Session Title:  Able, Not Disabled, Not Differently-Abled

Introduction:  The following are my notes delivered at a global conference for disability inclusion held 27 October 2021 regarding how to improve disability inclusion in the workplace.

Description:  Increasing abilities by removing boundaries, discussing paths forward in ability inclusion, and building upon the great work Amazon and several other companies have done in pioneering disability inclusion in the workplace.

Welcome to a discussion on abled, not disabled, not differently-abled!  I am glad you’re here!  I am Dr. Dave Salisbury; I look to complete my Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology by April 2022; if you would like to participate in my dissertation, don’t hesitate to contact me outside this forum for more information.  I possess an MBA in global management specializing in human resource management, a master’s in adult education design and training, and have been a business consultant since 2004.  I am a dual-service US Army/US Navy disabled veteran.

My intent today is to help break down barriers so we can be comfortable around each other.  So comfortable that we can share jokes about my disability, we can look past the twitches, the spasms, and the stutters and find common interests.  Disability inclusion is precisely this, the inclusion into society of those with disabilities to the point that we do not see the disability, we do not recognize the handicaps, and we can then work in an atmosphere of ability.

I have several disabilities, most stemming from injuries sustained in military service; some include my voice, some include neurological issues, others are physical and mental.  Regardless, as these injuries have increased in severity, my professional intent began to be recognized for my abilities, talents, skills, knowledge, and potential, not for my disabilities.  Yet, I am often seen only as a disabled person or worse, a “token” disabled person filling a slot that another person could be occupying.  I ran into this thinking in the Federal government, New Mexico State, Bernalillo County, and Albuquerque City government hiring practices as recently as 2019.

Earlier in my professional life as a disabled person, I was told not to be thinking of myself as disabled but as “differently-abled.”  I am not differently-abled!  Differently-abled draws lines and limitations; it separates people and places boxes on potential.  Worse, it allows for the continued breeding of an “us against them” mentality, which breeds hostility and counterproductive beliefs.  Thus, I refuse to be differently-abled.  I do not particularly appreciate being classified as disabled either.

Please allow me to digress for a moment.  The transitive verb “dis” means to show disrespect, insult, or criticize.  As a prefix, “dis” is defined as the opposite of something, depriving someone of something, excluding someone, or expelling someone.  Thus, a disabled person is either being disrespected, insulted, or criticized, deprived, excluded, expelled or is the opposite of able.  Frankly, I believe that when we are made aware of the etymology of words, we are then more aware of why people choose to adopt or not adopt certain words and labels.  I repeat, only for emphasis, I do NOT particularly appreciate being classified as disabled, for I AM able!

Words and labels should not be the focus of our attention and efforts.  I prefer handicapped to disabled based on the etymology, even though I don’t particularly appreciate being considered handicapped.  A handicap can refer to a disadvantage in task completion, physical or mental disabilities, and can intentionally place a person at a disadvantage; there’s that “dis” again rearing it’s disrespect, insults, criticism, deprivation, exclusion, and expulsion.  Please, let’s stop focusing on word games and plastic phrases; instead, let’s invest efforts in finding solutions to existing problems.

How big is the problem of word focus; in the past few weeks, there have been several email chains based solely on a person’s word choice preferences.  I would venture to presume that not a single person intended to cause insult or denigrate a community member by using or not using a specific word, phrase, title, verb, adjective, etc. in describing a person or population in the community.  Yet, people chose to take offense, and others rushed in to ameliorate the feelings of the one choosing to be offended at a word.  Bringing up a fundamental aspect in disability inclusion, individual responsibility, accountability, or self-rule.

I am able!  I take a little more time, need a couple of extra breaks, and use additional technology and equipment to complete tasks.  I possess skills, talents, experiences, and knowledge valuable to situations, teams, and companies.  I bring to the table unique perceptions, insights, and benchmarkable skills worthy of consideration.  I bring formal and informal education and experience that is invaluable and immeasurably useful as an asset to the organization.  I am all this long before we ever discuss my physical and mental concerns or disabilities.

