Don’t Let Them Remain Invisible: Open Your Eyes to People with Disabilities

When I was in junior high school, there was a group of kids we caught only a fleeting of glimpse of.  They were the kids with disabilities; the ones we thought who looked kind of funny, not like us “normal” kids.  Maybe their heads were too big, or twisted, or their mannerisms were unusual.  Mostly, they were just invisible. 

I was reminded of them on Friday night when I attended the annual dinner of the Disability Rights Center.  The DRC is Maine’s leading non-profit agency advocating for the rights of people with disabilities in our classrooms, institutions, and worksites.  The dinner was packed:  providers, attorneys, people using wheelchairs, some folks with developmental disabilities, and lots of people I’d never met before.  Everyday Mainers coming together to celebrate, to mingle, to honor people in our community. 

David Webbert, the President of the DRC, related a particularly disturbing—and all too common—story.  Before moving to Maine, David (like me) worked as a young attorney in Washington,DC.  He scheduled a lunch meeting with a client in a fancy Washington restaurant, only to find it was not accessible to people with disabilities.  So they went across the street, where the restaurant was accessible—but only after a long trip through a labyrinth of corridors.  Once seated, the waiter paid attention only to David; it was like his client using the wheelchair (a prominent businessperson) did not exist.  Invisible.

Gil Broberg, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities, told a similar tale.  Gil served our country in the military and upon his return from service began working for a large Fortune 500 company.  He was successful climbing the corporate ladder until he was struck with multiple sclerosis.  Although the only thing that changed was that Gil began to use a wheelchair, all of a sudden the promotions stopped coming.  Invisible.  Eventually Gil left to begin a new career as an advocate.

Senator Angus King gave the keynote.  He spoke movingly of how as a young man he had attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from up in a tree.  How when he was in high school, his school in Alexandria, Virginia, was one of the first in Virginia to be integrated and how on the first day, when the students were gathered fearfully about, not sure what to expect, the captain of the football team (featured in Remember the Titans) stepped forward and defused the situation by a simple gesture extending his hand to the two black teenagers and offering to show them to their first class.  He reminded us that leaders are not just politicians and heads of corporations; leaders are people who show courage and integrity in their everyday actions.    

Senator King told the crowd about his own “aha” moment when it came to people with disabilities.  He was in front of the Portland City Hall, with its majestic entry.  That entry includes a large number of granite steps to enter the building.  And Senator King saw someone in a wheelchair struggle to enter the building.  This was before the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that buildings be made accessible.  Before the ADA, invisible.

But for me, perhaps the most interesting—and unexpected part of the dinner—was when the DRC presented an award to Tambrands, the Auburn-based manufacturing plant owned by Procter & Gamble.  As a DRC board member, I had voted against giving Tambrands the award; I’ve had too many cases against them in the past for discriminating against people with disabilities.  So when Tambrands’ vice-president for finance got up to speak, I joked to my neighbor that I was thinking about walking out in silent protest.  Glad I didn’t.

Instead, David Bartage detailed how several years ago Tambrands was expanding and wasn’t sure where it would get the workers it needed.  He and several officials learned of a program run by Walgreen’s down south focused on employing people with disabilities.  The Tambrands executives journeyed to South Carolina and returned to Maine convinced that a similar program could work here.  Since then, Tambrands has successfully put to work dozens of people with disabilities.  

When the dinner was over, I approached Mr. Bartage and told him I had voted against giving Tambrands the award (yes, I’ve got a big mouth).  I explained that I had had to sue Tambrands a number of times for disability discrimination, but I congratulated him on the initiative to hire people with disabilities.  Invisible–no more.

Senator King said it best.  People with disabilities don’t just benefit from programs like those instituted by Tambrands; we all benefit.  Look around; people with disabilities are everywhere.  They’re just like you and me—anxious to work, anxious to make a contribution to society.  Don’t let them remain invisible. 

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