column published in the Columbus Dispatch, disability advocate Deborah Kendrick wrote, "What plans MDA has for the tone of this year’s telethon remains to be seen. My guess is that without Jerry Lewis, they'll still raise money, and they'll probably do it with a bit more dignity." Kendrick is a kindred spirit of Jerry's Orphans, and made it clear in the column. The column generated some vicious, almost violent feedback from readers. In an online email exchange about the column and the feedback, Mike Ervin, a disability community member in Chicago and one of the original Jerry's Orphans, commented. Mike is a veteran of hundreds of protests, including blocking buses and barricading office building. But in the email conversation, Mike said protests against the MDA Telethons were the only time he ever felt scared at demonstrations. According to Mike, discomfort fed the fear. He wrote something to the affect of 'people at the telethons are not comfortable when we step out of the 'pity' model.'

The recent discussions on the idea of the general population becoming comfortable with disability made me start thinking of dwarfism. It made me think of the relationship between the image of people with dwarfism in the media as just regular people and the extent to which the every day person is comfortable with a dwarf as just an every day person in the community going about his or her business. As I have written several, in not many, times within this blog, I think progress is being made, partly because there many more images today in popular culture of people of short stature framed as just regular people. Granted, some people believe the motivation behind the wealth of images is rooted in exploitation, but nevertheless, the dwarfs who are appearing in the media are doing the things that a member of the general population would be doing, i.e. going to school, working, raising kids, etc... The more we are presented as members of the general population, the more "comfortable" non-dwarf members of the population will become.

That all being said, we are definitely not in the proper 'comfort zone' at this point. If a man driving his car through downtown Chicago were comfortable with dwarfs participating in the general population, he would not need to take a picture. I should have known what was up when the car stopped at the light two car lengths behind the crosswalk when there were no cars in front of his. I was to the car's left, waiting at the light on my bike to make a left hand turn. When the light turned, I started peddling across the intersection. The car passed on my right, and it was obvious what the man was doing with his quote unquote smart phone.

A step in the wrong direction, yes. But nothing compared to some recent positive news reports......