My first priority is my personal safety and security; my first job is to look out for myself.  Monitor what I am carrying, how far I must take it, doors, elevators, paths for egression in emergencies, methods for being warned, and what I can and cannot do.  For example, as COVID-19 began, I knew I could not wear a mask and asked about those of us who could not wear a mask.  I saw the confusion on faces. I witnessed the policy shifts, the harassments, the legal segregations, and suffered legal abuse and discrimination for not wearing a mask.  I realize that eventually, my injuries will require my independence to be curtailed, and I will become more dependent.  As such, I have to monitor what I can and cannot do constantly and clearly describe this to those I work with.  The same should be true and expected of all people regardless of handicap or level of ability.  Individual responsibility for safety, security, and health does not end just because they enter a building and should be stressed as a regular aspect of workplace safety.

Amazon has performed incredible work and is one of the few companies that has done pioneering work leading to real success in disability inclusion on a global scale.  The question before us is where and how do we build upon this work to improve the culture and potential of all employees, regardless of ability, in all industries and businesses, based upon the pioneering work of Amazon.  I believe the following action items can be the building blocks to successfully enhance the inclusion of people of all abilities, talents, skills, and knowledge.  I will revisit these questions when we get to the discussion portion; please consider these points.

  1. Conflict is good, beneficial, and a tool that is useful for building people, teams, and businesses. Douglas Malloch wrote a timeless poem, “Good Timber,” which is the quintessential discussion on why and how conflict is good.  Let us embrace conflict as the tool it is for improving people.  A handout is available for further consideration on these topics, and all bullets discussed, with reference materials for additional research if you desire.  Please send me an email if you would like these materials.
  2. Leadership begins with followership; followership begins with being lifelong learners, learning requires opportunities to teach, teaching is a prerequisite to learning, and learning requires the ability to lead and apply. – These are merely starting points to understanding. They are facts.
        • Do we encourage delegation and learning through experience?
        • Do we embrace failure as a tool for lifelong learning?
        • Leadership is not a title; leadership is first an attitude, then an action, and finally a method of learning and teaching. How do we apply these truths in daily activities?
        • Leadership as an attitude is witnessed in good followership, even when our followers practice loyal opposition; are we embracing the loyal opposition? Do we know how to recognize the loyal opposition?
  3. Flexibility and agility require open minds. Open minds need varieties in opinions, politics, beliefs, religions, and so much more.  Open minds begin with lifelong learning!  Lifelong learning requires self-reflection. – Again, we find fundamental truths, simply explained and expounded.  How are we embracing these truths in daily practice?  What actions are we supporting in the workplace to showcase support to and openness to variety in thinking and commitment to lifelong learning?
        • What book did you just read?
        • Did you share that book, recommending it to whom?
        • Were you excited about the book?
        • When was the last time you self-reflected?
  4. Do you believe?
  5. How will you act tomorrow?

Are there activities I cannot engage in?  Yes.  To my disappointment and chagrin, there are many activities I can no longer engage in.  Stairs are a tremendous activity I have to avoid; yes, this includes sidewalk curbs.  Standing and sitting for long periods have to be monitored and curtailed.  Walking is another activity I have to be conscious of and monitor closely.  I regularly mistake how long I have sat or walked and wind up in trouble breathing, or my legs give out from exhaustion.  But, I should not have to get into some vast dramatic affair just because my abilities are curtailed physically or mentally.  COVID-19 hit, I cannot wear a mask due to breathing issues; the mask mandates have been so embarrassing and challenging while also being segregationist, separatist, and legally expensive.  Why are disabled people still challenged on their disabilities when we are already disrespected, insulted, criticized, deprived, excluded, and expelled for merely being less physically and mentally able?

Ask yourself this question, “When I see a maskless person, do I condemn them first or think maybe they have a reason?”  That single decision is the key to the choice between building people and building disability thinking!  I do not need your answer voiced; please consider your response now and think about when you will witness a maskless person the next time.

Has anyone taken a look at the processes for obtaining work accommodations?  A work adjustment for a disability?  A mask exemption?  With all the differences in abilities, one would think the process would be straightforward to understand.  Yet, the opposite is often the truth because we refuse to embrace that we are all able and are programmed to first separate into able and dis-(disrespected, insulted, criticized, deprived, excluded, expelled)- abled.

