I let out a loud whoop last week when a jury returned a record $240 million verdict on behalf of individuals with intellectual disabilities. No, it wasn’t my case. No, it wasn’t here in Maine; it was in Iowa. And no, the plaintiffs almost certainly will never collect any of the money.
I’ve handled all sorts of discrimination cases for over 25 years. Race cases. Age cases. Sexual harassment cases. Disability discrimination cases. But maybe the ones that have meant the most to me are the disability harassment cases I’ve helped to resolve.
You see, for me it is personal. I’ve got a son with autism. He just turned 22 but in his relatively short life I’ve learned so much about myself from watching and raising him. About how impatient I can be—and how that gets me nowhere. About the many things I take for granted that he can’t do—reading and writing, driving, and the blessings of friendship. And, maybe more than anything else, about the power of music; how people who can’t always communicate very well with one another can speak to each other through rhythm and song.
Every time I’ve handled a disability harassment case—indeed, every time I read about one—I imagine Brendan is the victim. He is sweet and innocent, loving and trusting. Which has meant that over the years, he has been emotionally abused by a caregiver, and he has been sexually assaulted.
Which is why it made my blood boil to read about what happened at Henry’s Turkey Service in Iowa. In the guise of helping individuals with disabilities, Henry’s Turkey Service took advantage of our most vulnerable citizens. It paid 32 individuals with intellectual disabilities less than the minimum wage, housed them in squalid conditions, and denied them necessary medical care. The managers hit, kicked, and in one instance handcuffed these employees who could not fend for themselves. They referred to these individuals with disabilities by derogatory names such as “retard,” “dumb ass,” and “stupid.”
Unfortunately, as unfathomable as what happened at Henry’s Turkey Service may seem, it is not so uncommon. Similar suits—although certainly not on this scale and nowhere near so horrific—have been brought against some of our nation’s largest employers. It was not so long ago that individuals like my son were taken away and locked up in places with terrible names like The Maine School for the Feeble Minded—later called Pineland Hospital. When they died, sometimes they were buried in graves marked only with a number, as if they never had existed.
Which is why I serve as a board member of the Cromwell Center for Disabilities, which provides innovative school programs to help kids see that people with disabilities aren’t so different from you and me. And why I also serve as a board member at the Disabilities Rights Center, which advocates for and protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. And why I applaud initiatives like the one proposed by State Senator Justin Alfond to encourage employing the disabled.
I’d like to think that with laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, guaranteeing non-discrimination in the workplace and educational opportunities to people with disabilities, we’ve come a long way. But then I read cases like the one at Henry’s Turkey Service. And I learn that only 26% of the disabled are employed here in Maine, one-third nationally. And then I realize how far we still have to go.
Like I said, for me, it’s personal.
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