The Employment Paradox with Technology

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I attended a workshop on accessible employment recently and was reminded, as I’ve written about before, what a fraught topic employment is these days — for anyone, let alone those with access needs.

As welfare states come crashing down around the (western) world, the demand for employment and requirement to be employed increase. New Zealand’s welfare lexicon has changed from “beneficiary” to the default “jobseeker”.

Meanwhile industry and technology improves, meaning more machines, computers and robots do more and more jobs for us. I mean, that has been the whole idea of industrial and technological revolutions, hasn’t it? To decrease the need for humans to do stuff.

But, it’s like the world hasn’t quite caught up with itself. There are fewer things to do, but more pressure than ever for us to be gainfully employed. It’s all a bit Stupid, with a capital S, as Bernard Keane and Helen Razer might ubiquitously insist.

UK Research exploring “the future of work and how jobs, and the skills needed in the workplace, will change by 2030”, gives the following key messages:

  1. Technological growth and expansion: As digitalisation grows, we can expect a significant impact on employment and skills in the decades ahead, at all levels and in all sectors.
  2. Interconnectivity and collaboration: Work in the future will be more interconnected and network oriented.
  3. Convergence of innovation: We can expect more and more innovations to take place at the borders of disciplines and sectors.
  4. Increased individual responsibility: International competition and technological development is likely to continue to increase the flexibility that employers demand from their employees.
  5. The shrinking middle: The shrinking middle will challenge the workforce. The high-skilled minority (characterised by their creativity, analytical and problem solving capabilities and communication skills) will have strong bargaining power in the labour market, whilst the low-skilled will bear the brunt of the drive for flexibility and cost reduction, resulting in growing inequality.
  6. The four-generational (4G) workplace: The future workplace will be multi-generational, with four generations working side-by-side. Traditional notions of hierarchy and seniority will become less important.

(Key findings, The future of work: jobs and skills in 2030, UK Commission for Employment and Skills, p24-25)

If the world’s idea of employment were an ostrich, its entirety is well buried in sand, not just its head. We’re hardly thinking about these things — and we are far from conversing about them. Things like:

  • What happens when up-to-the-moment digital literacy is a pre-requisite for employment, given its exponential speed of development?
  • What factors influence who has access to interconnectivity and network orientation?
  • How are we encouraging innovations between disciplines and sectors?
  • What does increased employee responsibility look like?
  • If the high-skilled minority out-bargains the low-skilled majority, what becomes of “jobseekers”, who are out-bid before their seeking begins? After all, to seek successfully, one must also be sought.
  • How is the education system preparing school leavers to manage and lead people of their parents’ and grandparents’ ages? And how are employers preparing for this somersault?

These questions are fascinating to me, but I’m fairly sure they terrify many. But we’ve got to start using them to lead our conversations about employment in the future.

Quite simply the question, “How do more people become employed?” is not an adequate level of inquiry anymore. To meet the huge diversity, complexity and change that is ‘careering’ towards us in the next 15 years, we need to be asking, “What is employment becoming?” and “Who are the employees and employers of the future?”

But, most importantly, we need to grapple with this one: “What will become the valued, dignified alternatives to employment?” Because there will be more and more people, with and without access needs, seeking them out.

Five Fun Sensory Activities To Engage Children and Adults

Sensory Toys
Colorful shiny jelly set on the dark background

Sensory toys, games and activities have so many benefits to children with various additional needs owing to the multitude of ways these resources can be used. they can promote language development and reinforcement through storytelling.

Elevate Musical Instruments Percussion Kit for Children with Autism, Special Needs, Child Development plus Sensory Toy Activity Card
Elevate Musical Instruments Percussion Kit for Children with Autism, Special Needs, Child Development plus Sensory Toy Activity Card

For children with sensory processing difficulties sensory toys and equipment enables them to explore and encounter new sensations in a limitless but safe way. Gradually over time engaging is such activities can be used to help a child who is tactile defensive to explore different types of sensation.

Try some of these sensory toy games and activities with children or make suggestions to foster carers, parents and teachers to use some of these activities and games safely.

Learn Colours With A Sensory Bath

A Yellow water bath (or any other colour) can be the ideal way for your kids to learn colours.Having some sensory fun and learning the colour yellow in the bath with yellow water balloons and yellow bath water. The excitement and joy of this activity is priceless!

To add colour to the water you don’t need a lot of food colour, just a lid full under the the running water. Alternatively, if you do not like the idea of food colouring in your child’s bath you could use a bath bomb to colour the water. So much fun can be had from the children as they squeeze the water balloons into different shapes and drop them in the water.

Giggles and laughter all round as your child is learning colours. You could also place some of your child’s yellow coloured toys in the bath with them for further understanding.

Fluffy Snow Sensory Play

Making Fluffy Snow using soap flakes is a fun and messy sensory play activity. It is also a great way to incorporate a Christmas theme, especially if you live somewhere where it doesn’t snow. But it is fun and encourages a lot of learning, which is what it’s all about!
Kids will have the time of their lives finding fun ways to explore the fluffy mixture; squashing, feeling and playing with it.

To make fluffy snow you will need:
1 cup of Soap Flakes
3 cups of warm water
and a large mixing bowl

As you beat the mixture it multiplies, kids love to watch the transformation of the clear watery liquid mixture to a thick white blob. Then you  and your kids are free to play, explore and learn with the Fluffy Snow!

Scented Rice Sensory Play

This activity is a great way to create a sensory play table with all kinds of tools to explore with.

To do this you will need:
Rice
Strawberry essence and food colouring
a range of scoops, shovels, sifts, funnels or anything else
and a large container

This sensory play is unconstructed and allows kids to explore freely. It is great for all ages, from the very young to the big kids. It’s even therapeutic for the adults, we all love to play! This can be a several person activity which requires teamwork, social interactions and problem solving. Experimenting with new things to see what happens and exploring cause and effect are very beneficial.

Garden Water Park

Kids absolutely adore water parks, so with it approaching the summer holidays, a garden water park is an upcoming must! They are a lot of fun for kids, it gets them outdoors and active also secretly encourages many learning opportunities.

You can set up a range of different themed stations for kids to play and explore. One of these can be a Water Balloon Pool, a sensory toy play pool which includes about 35 balloons filled with water. Cheap paddling pools can be purchased from local stores. You can also purchase water squirters for as cheap as cheaply or you may already have a few hidden in the shed! Another popular ideal sensory toy is to use a long sheet of plastic such as a shower curtain and add washing up liquid to create a DIY slip ‘n’ slide.

With little money you can turn your back garden into a water park!

Sensory Play With Jelly

Ooey, gooey, slushy and messy! Playing with jelly!

Playing with Jelly is a sensory activity for kids to explore their senses the many wonderful textures and qualities of jelly. Yummy too!

You will need:
Jelly
An assortment of plastic containers
Tray or container (to put the mess in)

Explore the senses with your child, talk about all the wonderful describing words of how the jelly feels in your hands; squishy, sticky, slippery, slimey, sloppy and smooth. You can explore other senses too: how it smelt, what it sounds like and how colourful it is. This is a great way for your child to learn some new describing words.

We provide sensory activities and products for social workers, parents and carers in the UK and USA to support work with children and adults with special needs including trauma. Visit Elevate Training and Development for more information and our Social Work Continuing Professional Development Online service for more ideas about direct work with service users.

Driver’s License and Vehicle Required for Employment

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It concludes about 80% of the job postings I find require a driver’s licence and vehicle as a condition for employment.

For many people, this is inconsequential, or something that’s a given. When I was sixteen, I stood by as some of my friends excitedly obtained their permit, and only a short while later, their license. By the time I was in college, nearly everyone my age — that I knew — had a car. There were, of course, a few exceptions, but I was not in the majority.

Having a driver’s license is expected. If you don’t have one, you’re viewed as unreliable by some and immature by others. It seems to be a prerequisite for many jobs — even ones that pay minimum-wage or only slightly higher. Despite the cost of maintaining a vehicle, gas, and insurance, it’s generally assumed that one will, eventually, earn their license and purchase a car.

It’s different for someone who has had ten eye surgeries.

I spent much of my early teenage years struggling to balance my glaucoma. I was diagnosed with at age nine, and I struggled with school, extra-curricular activities, and simply growing up trying to find my place in this world. My parents were my biggest supporters. The vision in my left eye deteriorated rapidly. I had surgeries in other states. I missed a lot of classes. When I graduated high school, I breathed a sigh of relief.

For the past few years, I’ve been very lucky. My vision has remained stable. However, I still primarily only use one eye, I experience frequent headaches and blurry vision, and my eyes are very easily irritated. I take several medications to keep my intra-ocular pressures stable.

At age twenty-two, I walked across the stage after hearing my name. I had done it — I had earned my Master’s degree. I was beaming; I was glowing. I was prouder than I have probably ever been. And, you guessed it — I still didn’t have my driver’s license.

As I began the process of looking for and applying to jobs, I noticed that the majority of employers required a car and driver’s license. This makes sense where travel is required between offices, I thought, or if home visits are required. But in some instances, it seemed, well… superfluous. I’ve been utilizing public transportation since I was thirteen years old; it’s neither a burden nor does it prevent me from getting to work and being punctual.

What struck me as especially intriguing was the almost always present: “We do not discriminate on basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability….”

Disability.

I’m not sure if I consider my vision impairment a disability or not (the Americans with Disabilities Act does), but that’s beside the point. It is frustrating, and honestly saddening, to have worked so hard for a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, and my Licensure — I’m an LMSW — only to see this in job descriptions time and time again.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, this shouldn’t be happening.

Yet it has, and it continues to happen. Cars are not always reliable. They break down. People will always run late. In the part of the world in which I am located, inclement weather occurs all too frequently during the winter. I am trying to learn to drive, but it’s taking time. I’m not sure if it’s ever something I will be fully comfortable with. My safety and the safety of others must always come first.

More importantly, employers requiring someone to have a driver’s license and vehicle to get to work is ableist. It discounts the work myself and so many others have put in. It is discriminatory, and it needs to stop.

Power, Prejudice, and Paradox

I’ve recently changed how I describe myself or, more accurately, my experience. I now talk about “my paradoxical experience as a queer, caucasian, cisgender man with unique function (disability).”

indecision-967718-mEven doing this is paradoxical, given I argued the point in 2012 at TEDxAuckland that we need to decay labels to reveal diversity. But I’m doing it to explain a phenomenon of power, privilege and paradox, rather than to label myself.

Power and privilege have long been part of the politics of diversity and discrimination. Recently I heard another diversity expert, Leslie Hawthorne, encourage those with privilege to raise awareness of it by, for example, not using the word “lame” to describe something that is bad or stupid, because you are implying that people who can’t walk are bad or stupid.

There has also been the story of Ijeoma Oluo, a woman of colour, who experienced an instant reduction in racial slurs when she changed her Twitter profile picture to one that made her look caucasian.

These examples seem to me to slightly simplify the understanding of power and privilege — change a word here, look a bit different there. I think there are more complex subtleties at work, like context, subjectivity and objectivity, that paint a broader, more complex picture of power and privilege.

So back to me — let’s deconstruct those labels (or decay them) in terms of power and privilege (I’ll use P&P to save keystrokes).

  • Queer — not heterosexual (but not obviously so) — P&P comparatively low
  • Caucasian — not of colour — P&P unquestionably high
  • Cisgender — not transgender — P&P unquestionably high
  • Man — not woman — P&P unquestionably high
  • Unique function (disabled) — not non-disabled — P&P unquestionably low

So the question becomes, where do I sit in terms of P&P? We could do simple maths: 3 high P&P, only 2 low, ergo I have +1 P&P.

More complex maths — let’s give more points to unquestionably (2) than comparatively (1): -1+2+2+2-2=+3 — so I have +3 P&P? Or do I have +6 P&P as well as -3 P&P?

Of course this is where the paradox and complexity comes in, as well as context, subjectivity and objectivity (and other things I haven’t thought of but probably will do later). Let’s do some more decaying…

Context: As I said at TEDxAuckland, but to reframe it slightly, if I’m in a room of cisgender, caucasian men, they will not see my +6 P&P. They will see and/or sense my -3 P&P, feel awkward, discount me and I will lack P&P.

If, however, I’m in a room of indigenous, transgender and/or queer disabled people, chances are my +6 P&P will become very noticeable and my -3 P&P won’t be enough to save me. There goes my P&P. Again.

Similarly, if I’m in a recognised leadership role or on stage talking about P&P to a TEDx audience, I’ll have more of it than if I’m a stranger in the street.

Subjectivity: This works two ways. 1. The more people know me (i.e. the more subjective their experience of me), the more relative P&P I will have. They’re looking past the labels and seeing me for who I really am. 2. The more P&P I feel I have in different contexts, and the more I am aware of the behaviours and language that are commonly understood in the situation, the less threatening my perceived lack or abundance of P&P is likely to be.

Objectivity: I’ll refer back to Leslie Hawthorne, who recounted a story of an orchestra, which lacked female members. On becoming aware of this, “blind” (I’m not sure if that’s offensive or not to people who can’t see) auditions were held, so that decision-makers couldn’t tell the gender of the auditioning person.

Within a few years, female members had increased several-fold. So, ensuring some objectivity around P&P can decrease its impact.

So, where are we? Well, if you’re anything like me you’re likely in some state of confusion and uncertainty which, I would hazard to say, is a very good state from which to tackle diversity, not to mention leadership, complexity and change. Our human need to be sure and certain and to know the answers are precisely what leads us astray in the world, a world which is nothing like what we would like it to be.

In “A Short History of Stupid” by Helen Razer and Bernard Keane, Razer observes:

When you elevate lived experience to centrality in your socio- political critique and politics, you delegitimise the contribution to debate from other perspectives; if the traditional logical fallacy is appeal to authority, since the 1990s appeal to experience has come to rival it, creating a hierarchy of analysis with lived experience at the apex of authenticity. Moreover, as the phrase ‘check your privilege’ implies, it is not merely that a non- experience- based contribution to a discussion lacks legitimacy, the possession of other forms of experience creates an illegitimacy that is impossible to overcome: the scoring systems used to allocate ‘privilege points’ can be neatly flipped into a ‘how illegitimate is your opinion’ scale, depending on the colour of your skin, your sexual preference, your income and your gender. The result is a further fragmentation of public debate on issues, with fewer voices heard and greater unanimity among those voices given the imposition of dominant narratives even within sub- groups. The result is also a lesser willingness among generalists, and particularly media practitioners, to genuinely engage on policy issues arising from or including identity politics, for fear of being labelled racist/misogynist/homophobic/middle class/transgenderphobic/ableist/fattist/perpetrators of rape culture. They live in fear of fatally missing some critical nuance that would reveal them as inauthentic, or worse.

I agree. I don’t see myself (or anyone else) as absolutely either owning or lacking P&P — I don’t think it’s a useful paradigm. Sometimes we have, it sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can influence it, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we’re prepared, sometimes we’re not. Sorry kids, it’s messy out there.

And — hate to say it — it’s getting messier.

The ABLE Act Explained: Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE)

The Achieving a Better Life Experience Act (ABLE) was signed into law by the President on December 19, 2014. Tax-free savings accounts can now be built for a population that has historically been forced to live in poverty. Up until now, in order to be eligible for SSI and Medicaid, a person could not have more than $2,000 in cash and property ($3,000 for couples) or make more than $700 monthly (!) in order to be eligible for Medicaid or SSI.

This means they can’t save money for things that Medicaid and SSI don’t cover like education, housing, a job BLOG_12232014coach or transportation. While the rest of society is encouraged to save for emergencies, unforeseen expenses and rainy days, people with disabilities – who have naturally higher expenses and higher medical needs – were forced to scrape pennies and do without due to archaic laws and discriminatory notions held by society in general.

What is the ABLE Act?

This bi-partisan piece of legislation will give people with disabilities and their families freedoms and security never before experienced. It amends the IRS code of 1986 to allow savings accounts to be set up for individuals with disabilities much like the college tuition accounts known as “529 accounts” that have been around since 1996.

The Treasury Department is currently writing all of the regulations. There will then be a period of time where public comments on the proposed rules will be allowed. Before the end of 2015, every State will be responsible for establishing and operating an ABLE program.

How does it work?

In a nutshell, an ABLE savings account can be opened up by an individual with a disability or by someone else on their behalf. Up to $14,000 may be deposited yearly untaxed, with that amount to be increased as inflation rises. If an account surpasses $100,000, the owner of the account will no longer be eligible for SSI but would not be in danger of losing Medicaid. When a person dies, Medicaid will be reimbursed first from the account before it is dispersed to the person’s estate.

What can the funds be used for?

Any disability-related expenses, including:

  • Education
  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Employment training and support
  • Assistive technology and personal support services
  • Health, prevention and wellness
  • Financial management and administrative services
  • Legal fees
  • Funeral and burial expenses

This is a great step forward in the right direction for this community. Let’s hope the regulations are completed sooner rather than later so that individuals and families can begin saving for a better life!

DomesticShelters.org – New Resource for Those Experiencing Domestic Violence

Domestic Shelters Logo JPG--SMALL

Though it may be the most wonderful time of the year, the Holiday season can be dangerous for individuals and families impacted by domestic violence.  Those who work in this field explains that the increase of incidences during the holidays is exacerbated by the build up of anger and stress, which accompanies the season.  The holiday season also marks the time of year when children experience domestic violence at the highest rates seen.  It may be a joyous celebration for many of us; however, we cannot forget or fail to protect and assist those who are enduring brutal, and sadly, potential life-ending, abuse.

A few weeks ago, I came across an article spotlighting a new tool to assist in finding shelter and support for individuals and families experiencing domestic violence.  Being that I wrote an article on this subject in October discussing the prevalence of disabled women and domestic violence, I knew that I had to take a more detailed look at this tool.

DomesticShelters.org – A New Website Seeking to Close the Information Gap

In late August, the National Coalition of Domestic Violence (NCADV) and the Theresa’s Fund partnered and developed a comprehensive tool that identified 3,001 domestic violence provider organizations throughout the United States, and gathered 156 data points on each entity.  Their collaborative efforts created the largest database of its kind ever established, and its existence allows visitors to Domestic Shelters to input their location, language, and service preferences with just the click of a mouse.  The search results yield proximate, relevant opportunities for users to receive the most appropriate assistance pertaining to their specific need(s) and situation(s).

My Test Drive of DomesticShelters.org

Being that I only share and spotlight online tools that I have personally reviewed, I thought that I would definitely do this for Domestic Shelters.  I went on the website, and was impressed with how colorful and eye-catching the graphic design layout was.  The bright colors created an inviting presence for users who are seeking this pertinent information.  (Click image to enlarge for better viewing.)

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The website’s usage ability is very simple:  enter your zip code, and if needed, select a language and service preferences.  When I entered the Columbia, SC zip code, 29201, the following organizations came up:  Sistercare and Women’s Shelter.  Since I am more familiar with Sistercare due to the active advocacy presence the organization has within the Midlands area, I decided to select Sistercare as the organization I wanted to learn about.

The information provided for Sistercare is crucial for those seeking its services.  Key points for me were the hotline number; TTY/TDD number for those who are hearing impaired; toll free number; and languages spoken, which is important to note for our ethnically diverse community.

The only information that was not included in Sistercare’s profile was whether the facility was wheelchair accessible, which is important for disabled South Carolinian women and families to know if they required such access.  (The lack of accessibility within domestic violence shelters and disability training for staff are incredible barriers that negatively impacts one’s ability to fully utilize these facilities.)

Overall, I was very pleased with how user-friendly Domestic Shelters was.  The “Leave SIte” button (which connected to the Weather Channel’s website when I selected it) allowed users to promptly leave the webpage for safety reasons.  I have seen a few domestic violence focused organizations with this feature, so it is considered a standard safety measure to ensure that those seeking or inquiring about assistance can do so without fear of their abusers knowing.

Final Thoughts

The Domestic Shelters website is an empowering game-changer for survivors, helping professionals, and community members who want to arm themselves with knowledge about the organizations that focus on serving and advocating for this particular population.  Domestic Shelters has an undeniable potential to close the information gap for those desiring to leave abusive situations and find their strength and voice with the aid of these organizations.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of NCADV.  Screenshot is my own.)

Innovation Tool: Modified Power Wheels Cars for Toddlers with Disabilities

For our youngest disabled children, assistive devices that would allow them to gain independence by moving freely in their homes is a considerable and serious gap that exists for them.  University of Delaware and Fisher-Price aim to change that by offering affordable, adapted Power Wheels Cars for our kids who cannot afford to be slowed down by their disability.

Why This Level of Independence is Imperative for Our Disabled Toddlers

Modified Power Wheels Car 2For children under the age of three, there are no wheelchairs currently available on the market that would allow them to move about independently.  This lack of innovation unfairly keeps our children stationary, and hinders their growth development.  A child who has limited mobility should not be stifled in their desire to explore and play in their environments – they should have the ability to roam about and get into any and everything not nailed down, as other toddlers their age.  Waiting until a child is three years old and/or possesses the ability to maneuver a wheelchair is too long for their cognitive, motor, social, and language development to remain static.  We cannot continue to cause our disabled children to lag behind in their growth as curious, exploratory beings.

The Idea Behind Modified Power Wheels Cars

In 2011, Go Baby Go was created by University of Delaware pediatric researcher Cole Galloway to narrow this independence gap for our disabled tykes.  The goal was to develop modifications that families of disabled children could purchase at affordable prices, and make adjusts on their own.

Since its creation, there are currently 40 international Go Baby Go sites available to provide these cars to and modify them for families.  Through the project, over 500 cars have been modified and made available to families, and 500 more have been acquired through groups that were inspired to make this product available after learning about it either online or by word-of-mouth.

How These Modified Power Wheels Cars Are Adapted

The Power Wheels cars are rewired to add on/off switches, and the steering wheels have large buttons on them that allows the child to activate the car and make it move the way they like.  The PVC pipes and pool toys, the popular foam kickboards and water noodles, are added onto the cars to support the kids while “driving.”  Kids are secured in the driver’s seat of their cars with Velcro straps and seat belt buckles as they zoom around (safety first before we let them go loose).

These modified cars are incredibly affordable for most families – it costs approximately $200 to purchase and adapt each car to a child’s needs.  In comparison to the $1,000+ price tag for the “cheapest” wheelchairs on the market, these cars can fit into the budgets of most families in need of them.  In reality, the prices of these cars cannot compare to the invaluable reality they offer children who use them – their freedom and independence.

This Is Share-Worthy!

I urge each and every one one of the SWH readers to pass this along to parents/guardians, helping professionals, and others who could benefit from knowing about modified Power Wheels cars – disabled children deserve the right to gain access to this tool so that they can access the world around them without limits.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of UD Go Baby Go via its Facebook page.)

HUD Awarded $7.5 Million to Assist Disabled & Elderly Americans Live Independently

Wheelchair in Front of Adapted Home 1In late September, HUD’s Secretary Julián Castro made the announcement that nearly $8 million in grant funding will be used to assist thousands of people with disabilities and senior citizens receive healthcare, meals, and other daily living activities and services in the comforts of their own homes, arranged by service coordinators.  Living independently as a disabled person or senior citizen, if possible, is important to one’s psyche, sense of well-being, and being afforded the opportunity to be fully comfortable in your own living quarters.  Becoming aware of the $7.5 million grants HUD awarded through its Multifamily Housing Service Coordinator Program (MHSC), I knew that I had to share this positive move towards increasing independence opportunities with the SWH readers.

Secretary Castro made the following statement about how the use of service coordinators will be vital to these particular populations:

Service coordinators connect senior citizens and those living with disabilities with the services they need to live independently … These grants will go a long way toward ensuring these vulnerable populations are well served and allowed to age in place.

The 39 grants awarded will be bestowed upon 39 owners of private housing developments that receive rental subsidies from the Department to house those who are low-income in 21 states.  The grant awardees are subject to hire or contract service coordinators who will be responsible for providing social services and assistance to residents who are disabled and elderly.  The grant money will cover costs related to salary, benefits, quality assurance, training, office space, equipment, and other related administrative expenses needed to retain and support these coordinators working for the grant awardees to provide these resources to residents.

Why is this grant award announcement so important?  Having the ability to stay in one’s home while conquering severe medical conditions has been proven to be beneficial to one’s overall health and improvement.  There is truly no place like home, and when you have chronic illnesses or disabilities, being in familiar surroundings eliminates the issue of having to recover in cold, foreign, unfriendly, sterile environments such as nursing homes and hospitals.  Being comfortable, location wise, is a priority for those with disabilities and our seniors, just as pain management and effective medical treatments are.  Being a helping professional, I have seen clients’ health and will to fight deteriorate when they were removed from their homes, and I have witnessed the complete opposite – clients’ health stabilized or deteriorated at a slower rate because they had the opportunity to remain at home.  Of course, remaining at home may not be the opportune choice in certain circumstances, but if it is favorable, it should be heavily considered as a possible option versus being institutionalized or hospitalized.

Another key point to note is that it is more cost-effective and cost-efficient for someone to remain in their home instead of being placed in an institutional setting; the latter would cost thousands of dollars each year just to house one resident.  The need for more federally-supported programs to assist in allowing individuals to live independently will undeniably reduce the financial strain on our healthcare system when it comes to this aspect.

Seeing that the well-being and quality of life of disabled and elderly Americans is on the consciousness of federal entities like HUD is imperative to ensure that everyone has a fair chance of living independently to the best of their abilities in our communities.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of The Little House Company.)

Spotlighting the Launch of the DOJ’s Elder Justice Website

Recently, the United States Department of Justice announced the launch of the Elder Justice website which was created to help further combat elder abuse and financial exploitation of seniors. Being the caregiver of a member of the Silent Generation and being a helping professional, I understand how dire it is to protect the older members in our society, and to report any forms of abuse or neglect they may endure.

Elderly Black Woman 1With a plethora of resources out there, it can be overwhelming to figure out what information is appropriate and current to utilize and pass along to those who need it. The U.S. Justice Department has taken steps to provide an online informational “hub” for older Americans, their families, law enforcement, helping professionals, and other stakeholders who have a vested interest in ensuring that older Americans’ rights and humanness are respected.

The Focus Behind Elder Justice:

The need for such a new resource is imperative, especially since one in ten Americans over the age of 60 suffer from abuse and neglect in this country.  Elder Justice’s aim is to be another proactive measure to assist in preventing elder abuse and financial exploitation.

Elder abuse can consist of an older individual experiencing physical, emotional/mental, financial, and/or sexual abuse; and neglect in one’s well-being and care, which can include health care.  The devastating effects of elder abuse is not just felt by the individual targeted, but by those within the community as well.  Elder abuse dwindles the resources set aside for elderly individuals, families, businesses, and public programs (including Medicare and Medicaid) by billions of dollars each year.  This depletion causes tremendous strains on our healthcare, financial, and judicial systems to transpire.

Protecting the elderly has continued to be a priority of the Justice Department, which were evident by the remarks Associate Attorney General Tony West made at the outreach event of the website launch in mid-September:

The launch of the Elder Justice website today marks another milestone in reaching our shared goal of keeping older Americans safe from abuse and neglect  …  The more we embrace our elders with respect and care, the stronger our society will be.  This tool helps move us closer to that goal.

Various forms of abuse and neglect are not the only issues concerning our seniors the Elder Justice website tackles.  Financial exploitation by consumer scams and healthcare fraud are forms of deception this population experiences.  Seniors are estimated to lose almost 3 billion dollars each year from these kinds of exploitation.  The consequences can greatly diminish older adults’ quality of life by creating a loss of independence and self-sufficiency, and increasing the infliction of health and psychological distress.  The Justice Department has taken several steps to focus on these matters, such as prosecuting those who purposefully targeted seniors with scams involving reverse mortgages and lotteries.  In regards to healthcare fraud, the implementation of enforcement, prevention, and consumer protection initiatives has aided to curb financial exploits of our seniors.

What to Expect When You Visit the Elder Justice Website:

Assistant Attorney General Stuart F. Delery made the following statement about what the public and professionals can find on the Elder Justice website:

The website provides resources and a means for improved communication among prosecutors, supports victims and families, and establishes a mechanism for collaboration for researchers and practitioners … While there are many other victim support websites available, we believed that the department could add significant value in this domain by consolidating information nationwide and making it more user-friendly.  The Civil Division will continue to strengthen its efforts to protect the elderly.

The website is easy to navigate, and seems to be very accessible for users of different technological abilities.  There are several tabs on the left column of the homepage that directs visitors to resources and information that may pertain to their unique situation or interests, such as “support for victims and families,” “practitioner resources,” “financial exploitation,” and “researcher resources.”  Each resource link provides several subcategories of information for that particular topic.

The “support for victims and families” resource link has the best information available on the website, in my opinion, because you can search for organizations in your particular state.  When I viewed the resources for South Carolina page, I was amazed at the simplistic layout the information listed was arranged in – the information was housed in an easy to read table format with the title headings “organization’s name,” “address,” and “contact numbers.”  Every organization listed was categorized under its appropriate mission focus, so that users would understand the kind of assistance to expect if they were to contact that organization.

You can also search for organizations by keyword, distance, zip code, or categories.  The various ways of finding organizations in your particular state/area is a great feature because it widens the possibility of connecting with agencies that could be a lifeline for you, your family, or your clients.  I critically viewed the functionality of the website through two lenses:  As a self-proclaimed semi-techie, I judge resource websites like this harshly because it should not be complicated or frustrating to search and locate information that could help and possibly save lives.

The website is accessible and can be effectively used by a layman or a professional equally with very little difficulty, which is how most websites should be.  As a helping professional, the Elder Justice website will make it easier for social workers and other professionals to be more aware of what resources they can direct clients and families to who are in need.  To me, the website is a great page to bookmark for future use, and to share with those who could benefit from the data compiled.

Final Thoughts About Elder Justice:

I was pleasantly surprised at the launch of a valuable resources such as this on the federal level.  As our elderly population grows with the Baby Boomers gracefully entering their golden years, the development of this website is indeed timely.  Though this website focuses on the elderly, it can be used for all populations that are vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and exploitation, including those with disabilities.

As one ages, the likelihood of acquiring a disability increases exponentially, so many of the adults who make up our senior population are living with disabilities or will be.  Their quality of life and well-being matters, just as that of a younger person.  Our seniors need us to protect and support them as they adjust to aging, and possibly living with chronic health conditions.  Resources like Elder Justice makes it easier to inform, empower, protect, and advocate for them, and to encourage them to empower and advocate for themselves.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Healthy Black Woman.)

HUD Charges University with Housing Discrimination of College Student with Support Dog

A new school year means that disabled college students are adjusting to their new environments, and are making accommodation requests to their school’s disability services department that will allow a smoother transition.  Accommodations can range from needing note-taking assistance, placement in a quieter environment to take tests, and/or being able to use service/support animals on campus.  Such accommodations are protected under several federal mandates, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other pieces of legislation that outlaws discriminatory practices based on disability status(es).

Support Dog 1In mid-August, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a statement that it had charged Kent State University, one of the largest universities in Ohio, with discrimination.  The University, along with four of its employees, allegedly refused the accommodations request a disabled student made to allow her emotional support animal to live with her in the university-owned and operated housing unit she resided in.

Details of the Alleged Discriminatory Practice Conducted:  

According to HUD, the student filed a complaint stating the details of the claimed misgivings she and her husband experienced from the university regarding this matter.  The student and her spouse resided in housing designated for families and upperclassmen attending the University.  The student was receiving services from an on-campus helping professional, and the professional stated in documentation that the appropriate means for the student to cope with the disabilities she faced was by having an emotional support animal.

The student, acting on the helping professional’s recommendation about her care, sought and retained the services of an emotional support animal, and filed a reasonable accommodation request to the university about housing the animal.  The housing unit the student resided in had a “no pets” rule, and the student was hoping that the university would waive this policy, given that her support animal would be providing her assistance surrounding her disabilities.

The student claimed that the university did not respect her support animal housing accommodation request; though they did honor the requests she made regarding the academic accommodations she needed.  Her inability to obtain the housing waiver for her support animal caused her and her spouse to move and search for housing off-campus.  When the alternative housing arrangements were made, the student and her spouse contacted Fair Housing Advocates Association (FHAA), Inc. about this incident.

What the Fair Housing Act States about Housing Accommodations:  

In this case, refusing to accommodate a student with an emotional support animal violates the Fair Housing Act.  The Fair Housing Act (FHA), passed in 1968, prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, disability status, and family status.  In regards to disability, the Fair Housing Act states the following about reasonable accommodations and housing providers’ responsibilities:

Your landlord may not:

• Refuse to let you make reasonable modifications to your dwelling or common use areas, at your expense, if necessary for the disabled person to use the housing. (Where reasonable, the landlord may permit changes only if you agree to restore the property to its original condition when you move.)

• Refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services if necessary for the disabled person to use the housing.

Example: A building with a no pets policy must allow a visually impaired tenant to keep a guide dog.

(Excerpted from Fair Housing – It’s Your Rights.)

In this case, the Fair Housing Act prohibits the refusal the student claimed to have experienced – housing providers like Kent State University cannot refuse to provide reasonable accommodations to waivers regarding “no pets” policies, especially when the accommodation is needed for the disabled person to live an independent life.  Gustavo Velasquez, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, made the following statement about housing providers honoring a service/support animal accommodation requests:

Many people with disabilities rely on therapy animals to enhance their quality of life. .. The Fair Housing Act protects their right to a service animal and HUD is committed to taking action whenever the nation’s fair housing laws are violated.

Why Other Colleges & Universities Should Keep a Close Eye on this Case:  

Until a ruling is handed down in this case (if it is seen in court), Kent State University and its employees are innocent of any wrongdoing and discriminatory practices.  However, this case should be on the radar of the colleges and universities in this country.  As I say time and time again, being ignorant of the law IS NOT an excuse to hindering someone’s rights.  As a former disabled college student, I remember several students of various disabilities with their service and support animals in the classrooms, cafeterias, and dormitories.  These animals serve a purpose – they are NOT toys or pets; students deserve, and have the rights, to utilize the incredibly freedoms these animals bestow upon those who need them.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Working Service Dog.)

Attorney General Eric Holder Signs Proposal to Improve Movie Theater Experience for Disabled Americans

On July 25th, 2014, the Justice Department released a statement announcing that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that will affect Title III regulation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Title III of the ADA focuses on public accommodations, such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors’ offices, libraries, and the like, and states that these establishments may not discriminate based on disability status(es).  The NPRM Attorney General Holder supports focuses on requiring movie theaters to provide closed captioning and audio description that will improve movie accessibility for those with visual and hearing disabilities.

Attorney General Holder made the following statement about the proposed amending:

This proposed rule will allow all Americans, including those with disabilities, to fully participate in the moviegoing experience.  With this proposal, the Justice Department is taking an important step to ensure consistent access for people with vision and hearing disabilities.  Twenty-four years after its passage, the Americans with Disabilities Act remains a critical tool for extending the promise of opportunity and inclusion for everyone in this country.

(Excerpt from the DOJ’s Press Release statement about proposed amendment.)

Interior of a Movie TheaterWhat do these proposed new accommodations mean for disabled moviegoers?  The closed captioning access would allow for captions to be delivered to a patron’s seat, and would only be visible to that user.  The audio description access would allow patrons with varying degrees of visual abilities to participate in the movie-going experience by making available a spoken narration of key visual moments in the movie; such as action points, setting locations, facial expressions made by the characters, costumes/clothing worn, and scene changes.  These descriptions will be transmitted via an user’s wireless headset.

The amendment proposed would establish a nationwide standard for movie theaters to showcase movies that would allow closed captioning and audio description to be made available to patrons would would benefit from the accommodation.  However, there are two caveats to this proposal:

  • The first being that theaters can be non-compliant if providing such accommodations would prove to be an undue burden or fundamental alteration.
  • Secondly, the DOJ is not requiring theaters to add the accommodations to movies that cannot be adapted with these features.

As someone who is hard of hearing (HoH) and uses two digital-style hearing aids, this proposal would greatly benefit me as a moviegoer.  Though my hearing aids assist me greatly, having the closed captioning option as an accommodating tool would enhance the movie theater experience for me, and others like myself.  Closed captioning and audio description features provide more social inclusion for those who would utilize them.  As we look ahead to the 25th anniversary of the ADA in 2015, this proposal is a great reminder that there is still a tremendous amount of work left to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access and opportunities, justice, inclusion, and acceptance in our society.  Individuals with visual and hearing disabilities, along with those with other forms of disabilities, are still in great need for more accommodations and accessibility to be made available to them – a few ramps, braille on elevator pushkeys, and wide bathroom stalls are not enough.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of AI Squared.)

Wal-Mart Responds to Article about Being Sued for Disability Discrimination by the EEOC

Wal-Mart Logo on Buggy 1

On Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014, I published an article titled, Wal-Mart Being Sued for Disability Discrimination by the EEOC in Chicago, here on Social Work Helper.  My article summarized the press release the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) posted about it taking legal action against the gigantic corporation Wal-Mart for allegedly rescinding work accommodations for an employee with an intellectual disability, and later disciplining and terminating him from his position.

On Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014, I was contacted via email by Betsy Harden, who is a part of Wal-Mart’s Media Relations department.  Ms. Harden requested that I update my article with Wal-Mart’s response to the lawsuit, in order to give Wal-Mart’s side of the story.

Below was the said email from Ms. Harden, with Wal-Mart’s statement about the lawsuit in bold:

Hi Vilissa,

I am writing regarding your story, “Wal-Mart Being Sued For Disability Discrimination By The EEOC In Chicago.” Did you reach out to anyone on our team for a comment? We always appreciate the opportunity to respond to stories that include us. I’ve included our response below – could you please update your story to include this?

