Guest post from Chris Ruotolo, Director of Research in the Arts and Humanities.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities while promoting employment policies and practices that are supportive and inclusive. In honor of this effort, we’ve highlighted a few books and videos from the Library’s collections that touch on different aspects of disability in the workplace:
“About Us: Essays From the Disability Series of the New York Times” (2019), edited by Peter Catapano and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
“About Us” is a compilation of essays first published in the New York Times’s “Disability” series, which began in 2016. These brief and highly personal essays present the experiences of a diverse range of people with disabilities in their own words. The book’s title refers to a popular slogan within the disability rights movement, “Nothing About Us Without Us,” which highlights the need for people with disabilities to tell their own stories. “About Us” is organized thematically, with sections on topics like justice, belonging, family, and love, each focused on a different aspect of the human experience. The section on working features nine essays by authors in various occupations, including law, medicine, academia, and creative fields. The authors are strikingly candid in how they describe the physical and mental challenges they have experienced in their professional lives, as well as the bias and lack of accommodation they have had to overcome. Yet many of these authors have a deep sense of professional purpose that is inextricably tied to their disability, which inspires them to create, educate, and advocate for a more just and accommodating world.
“Bodies in Revolt: Gender, Disability, and a Workplace Ethic of Care” (2005), by Ruth O’Brien
This book explores the potential of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to radically transform the American workplace. Author Ruth O’Brien, a political scientist at the City University of New York Graduate Center, argues that the ADA frames disability not as a medical condition that affects a narrow group of people, but as a fluid and shifting state of need that all people inhabit to different degrees over the course of their lives. This focus on the needs of the individual makes the ADA unique in its approach to civil rights, because it demands differential treatment based on these needs, rather than equal treatment for all, to ensure the rights of all workers. While typical workplace management practices tend to dehumanize workers by treating them as interchangeable, the provisions of the ADA “have the capacity to humanize the face of capitalism” by forcing employers to treat their workers as individuals. For O’Brien, the ADA is the first civil rights law to embody an “ethic of care” (a concept derived from feminist philosophy), which demands that employers negotiate with workers and agree upon reasonable accommodations that evolve and change as the needs of the individual change.
“Intelligent Lives” (2018), directed by Dan Habib
This hour-long documentary demonstrates how intelligence testing — a fundamentally flawed and biased type of assessment — has been used to label and pigeonhole young people with intellectual disabilities, limiting their opportunities for education and employment. The stigma of a low IQ score can be profound; as narrator Chris Cooper notes at the beginning of the film, only 15% of the estimated 6.5 million Americans with intellectual disabilities are employed. “Intelligent Lives” advocates powerfully for a broader understanding of intelligence — one that recognizes the full capability and potential of people with disabilities, both in the classroom and in the workforce. The bulk of the film profiles three young adults with intellectual disabilities, including Naomie, a Haitian American woman with Down syndrome who is pursuing a job at a beauty salon. Filmmaker Dan Habib follows Naomie as she navigates the world of employment — working with a job coach to craft a resumé, complete occupational training, and establish her social support network. Naomie’s story demonstrates how effective simple supports and accommodations can be in helping people with intellectual disabilities develop and thrive in the workplace.
“CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion” (2018), directed by Jenni Gold
This entertaining, feature-length documentary provides a rich history of disability in film, both on the screen and behind the scenes. Encompassing the history of cinema from the silent era to the present day, “CinemAbility” traces the evolving representation of disability, from stereotypes and clichés to more complex and nuanced portrayals. The documentary intersperses film clips with dozens of interview segments, some of which feature well-known actors and directors. But the most interesting interviews by far are those with performers with disabilities, including Marlee Matlin, Danny Woodburn, Daryl Mitchell, Geri Jewell, and many others. Through these interviews, director Jenni Gold reveals a diverse community of people with disabilities working in the film industry (including Gold herself, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair). The interviews present a range of different perspectives on issues of identity, opportunity, and intersectionality — for example, one interviewee defends the practice of casting able-bodied actors in disabled roles, while another interviewee describes it as analogous to blackface. While the film does feature some filmmakers with disabilities in technical and executive roles, the lack of equal opportunity in the industry, especially behind the camera, is frankly acknowledged. Overall, though, “CinemAbility” makes a persuasive case for cinema as a force for inclusion and social change.
For additional resources about disability studies, check out our lists of ebooks, journals, and websites in our Inclusive Collections guide. For resources in support of workers and other individuals with disabilities here at the University of Virginia, consult this website from the Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights.