Mills Avenue: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

Lauren Mills |

November 20, 2019

“What are you doing out?”

The stranger in the elevator turned to me, an expression of oblivious concern written plainly across her face.

“I’m going to work,” I said shortly, shrugging off the tone of the question.

As the elevator came to a stop, she smiled, nearing disbelief. “You can work? Bless your heart.”

The comment left me with a sinking feeling in my stomach. My face went numb. I was on the cusp of panic. My mind searched high and low for the source of my unrest. Then the realization hit me—I felt like an imposter. There was a part of me that felt like I didn’t belong. I had no business being out in the world.

This might sound like melodrama to an outsider, but I didn’t have much work experience. I was an alien exploring a new planet.I’ve spent the better part of my twenty-eight years indoors. When you have to rely on others for dressing and transportation, normal social opportunities are few and far between.

As the day went on, anger crept in as I replayed the conversation in my mind. I was disappointed that she assumed that I wasn’t capable of holding down a job like everyone else,as if I were a zoo animal being let out of its cage. I know I’m projecting my own ceaseless insecurities onto someone that I don’t know—It’s all a matter of perception and I know mine has been distorted by my own anxiety and depression.

She probably didn’t mean it like that at all.Maybe she wasn’t used to seeing disabled people in the workforce. I can’t blame her. After all, only 10% of people with developmental disabilities in Florida are employed. I have cerebral palsy. It falls into that category. For those who don’t know, cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.

Who am I to get mad at someone’s ignorance when I’m not even brave enough to discuss the difficult topics with them in person? I should be a better advocate. It’s easy to talk shit from behind a computer, but it’s hard to confront ignorance head on. We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes who would have stood up for what’s right but reality is filled with a lot more gray area than we can account for.

I became interested at politics at a young age. To me, politics is putting your values into action. Because of my disabilities, I’ve felt like an outsider since Day 1. When I try to participate in normal things like going outside, eating at a restaurant, going to see a movie, etc, it’s crystal clear that the world wasn’t built with disabled people in mind at all.

That’s understandable to a certain extent– we’re in the minority. Unless you’re disabled yourself, you probably don’t consider the challenges we face. We all live in a bubble and are focused on our own survival. It isn’t until we start to look around, that we realize other people’s experiences differ from our own.

I want to make the world a better place for myself and others. I believe politics and advocacy is a vehicle for that. Politics allow us to fight for everyone to be heard, included and taken care of. It’s our responsibility as human beings to look out for each other.

I volunteer at a museum with my friend, Robyn.  When we were discussing our fall plans, she told about the opportunity to take an advocacy class. She saw the advertisement for it in a local Facebook group she was in.  I jumped at the opportunity. Well, not really—I can’t jump in my wheelchair, but you catch my drift.

At first, I was excited about taking the class. I believe that the class has good intentions and information but, it lacks diversity in participants. Diversity is critical in order to bridge the gap between what we need and how to get there.

The class is supposed to help disabled people better advocate for themselves. However, it’s worth noting that most of the people in my class are able-bodied parents of disabled kids. I commend them for fighting for their children’s rights, but really wish there were less barriers to disabled people being able to participate. Our voices are lost in the fray.

There are many factors at play. According to the National Council on Disability, people with disabilities live in poverty at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities. People with disabilities make up approximately 12 percent of the U.S. working-age population; however, they account for more than half of those living in long-term poverty.

I’m lucky in that regard because I live with my parents, who take care of me. Transportation was more of an issue in my case. Think about how those statistics and how they affect people without support systems. I’m fortunate.

Each class, we have a corresponding assignment. The first portion directs us to look over educational websites.  The second portion includes a list of potential assignments. We are to pick one and complete it before the next session.

When I was looking over the numbered assignments, I read this ridiculous prompt. Look at #5. If you can’t see it clearly, here’s what it says:

“Pay attention to persons with disabilities working in your community. Let employers know that you support their efforts to employ a diverse workforce including persons with disabilities. Personally compliment the manager or write a letter.”

When I first read this prompt, I was livid. You see? My first instinct is always to get mad. After I calmed down, I was better able to assess the situation. Sometimes, my anger is justified—other times, it’s a foolish knee-jerk reaction. I later realized that this was a missed opportunity to learn and become a better person.

On a personal level, I think think this kind of stuff is patronizing b.s. and it hurts my soul.

From a political perspective, I understand that pragmatism is sometimes needed to achieve progress. This is the wrong way to approach it though.

Am I overreacting? I’ll let you decide for yourself. Without further ado, let’s dig in.What’s wrong with this prompt?

1. You wouldn’t walk into an establishment that had a black employee (or any other minority) and thank the employer for “supporting diversity.” Why would you do that about a disabled person? What are we to you? A pet project? If someone works somewhere, it’s supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship. Someone is completing a task and getting paid for their labor. It’s not a charity event for a disabled person to participate in the workforce.





2. We’re supposed to be equals and respected for our own talents and skills. Our place is earned. The kind of thinking exemplified in this assignment is exactly why a lot of disabled people have no self-esteem. We’re seen as a burden that contributes nothing of value to society. When we do get equal opportunities to live and thrive in this world, it’s seen as an act of kindness, or worse, a source of inspiration. It wouldn’t be treated as such if we weren’t barred from those opportunities to begin with. I don’t want anybody’s pity.

I want your acknowledgement as a human being and understanding. I swear, it’s this kind of stuff that makes me feel like I’m not even a person. I know that’s an extreme thing to say, but how else am I supposed to feel when people need a pat on the back just for allowing us into their lives?If you think like this, please reevaluate yourself. I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who felt this way. It’s tone deaf and really freaking stupid.

3. If you received good customer service from a disabled worker, why wouldn’t you thank them to their face? I wasn’t aware that gratitude had a chain of command. Why would you usurp an employee’s opportunity to feel appreciated? You shouldn’t be thanking someone for simply allowing us to be in their presence.

4. It assumes that all disabilities are visible. Disability exists on a wide spectrum and they aren’t always obvious. There are plenty of invisible disabilities.

Invisible Disability is an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of hidden disabilities or challenges that are primarily neurological in nature. Invisible disability, or hidden disability, are defined as disabilities that are not immediately apparent.

For example, I have a learning disability, but that wouldn’t be something you were aware of unless you knew me on an intimate level. Learning disabilities are neurologically-based processing problems. These processing problems can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing, and/or math. They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short term memory and attention. They can be managed in different ways.

Other invisible disabilities include autism, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, Crohn’s disease, chronic pain, hearing loss, visual impairments, brain injuries, lupus, arthritis, and more.

5. Employers get incentives for hiring disabled people so their intentions may not be pure. Employers who hire disabled people can get their wages subsidized by the government. Sometimes, the employers will get free labor and cut the employee loose as soon as that time period is up.

6. You’re taking away the voice of disabled people and replacing it with your own. You should let disabled people speak for themselves.  If an employee wants to thank their boss, that’s their own choice. If you want to be an effective ally to us, learn to pass the mic instead of hogging it for yourself.  It’s wonderful to want to speak up for disenfranchised people, but if they’re available to speak for themselves, please allow them to do so.

7. You’re assuming a disabled employee’s quality of work without knowing anything about them For all you know, the person you see may be a terrible employee. We all know people who are incompetent, lazy or rude. Disabled people are imperfect like the rest of humanity. We all know someone who sucks at their job but miraculously keeps it.  I’d never assume this of people, but I’m saying it’s merely a possibility. There’s plenty of shady people in the world.

The most important thing you can take away from this piece is to never assume that someone is worth less than you or is less capable. Never try to take the place of someone else. If you want to know what’s best for someone, ask them yourself. We all can do a better job at communicating with each other.