“We strongly disagree with the allegations raised in the complaint. Walmart does not condone or tolerate discrimination of any kind, and our company has thousands of associates who regularly perform their jobs with reasonable accommodations which we have provided. Our review of the facts in this case show that at no time did Mr. Clark ever request a workplace accommodation, nor did he ever indicate that a disability interfered with him performing his job. We ended Mr. Clark’s employment for repeated safety violations.”

Please don’t hesitate to call or email with any questions.

Thank you!

My first reactions to receiving her correspondence was shock, then enthusiasm.  Both responses stemmed from the fact that a mega supermarket chain like Wal-Mart caught wind of my story, a story that got on my radar from a posting on the Disability.gov’s newsletter the week prior.  I decided to inform Deona Hooper, the Founder and Editor of Social Work Helper, about Ms. Harden’s email, and she and I agreed that a response to the email was needed, and the request for an article publishing Wal-Mart’s statement would be granted.

Here was the response I sent to Ms. Harden about her request:

Good afternoon Ms. Harden,

Thank you for providing a statement from Wal-Mart about the pending legal situation filed by the EEOC branch in Chicago.  I do plan to write a follow-up article with Wal-Mart’s statement in full regarding this matter.

According to the EEOC’s press release, Mr. William Clark’s prior accommodation was rescinded, then he begin receiving disciplinary actions, which supposedly led to his termination. When Mr. Clark began his 18 years career at Wal-Mart, had he received a written accommodation(s), specifying what his need(s) were so that he could complete his job tasks and requirements to the best of his ability?

As a writer, I do my best to ensure to provide both sides of the story, in this case Wal-Mart’s and the EEOC’s, to my readers and the public.  Ms. Harden, if there is additional information or statements you would like to provide on behalf of Wal-Mart for the follow-up article, that would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

At the time this article was published, I have yet to receive a response from Ms. Harden about my question regarding if Mr. Clark had received written accommodation(s) for his particular need(s).

As I noted in my reply to the Wal-Mart representative, I aim as a responsible writer, and avid disabled advocate, to ensure that both parties are able to provide accurate information and statements to issues that affect the inclusion and equality of disabled Americans.  It is only fair that I reach out to the EEOC about the statement Wal-Mart sent me about this legal matter.  I was able to make contact with an EEOC employee at the national headquarters, and received the contact information of a paralegal who would be able to shed more light about this case.  I did contact the paralegal via email, sharing the email exchanges between the Wal-Mart representative and myself, and requesting if the EEOC would like to submit a statement/response to Wal-Mart’s stance about the lawsuit.  At the time this article was published, I have yet to hear from the EEOC paralegal.

The fact that Wal-Mart responded so quickly shows that the Corporation does care about its image, as far as being perceived as a fair and accommodating employer.  Until a ruling is handed down in court, Wal-Mart is innocent of any wrongdoing in this case.

This is the first legal case that I have been drawn into by one of the parties, and I plan to keep the SWH readers updated on any future responses I may receive from either Wal-Mart or the EEOC about this case, and the verdict of the lawsuit.

SWH readers, what are your thoughts about Wal-Mart’s statement, and the possible outcome of this case?  Share your thoughts with me below.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of CNBC.)

New Age of Robotic Technology Designed to Help Disabled People Walk Again

michaelgore

The fictional marvel of robotic technology, exoskeletons, and robot suits are all just a vision of a faraway future. We’ve all seen countless sci-fi movies about robotic limbs and mind-operated machinery but today, this type of technology could be possible to help paraplegics and disabled people walk again.

In November 2013, Forbes reported that the technology was nearing commercialisation, told with a recent story on Michael Gore, a man who was left unable to walk or stand after breaking his back during a 12 foot fall in a workplace accident. Vanderbilt University and engineering experts at Parker Hannifin introduced a new portable system, Indego, which was a lightweight exoskeleton designed to help people regain their mobility. This lightweight system, weighing just 27 pounds, was tried and tested by Michael Gore five years after he became paraplegic.

Michael Gore shared his poignant and heart-warming story, saying: “This is the first time I’ve stood up since my injury. This is the first time I’ve stood up in five years.”

Watch his full story here on Youtube, where Gore talks about how the new technology by Parker Hannifin and Vanderbilt University has transformed his life.

Robotic Developments in Recent Years

Human exoskeletons, as seen in the Michael Gore story are designed to work alongside intensive rehabilitation care. With the correct rehabilitation, the mobility improvements with an exoskeleton can be dramatically increased. The engineers at Parker Hannifin were focused on creating a robotic system that was easy to use and lightweight to wear. With no backpack, unlike other prototypes created in previous trials, the Indego system was designed to give something that is utterly priceless – independence.

Another system, which first made the news back in 2009, was a Japanese suit called HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb), an engineering project at Cyberdyne Corporation in the city of Tsukuba.

The suit was designed to “upgrade the existing physical capabilities of the human body” (read more about the Hybrid Assistive Limb here)

HAL, weighing 23kg, unlike the Indego system, uses a backpack battery, is strapped to the body, and can be controlled by thought. More recently, in July 2014, reports reveal that scientists all over the world are in a race to bring these life-changing systems to market, including the makers of HAL.

Robotics Today and in the Future

In 2014, it seems the new technology is popping up everywhere. Although we are not at the stage where we can introduce robotic suits in all hospitals and rehabilitation centres, we are becoming closer and closer to the possibility of more stories like that of Michael Gore.

Currently, for paraplegics and people who are disabled, living with a disability still proves to be a challenge. However, our current advancements in technology can still help them become more mobile and therefore, more independent. For instance, the market is now abundant in disabled cars, including self-drive vehicles which can help someone with a disability regain a feeling of independence once again.

One of the most groundbreaking advances we have in motoring is what’s known as a ‘Drive from Wheelchair’ vehicle, a car that allows someone in a wheelchair to drive the car themselves. To find out more about self-drive technology or adaptive vehicles have a look online.

In addition, there are still many up and coming developments including telepresence robotics; a technology that allows quadriplegic patients to enjoy a full tour of museums and galleries, without leaving their homes.

Not only is robotics shaping the world of healthcare but there could be an indication of this type of engineering extending to other areas – perhaps retail – in the far future. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has trialed an augmented robot hand that gives human wearers two extra fingers, allowing us to do things we would ordinarily not be able to do.

FDA Approval for New Technology

Yet another system, known as ReWalk Robotics (by Argo Medical Tech), has made recent news. This time, the trial delivered fantastic results with the FDA giving the robotic system full approval for the USA.

After rigorous testing and multiple trials and studies, on June 28th, 2014, ReWalk has finally been approved for marketing in America. With this progress, we are another step closer to helping some paraplegics walk again. The sanction from the Food and Drug Administration now means that anyone with lower body paralysis could have the opportunity to purchase a motorised exoskeleton suit. Find out more about how the ReWalk suit is used in the video below:

Wal-Mart Being Sued for Disability Discrimination by the EEOC in Chicago

Earlier this month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took action by filing a lawsuit against Wal-Mart for allegations that the supermarket chain unjustly fired an employee with an intellectual disability who worked at the Rochford Walmart store in Illinois.  The grounds of the lawsuit pertains to the claim that the store revoked the employee’s workplace accommodations, and as a result, made it difficult for him to complete his job tasks, was unfairly disciplined, and ultimately fired from his position.

Wal-Mart Lawsuit 1John Rowe, the Chicago EEOC district director, stated the following about the investigation the EEOC conducted on the discrimination allegation:

What our investigation indicated is that Wal-Mart rescinded a long-standing practice of giving written job assignments to the employee, William Clark. That accommodation had been the key to permitting Clark to successfully perform his job during an 18 year career at Wal-Mart and to his meeting the company’s performance expectations. We determined that shortly after rescinding the accommodation, Wal-Mart began disciplining Mr. Clark for supposed performance issues, and that ultimately lead to his termination.

(Quote from the EEOC’s press release about Wal-Mart lawsuit.)

The EEOC did not pursue a lawsuit at first with this case; it tried unsuccessfully to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.  The EEOC filed its case on July 1st, 2014, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division.  The EEOC filed the suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits workplace discrimination under Title I.  Title I outlines the responsibilities of places of employment to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees.

John Hendrickson, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Chicago District Office, stated the following as to why the EEOC took the stance it did in suing Wal-Mart for disability discrimination:

The EEOC’s position in this case is that Wal-Mart just took away — with no good reason — an effective workplace accommodation of an intellectually disabled employee. That reversal fatally compromised the employee’s ability to continue doing a job he had done so well for many, many years, and ended up with him being fired.

It’s hard to fathom what drove Wal-Mart to this course of action, but the EEOC response will definitely not be a mystery. We intend to show that the company’s action was a particularly senseless violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — an especially hurtful injustice — that Mr. Clark is entitled to full make whole relief and to punitive damages, and that the public interest requires strong injunctive measures to correct Wal-Mart’s practices.

(Quotes from the EEOC’s press release about Wal-Mart lawsuit.)

This is not the first lawsuit the EEOC brought against Wal-Mart this year.  In March, Wal-Mart was ordered to pay a $363,419 settlement for an EEOC sexual harassment and retaliation case.  In that case, Wal-Mart was found to be in violation of federal laws by permitting a co-worker to sexually harass an employee with an intellectual disability working at a Wal-Mart store in Ohio.

Wal-Mart promotes itself as being a supermarket store that cares about its customers and employees, but it seems that the giant chain has a peculiar way of accommodating and protecting the rights of its disabled employees.  As customers of goods, we have a responsibility, regardless of our abilities, to inspect the conduct of such businesses, and possibly reconsider where we spend our hard earned money if they are found guilty of discriminating against certain groups.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of CNYCentral.)

Archie Comics Debuts New Character with a Disability

On June 18th, the anticipated issue of Archie Comics featuring a new character that is a wheelchair user had hit comic book stores. Harper, the cousin to the diva socialite Veronica Lodge, made her debut, and boy, are those within the disability and comic book communities buzzing about it. Harper, from various news articles published about her arrival, is described as a “spunky fashionista” with an incredible “dynamic personality.”

Archie-Comics-Issue-656-Cover-193x300The idea behind Harper’s creation in the series stemmed from a conversation between Archie Comics writer and artist Dan Parent, and Archie fan Jewel Kats, a children’s book author who has a disability. (I spotlighted Kats’ book, Cinderella’s Magical Wheelchair, in an article on my blog.) It is truly amazing that a conversation sparked an incredible idea, which birthed an empowering character.

My “Geekdom” About Harper’s Debut:

I first learned of Harper’s debut on social media, when I saw sketches of Harper on Archie Comics’ Tumblr page. When I saw the sketches, I was taken aback – I could not believe that there was finally a character with a physical disability in the fictitious town of Riverdale. I have written about my “geekdom” on Tumblr and Facebook, and others responded with the same enthusiasm I had.

I have been reading Archie Comics since I was a child, and though I loved the fact that the comic book series did display diversity within its characters, the fact that there was not a character that I could relate to fully was missing. To see Archie Comics, a brand that has been around since the 1940s, create a character for disabled female comic book readers (young and old) blew my mind. I felt that finally, someone understood that disabled girls and women needed a comic book character that represented them, and normalized their way of life. I could not wait to get my hands on this issue, and read about this amazing new character to the Archie Comics clan.

Archie Comics’ Focus on Disability Did Not Begin With Harper:

Though Harper is the first character with a physical disability in the series, she is not the first disabled character, nor the first time that Archie Comics addressed disability in its books. In Archie: Clash of the New Kids, Carla Teal made her debut as a visually impaired student at Riverdale High. Carla was one of 50 students who transferred to Riverdale during the closure of Pine Point High School. Carla, who is African American, was depicted as witty and amiable; someone who did not let her impairment slow her down, nor wanted to be viewed as helpless by her peers.

Carla, using light-hearted humor, showed the flirtatious redhead Archie how to “lead” her to class, and told why she likes to keep classmates “guessing” about her knowing things without being able to see. Carla’s presence was significant – you do not typically see female characters of color with disabilities in comic books, and most importantly, depicted in ways that are not offensive or stereotypical. Carla was independent, yet willing to share her experiences with those that saw her wholeness; not just her disability.

Why Harper’s Presence Is So Important in Comic Books:

For Issue #656, Harper’s presence is important because she, too, is a female character of color with a disability. As a disabled woman of color, I am always seeking empowering portrayals of the disabled and of color experiences. Racial, gender, and disabled representations in literature, especially comic books, are lacking, despite the fact that readers are composed of various racial, ethnic, gender, and disabled backgrounds. There is a big issue in the comic book industry regarding diversity, and many avid readers and creators/illustrators are demanding that more characters are created to accurately picture the world we live in. Archie Comics, being a trailblazer in the comic book industry, heard the outcry, and has taken action to create the diverse characters readers want:

Harper is the latest in a long line of characters we’ve introduced to make Riverdale feel like a city in today’s world, said Jon Goldwater, Co-CEO and publisher of Archie Comics.

In regards to Harper’s debut as the first character with a physical disability, Goldwater remarked that:

Harper is, first and foremost, a funny, fashionable and witty teenager. The fact that she’s disabled is only one part of her story, and we’re excited to welcome her to Riverdale and Archie Comics.

Archie Comics’ proactiveness to creating Harper, and Carla, shows why this brand is so respected within and outside the comic book industry.

My Thoughts About Issue #656:

Archie Comics, Harper Explains Her DisabilityI read Issue 656 over the debut weekend, and I was impressed at how Harper’s personality and vivaciousness jumped from the page. She reminded me so much of myself; she is an entrepreneur, lovable, funny, and unique. She is a woman on the go, and four wheels and two elbow crutches will not slow her down. I love the fact that she has various interests, just like I do. She explained her disability to Archie that allowed him to grasp how she viewed herself, and she stood up to her cousin Veronica who tries to protect her from being hurt by Reggie, the Riverdale prankster that has taken an interest in her.

The latter stood out to me because Harper showed that disabled women, in particular, are not delicate flowers that needed sheltering – we deserve to experience love and romance as anyone else, and that includes heartache, if it happens. Her outspokenness about who she is, and how she wants others to treat and view her was a powerful testimony to read because it validated our humanness and desire to not be treated differently. People with disabilities are more than what makes them perfectly imperfect, and Harper’s storyline definitely made that fact known.

I Want More Harper!:

This issue of Archie Comics was a quick, short read. It left me wanting to read more about Harper, and see how she becomes more integrated in the series. Archie Comics created a lovable, strong female character with a disability, and those in the industry should take copious notes of how you can successfully diversify your characters. I cannot wait to read more issues featuring Harper, and seeing what antics she, and the rest of the Riverdale High gang, get into.

Final Thoughts:

Have any of you read the recent issue of Archie Comics with Harper’s debut? What are your thoughts about her arrival to Riverdale? If you are a disabled female comic book reader, what feelings/emotions did Harper’s story evoke in you? What can be done to prompt the comic book industry that readers of all abilities will read about disabled characters?

(Featured headlining images: Courtesy of Archie Comics on Tumblr.)

Looking at Labeling and Diversity: Interview with Philip Patston

Recently, I had to the opportunity to catch up with Philip Patston who is a phenomenal speaker, advocate, and expert on diversity and labeling. Philip is also one of Social Work Helper’s expert columnists who offer readers a global perspective hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Although he is located on the other side of the world, Philip helped me to realize through his writing and speaking the symmetry we all (human kind) share versus focusing on our differences.

Philip has traveled an interesting path and has seen the world from different lenses such as a counselor, comedian, and advocate to name a few. After viewing his Ted Talk with over 30,000 views, I wanted to learn more about Philip. We had an interesting conversation, and now I am going to share it with you.

SWH: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you into the field of social work?
Philip Patston at Tedx Auckland
Philip Patston at Tedx Auckland

I began a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Psychology and Sociology aged 18, but hated the University environment, so I quit early in my second year. I then trained to be a phone counsellor and ended up counselling by phone for nine years. I had also been a member of a youth group since my mid-teens and had been “dropped” into leadership roles (e.g. turning up at youth work meetings and being told to get up and speak about the youth group). So I did a lot of youth development work in my late teens and early 20s as well.

Then in 1990, when I was 22, I was accepted onto a two-year Social Work programme which gave me a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work and a Diploma in Applied Social Studies. The programme was known to be quite radical. There were only 40 students per year, half of whom were Maori (the indigenous people of NZ or Tangata Whenua, literally “people of the land”), a quarter Pacific people, and a quarter “other” (known as Pakeha in the Maori language).

It was an immersive bi-cultural programme, deliberately making Maori culture dominant. There were huge conflicts, particularly among the Pakeha group, who felt aggrieved by many processes in which they were not the majority. Being gay and disabled, I was fairly used to not being in the majority, so I was quite comfortable and amused by some of my colleagues’ inability to step outside of the process and learn from the experience of the tables being turned.

During my first year, I did a placement in a government care and protection agency and realised it wasn’t my thing. My second year placement was doing social research on the needs of disabled people for the Auckland Health Board. That turned into a two or three year job. After that I worked for the Human Rights Commission for four years, after which I became self-employed, raising awareness of diversity and doing comedy professionally.

So, I never really got to actually be a social worker! But the Diploma programme gave me a great grounding in radical social theory and direct action. If anything, I was an activist. Running awareness workshops as well as doing comedy, which led me to have a very high profile in New Zealand through television in the 1990s and 2000s, were a great combination of vehicles to create change.

SWH: Would you identify your work as being macro and/or mezzo focused, and what advice would you give other social workers who would like to do the work you are doing?

People have likened me to Nietzsche over the years so, yes, I do work in the macro/mezzo realms, I guess! I think it’s a hard place to feel effective because like any leadership or social change activity, it’s a long game and hard to see any tangible evidence of success. My suggestions for others working in similar spaces? Find like minds and check in regularly. Drink wine. Celebrate any success however small and, every now and then, pretend you’ve had a huge success and celebrate that! Finally, read Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed — the best book on social entrepreneurship and social change ever written.

SWH: Who are some of your biggest influencers in how you filter, provide and give information/advice to others?

Some of my favourite thinkers in the work I do are the authors of Getting to Maybe, Sir Ken Robinson, Brene Brown, Peter Block, Kathryn Schulz, and Adam Kahane. I also love Onora O’Neill’s definition of trust. Another fave is Prof. Brian Cox – he’s a cute, English educational physicist and I’ve used his layperson explanations of entropy and physics to explain diversity and relationship dynamics to school students. Finally, Sue Davidoff and Allan Kaplan, from The Proteus Initiative in South Africa. I’ve worked with them on living social practice twice now and they’ve had a profound influence on the way I work with people about diversity.

SWH: Your Tedx Talk on Labeling was a huge success. What was that experience like and what has life been like after your Tedx Talk?

It was surprisingly intimidating and nerve-wracking. Being a regular viewer of TED Talks, it really felt like I was wheeling into a TED video! Those big red letters and the round red carpet are quite iconic. I had refused to rehearse because as a comedian I would only ever rehearse mentally, so the guys running it (who hadn’t seen me perform) were a bit nervous and told my PA, Wai, who was backstage. Wai said, “Nah. he’ll be fine,” and halfway through they apparently said, “He’s killing.” Wai: “Told you so!”

Probably the most significant thing though was being able to present what I would call my soul work to 2,000 people live, in a funny, entertaining way, and have it videoed and put online under the TED brand so that it’s had over 30,000 views. That’s a great privilege.

Life after TED? Well, I did a conference call with the Diversity Group of IBM in California, which was a bit of a fizzer, and I’ve had a few speaking and facilitation jobs as a result. Not life-changing on the big scale of things, but definitely a highlight

SWH: Are you further developing your work on labeling, and do you have any other projects you are working on or have recently finished?

I recently made a music video about labelling that I’ve used a lot in diversity workshops. Music is a powerful way to simplify topics that can be quite complex, in order to have a conversation about the complexity. I was really lucky to work with an extremely talented musician, Arli Liberman, who put my words to music; and then some friends who run a superb creative agency, Borderless Productions, came up with the concept and produced the video. I’ve also recently finished some work on diversity in the media and co-wrote and published a children’s book.

Right now, I’m in an interesting space of limbo. Apart from running a leadership programme, which I love and is in its fourth year, a lot of my projects have either come to an end or have lost funding (we’re in an election year in NZ so Government funders have become super risk averse, unfortunately). So I’m in a space of seeing where I will be taken next. I’d love to make some more music videos, but they’re quite expensive and hard to get funded, even via crowdsourcing. I funded the first one myself, which meant I had a complete creative license and no accountability — that was extremely liberating!

So what’s next on the bucket list…oh and I started writing a book earlier this year and I am stuck big time. I need to give myself a good talking to and hopefully, I’ll get back into that soon too!

African Americans Speaking Out About Alzheimer’s Disease

This month, we learned that former model and restaurateur B. Smith has been living with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Smith, dubbed the “black Martha Stewart” due to her career paths as a designer, author, and TV host, shared her story about remaining steadfast in fighting the disease, and having the support of her husband and business partner.

Hearing B. Smith’s candidness about the uphill battle of living with Alzheimer’s was empowering, especially since African Americans typically do not share their stories about Alzheimer’s.  Being an advocate and putting a face on what Alzheimer’s “looks like” in the African American community is a powerful testimony for and from Smith; her story validates the experiences of those living with Alzheimer’s, and the caregivers and families who care for their loved ones each and every day.

Alzheimer’s Prevalence

More than 5.2 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, with over 200,000 being those 65 years and younger.  Of this population, 3.2 million are women and 1.8 million are men; women make up two-thirds of those living with the disease.  It is estimated that by 2050, the number of those with Alzheimer’s will triple from 5 million to 16 million.

Last year, almost 16 million American families and friends provided 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care to those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.  This unpaid care has the value of $220.2 billion.

When it comes to medical care, Alzheimer’s is the most expensive condition in America.  With the projected tripling of those living with Alzheimer’s, this medical care expense strain will be astronomical.

Concerns Surrounding African Americans & Alzheimer’s

Senior African American couple holding handsAccording to the Alzheimer’s Association, many Americans dismiss the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, inaccurately believing that what they are experiencing are normal developments in the aging process.  This misunderstanding of the aging process versus Alzheimer’s is especially true for African Americans, who are two times more likely to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias, than whites.  Missing the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s greatly disadvantage African Americans, as we are less likely to receive a diagnosis for our condition, which correlates to delayed treatment and planning.

How Alzheimer’s Disease Affects My Family

During the Summer 2008, my beloved Grandmother was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the age of 78.  She, as well as us, noticed her having difficulty with routine tasks after she had a mild heart attack two years prior.  We decided to tell her general practitioner about our concerns, and he suspected Alzheimer’s, and placed her on a medication regimen to slow down the progression of the disease.  It has now been six years since the diagnosis, and we battle this disease every day.  Grandmother’s memory may not be as lucid as it used to be, but she is firmly holding on to the independence she still has, despite the disease.  Seeing her remain steadfast through it all gives me the strength when it comes to caregiving.

Resources for Those Living with Alzheimer’s Disease, & Caregivers

There are programs and organizations established for those who are impacted by this disease.  In order to overcome the struggles both those living with Alzheimer’s and caregivers endure, you have to educate yourself about the disease, and the supports that exist to help you during this journey.

The Alzheimer’s Association is a well-respected organization that works tirelessly to educate and support individuals and families affected by this disease, and create awareness about the prevalence in America and worldwide.  The Alzheimer’s Association has several resources that may benefit those affected:

African Americans & Alzheimer’s:  http://www.alz.org/africanamerican/

Provides information about warning signs, caregivers testimonies, and brain health, etc., specifically for African Americans and families affected.  

Living with Alzheimer’s:  http://www.alz.org/living_with_alzheimers_4521.asp

I Have Alzheimer’s Disease:  http://www.alz.org/i-have-alz/i-have-alzheimers-dementia.asp

Support Groups for Caregivers:  http://www.alz.org/apps/we_can_help/support_groups.a

2014 The Longest Day:  http://act.alz.org/site/TRfr_id=5860&pg=entry&s_src=alzfooter

2014 The Longest Day, a day observed around the world to honor the strength, passion, and endurance of those living with Alzheimer’s.  The goal is to raise funds and awareness to propel the mission of the Alzheimer’s Association.  The Longest Day is held on June 21, 2014, which is the Summer Solstice (the longest day in the year, and the first day of the summer season).  

Other resources for caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s

Help Guide – Support for Alzheimer’s & Dementia Caregivers:  http://m.helpguide.org/articles/caregiving/alzheimer-dementia-caregiver-support

AlzOnline – Alzheimer’s Caregiver Support Online:  http://alzonline.phhp.ufl.edu

Final Thoughts About Alzheimer’s

Education, medical research, awareness, community support, and acceptance are dire so that we can one day live in a world where Alzheimer’s does not rob us of those we love, and their memory.  I love my Grandmother, and Alzheimer’s will never be able to break the bond we have, no matter what lies ahead for us.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of A Place for Mom.)

Rock the Disabled Vote in South Carolina!

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

2014 is a midterm election year, and it is imperative for South Carolinians with disabilities to rock the disabled vote!  Voting is our civil right in this country, and you should not be prevented to exercise this right simply because you have a disability.

Your Vote Is Your Voice 1With the June 2014 SC Primary coming upon us, I wanted to ensure that every registered disabled voter in the state was aware of their rights in regards to accessibility, the new Photo ID requirement, and how to file a complaint if your civil rights are violated.  Equal access and justice when it comes to education, healthcare, and employment are just a few key issues that will be affected by how we as citizens vote this year.

People with disabilities are the LARGEST minority group in this country, and make up over 648,000 strong in the Palmetto state; this means that we are an undeniably important voting bloc, and our voting power has to be exercised, now more than ever.


Accessible Voting Machines & Polling Places:

Voting Machines

Each South Carolina voting precinct offers accessible voting machines that has the following features:  audio ballot, headphones, and Braille-embossed buttons. The voting machine’s design makes it user-friendly; and each machine has large fonts, a 15-inch full-color touch screen display, and is lightweight to be portable for curbside and tabletop use.

Polling Places

Each South Carolina county election commission has an obligation to find polling places that are accessible to ALL voters.  For every election season, increasing accessibility at polling places is a priority.  Such accessibility considerations include:

  • Wider entrance doors
  • Entrance ramps and curb cuts
  • Railing along the stairs and sidewalks
  • Paved parking and designated disability parking
  • Van accessible parking spaces
  • Sidewalks from the parking spaces to the building entrance
  • Door handles that can be opened with a closed fist
  • Signs to direct the voter to entrances that are accessible
  • Electronic curbside call systems

Voting Accommodations:

Receiving Assistance When Voting

Voters with disabilities including those with visual impairments, and literacy difficulties, have the right to seek assistance during the voting process.  If you fit into any of these groups, you must inform the poll manager(s) that you will require assistance to vote.  You have the right to choose anyone to assist you in casting your ballot except the following persons:  your employer, an agent to your employer, an officer of your union, or an agent of your union.

If you have a hearing impairment, you have the right to request printed instructions to cast your vote.  The poll manager(s) is required to have this documentation on hand to distribute, as needed.

Curbside Voting

If you are unable to access your assigned polling place or stand in line to vote due to your disability, you may cast your vote from your vehicle.  You do not need to have a disabled parking placard to access the curbside voting option.  Poll managers are supposed to monitor the designated curbside voting location every 15 minutes.  Unless you require assistance to cast your vote, only you are permitted to be in the vehicle while voting.  Your driver and other passengers who may be with you are not entitled to receive this accommodation unless they meet the qualifications (disability status and/or being age 65 or older).

The Photo ID Requirement –  Know Your Options:

2014 will be the first election year in South Carolina where Photo IDs will be required to be shown in order to vote.  When voting in person, the following forms of photo identification will be accepted:

  • SC Driver’s License
  • SC Department of Motor Vehicles ID Card
  • Voter Registration Card with Photo
  • Federal Military ID
  • U.S. Passport

If You Do Not Have a Photo ID

You can get a Photo ID for FREE from your county voter registration and elections office OR your local Department of Motor Vehicles office.