The last two questions are not included for any reason other than to spark a conversation inside you.  Do you believe in a difference existing between disabled people and non-disabled people?  What will you do differently today and tomorrow to reflect your belief structure?

I learned a long time ago everyone has a disability, a blind spot, an issue they keep hidden from the world.  Sometimes it is a missing eye, an arm, a leg, an embarrassing laugh, depression, anxiety, trauma, childhood abuse, adult abuse, the list is endless.  Yet, some of those “blind spots” are more severe and become listed as “disabilities.”  The government stepped in to classify people, draw lines of segregation and separation, which did a lot of harm to people of all abilities.  I met a man recently who lost several fingers and partially lost several other fingers.  His lost and partial fingers never came up in conversation.  His abilities as a typist were terrific, and his talents on several musical instruments were extraordinary, but his missing and partial fingers were non-topics!  As a point of fact, I did not notice the fingers until I shook his hand in congratulations for his accomplishments.

Drawing lines, classifications, separations, segregation, it never works.  Until we can look past, work past, and choose to live past the disability, we will never be equally able, and everyone suffers.  What keeps disabled people from being able; our choices.  What keeps able people from working together; our choices.  See the connection; how we choose is the single greatest determining factor in moving forward as an individual, a team, a group, and a company.  We choose to either be abled or disabled.  We choose to allow our comfort zone to define us or not to define us.  We choose to work together first or separate each other first.

Often a person lacking an ability due to misfortune of some kind will develop and magnify other abilities, an often-overlooked advantage to their value because seeing past their loss has become a lost art of possibility and consideration.  In other words, our humanity needs restoration.  Those who do not have a fulness of ability know the realities of unreasonable and unfair judgment rather than the realities of potential and are thus prevented from entering the world of abilities and possibilities by the much too often impenetrable establishment of discrimination.  We can lift people from where we are and change the paradigm of ability and advancement to a higher level of accomplishment and respect.  We can do this!  Do you believe?

How will we act tomorrow?  A similar question was posed by Brian “The Brain” Johnson in the movie “The Breakfast Club,” and new attitudes, new thinking, and new potential were born.  Are we willing to see past the outside wrapping, shun society’s labels, and choose a different path forward through action, learning, leadership, and healthy conflict?

Let’s discuss!

    • Conflict is good, beneficial, and a tool that is useful for building people, teams, and businesses. Douglas Malloch wrote a timeless poem, “Good Timber,” which is the quintessential discussion on why and how conflict is good.  Let us embrace conflict as the tool it is for improving people.  A handout is available for further consideration on this topic and all bullets discussed, with reference materials for additional research on these topics if you desire.
    • Leadership begins with followership; followership begins with being lifelong learners, learning requires opportunities to teach, teaching is a prerequisite to learning, and learning requires the ability to lead and apply. – These are merely starting points to understanding. They are facts.
            1. Do we encourage delegation and learning through experience?
            2. Do we embrace failure as a tool for lifelong learning?
            3. Leadership is not a title; leadership is first an attitude, then an action, and finally a method of learning and teaching. How do we apply these truths in daily activities?
            4. Leadership as an attitude is witnessed in good followership, even when our followers practice loyal opposition; are we embracing the loyal opposition? Do we know how to recognize the loyal opposition?
      • Flexibility and agility require open minds. Open minds need varieties in opinions, politics, beliefs, religions, and so much more.  Open minds begin with lifelong learning!  Lifelong learning requires self-reflection. – Again, we find fundamental truths, simply explained and expounded.  How are we embracing these truths in daily practice?  What actions are we supporting in the workplace to showcase support to and openness to variety in thinking and commitment to lifelong learning?
            1. What book did you just read?
            2. Did you share that book, recommending it to whom?
            3. Were you excited about the book?
            4. When was the last time you self-reflected?
      • Do you believe?
      • How will you act tomorrow?

Additional Questions, Comments, Concerns, feel free to reach out to me via email or chime.  Thank you!

© Copyright 2021 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images.

Published by

msalis1

Dual service military veteran. Possess an MBA in Global Management and a Masters degree in Adult Education and Training. Pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Business professional with depth of experience in logistics, supply chain management, and call centers.

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