If You Forget to Bring Your Photo ID to Your Polling Place

You have the option to vote a provisional ballot that will count only if you show your Photo ID to the elections commission prior to certification of the election (usually Thursday or Friday after the election).

For the June 2014 SC Primary, you will need to show your Photo ID to your county election commission by Thursday, June 12th before 1:00 p.m.  

For the November 2014 General Elections, you will need to do so by Friday, November 7th before 1:00 p.m..  

If You Cannot Obtain a Photo ID

If you are unable to obtain a Photo ID due to your disability status, you may be able to state that you have a reasonable impediment because of your status.  A reasonable impediment is any valid reason, beyond your control, which has created an obstacle for you to obtain a Photo ID.

How this works

Bring your non-photo voter registration card with you to your designated polling venue, and inform the poll manager(s) about not being able to acquire a Photo ID.  You will be giving the opportunity to vote a provisional ballot after signing an affidavit, stating your claim for reasonable impediment.

Your provisional ballot will be counted UNLESS someone proves to your county election commission that you lied about your identity or having the impediment.

Other qualifying circumstances for this exception includes:

  • Conflict with work schedule
  • Lack of transportation
  • Lack of birth certificate
  • Family responsibilities
  • Religious objection to being photographed
  • And any other obstacle you find reasonable

Considering Voting Absentee?:  

Voting absentee is a great option for those who have a disability and/or are elderly, limited transportation options, and/or do not have a photo ID.

Request an Absentee Application

You may request an absentee application by mail or in-person.  If you decide to obtain your absentee application by mail, you can make your request by phone to your county voter registration office, or get the application online.

Once you have received your absentee application, you must complete and sign it, and return it to your county voter registration office as soon as possible.  (Return your application no later than 5:00 p.m. on the 4th day prior to the election.  The 4th day is Friday for all Tuesday elections.)  You may return your application several ways:  by mail, email, fax, or personal delivery.

Completing Your Absentee Ballot

Once your absentee application have been received and processed, you will be mailed an absentee ballot.  In your absentee ballot packet, you will find ballot instructions that will inform you on how to cast your vote absentee.  Once you have completed your ballot, you may either mail it or return it in-person.  You can also designate someone to return the ballot to your county voter registration office on your behalf; be sure to complete the authorization to return absentee ballot form that is in your packet for this option.

If You Experience Voting Discrimination:

Unfortunately, voting discrimination is alive and well in 2014, despite the plethora of federal laws that exist to combat this issue.  If you experience voting discrimination because you are a person with a disability, you have the right to file a complaint at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  The DOJ takes every complaint and report of your civil rights violation seriously.

The Voting Section of the DOJ oversees possible violations of the federal voting rights laws.  Below are the various ways in which you can file your voting complaint:

  • By telephone (toll free):  (800) 253-3931
  • By telephone:  (202) 307-2767
  • By fax:  (202) 307-3961
  • By letter to the addresses below:

U.S. Postal Service mail (this includes certified and express mail) should be sent to:

Voting Section
Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
Room 7254 – NWB
959 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20530

Deliveries by overnight express services (such as Airborne, DHL, Federal Express, or UPS) should be sent to:

Voting Section
Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
Room 7254 – NWB
1800 G St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20006


Where to Learn More About Voting with a Disability in South Carolina:

Most of the information provided in this article was obtained from the SC Votes webpage.  SC Votes has a special tab on its website for voters with disabilities, where you can learn more about voting assistance and curbside voting, watch helpful videos, obtain instructions for voters who are deaf or hard of hearing, and print a large voter registration application.  You can also learn about key deadlines for this election year by reviewing the SC Election Calendar.


For My Non-South Carolinian Disabled Voters:

If you would like to know more about voting with a disability, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has a great resource page for voters with disabilities:  http://www.eac.gov/voter_resources/resources_for_voters_with_disabilities.aspx


Remember, an informed voter is an 
EMPOWERED voter.  Rock your right to vote!

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of  Your Mira.)

Do People with Disabilities Have the Right to Marry and Cohabit?

The right to marriage and cohabitation as persons with disabilities are not always granted or respected in society.  I learned about a case in New York where a newlywed couple filed a discrimination claim against a group home that refused to allow them to live together.  Paul Forziano and Hava Samuels are both in their 30s with intellectual disabilities.  They wed April 2013 and made the request to live together as a married couple to the group home.

Wedding Ring & Band 1The group home denied their request, stating that the arrangement would be “impossible” and “fraught with difficulties.”  The couple and their parents ardently believed that not allowing them to live together violated their rights, and they filed a lawsuit regarding their claim.  Last month, a federal judge struck down their lawsuit, on the grounds that the couple did not prove that they were discriminated against by the group home because of their disability statuses.  Forziano and Samuels plan to appeal their case.

The notion of people with disabilities wanting companionship, intimacy, and to be married has been considered “ridiculous” and “disgusting” throughout the history of society.  The driving force behind such erroneous, and dangerous, thoughts is that people with disabilities do not desire love, sex, or long-term committed relationships.  Nor are those across the disability spectrum able to “understand” the concept of marriage, or able to give consent as to who they decide to spend their lives with and/or share a residence with.

To stymie such rights to happiness based on incorrect stereotypes about those with disabilities is in fact discriminatory and dehumanizing; it IS a CIVIL rights violation.  The Forziano and Samuels case is not uncommon; people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, face incredible stumbling blocks to gain access to something that the rest of society takes for granted.  Let’s not forget about our disabled LBGTQA brethren who, depending on which state they live in, would not even be afforded the opportunity to marry.

To deny someone the right to marry or cohabit because they are disabled is archaic; when will the policies and institutions that exist to assist people with disabilities catch up with the times?  What would be your reaction if a judge or a facility made the decision to not recognize your union/marriage, based solely on the fact that you and/or your significant other had a disability?  Have you experienced such discrimination?  If so, what action(s) did you undertake – filed a lawsuit, moved to another group home/facility that recognized your union/marriage, etc.?  Incidents like this shows that society has a long ways to go in accepting and respecting the humanness of those with disabilities.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of Cilento-Wedding-Planner.)

Hiring and Potentially Unlawful Employment Practices

Twice in the last week I’ve been confronted by the issue of asking employment applicants whether they have any health or disability-related needs or requirements. First at a Human Resources Institute diversity event, and then on the application form for a part-time position I have applied for.

The practice seems quite prevalent among employers, who seem unaware that it is a potential breach of human rights. Based on the four years I spent working for the Human Rights Commission, let me explain what the problems, risks and solutions are.

Disability_symbols_16The Problem

Section 23 of the NZ Human Rights Act 1993 states:

Particulars of applicants for employment

It shall be unlawful for any person to use or circulate any form of application for employment or to make any inquiry of or about any applicant for employment which indicates, or could reasonably be understood as indicating, an intention to commit a breach of section 22.

Section 22 of the Act says that, if an applicant is qualified for the particular job, an employer cannot refuse or omit to employ the applicant; offer or afford the applicant or the employee less favourable terms of employment, terminate the employment of the employee, subject the employee to any detriment, or retire the employee, by reason of any of the prohibited grounds of discrimination, of which disability/illness is one.

The employment application I filled in asked:

  • Do you have any health conditions that may affect your ability to effectively carry out the functions and responsibilities of the position you are applying for? If yes, please give brief details.
  • Please list any special requirements, on health or personal grounds, you may need us to consider if you are employed with us.

The Risk

By asking these questions, and by my answering them, the employer puts itself at risk. If I do not get an interview, I may reasonably suspect that I have not been shortlisted because of my answer. I could then complain to the Human Rights Commission that I was not offered an interview because the employer did not want to employ me because of my disability. The onus is on the employer to prove I was less qualified than the person they employed.

Even if I do get an interview but not the job, I may reasonably expect that I wasn’t chosen because of my disability. A further mistake employers make is to ask these questions at interview — again, it puts the employer under suspicion of disability discrimination and, if faced with a complaint, they must prove the person employed was more highly qualified than the disabled candidate.

The Solution

Mitigating the risk is quite simple.

For the candidate:

  • You are under no obligation to answer questions about your health or disability status on application forms, so don’t. I simply wrote, for both questions, “I will be willing to answer this question when and if an offer of employment is made (refer s23 Human Rights Act 1993-NZ).”
  • If you are asked similar question in an employment interview, say the same thing.
  • If you are offered the job, be willing to discuss your needs openly and honestly and, if need be, offer solutions to any problems that may impact on your ability to do the job.

For the employer:

  • Do not ask questions about health or disability status on application forms or in employment interviews.
  • When you come to offer to offer a candidate a position, this is the correct time to ask about health and disability status — for any candidate, as not all illnesses or impairments are visibly obvious.
  • An employer has a responsibility to offer reasonable accommodation of an illness or disability, but only if the accommodation does not cause undue hardship to the employer’s operation or other employees. Accommodations may be things like flexible hours, a slight change in duties or, in some cases, assistive equipment. (See more about being an accessible employer here.)
  • Working out whether an accommodation is reasonable or not can best done in a transparent conversation with the favoured candidate. Remember that, if they are your preferred choice, making changes will be balanced by having the best person for the job. Remember too that a qualified candidate will most likely have developed ways to manage the impact of their illness or disability. Take notes about the discussion, the suggested accommodations, whether or not you consider them reasonable and why.
  • If, after discussion with the candidate you feel there is no way to accommodate their needs without undue hardship, you may need to withdraw your offer of employment. The candidate may disagree and complain, but a clear record of the discussion will help you prove that you have been reasonable in considering the candidate’s needs.
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