Hollywood Ableism & The Crown of a Good Name

Disability rights advocates around the world are protesting Me Before You, the latest Hollywood movie to end with the assisted suicide or euthanasia of the lead character with a disability. The film is yet another case of Ableism – prejudice that people with disabilities are somehow less human, less valuable, less capable than others — and should simply die.

Remember Hitler and the Holocaust? He thought that Jews and people with disabilities needed to die. On July 14, 1933, the Nazi government instituted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” This law, one of the first steps taken by the Nazis toward their goal of creating an Aryan “master race,” called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, such as mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism. With the law’s passage the Third Reich also stepped up its propaganda against people with disabilities, regularly labeling them “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters” and highlighting their burden upon society. By the end of the Holocaust the Nazis killed more than 275,000 people with disabilities. Supposedly “good people,” impacted by propaganda, stood idly by in the face of pure evil.

The Hollywood movie Me Before You is nowhere close to as dangerous as Hitler. But it is still pretty darn dangerous. And if it threatens even one life – which it does — it’s time for the dangerous bigotry and stigmas to end.

Pirkei Avot says that, “There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name excels them.” But where can people with disabilities – Jews and non-Jews alike – go for a good name?

Judaism believes firmly in B’tselem Elohim: the fundamental equality of all people, regardless of disability status. We also believe in Areyvut: Communal Responsibility. Indeed, enabling people with disabilities to fully participate in life – including Jewish life — is a communal obligation and a collective responsibility. We also believe in Kavod – honor and dignity of all people.

Hollywood and culture can play a major role in busting stigmas, myths, and misconceptions. Clearly, we should NOT support films that essentially tell the public that people with disabilities are better off dead.

Instead, we should support and celebrate excellent TV shows like A&E’s Born This Way, which shows 7 young adults with Down syndrome and all that they can achieve.

But we should not stop there. Stigma reduction should be a part of our tikkun olam strategy to enable people with disabilities to have jobs, self-employment and to start their own businesses. That is because low expectations and misconceptions are critical barriers to employment for people with disabilities.

Attitudes are the real disability

Fully 70% of young people with disabilities can get a job when they are given the right skills and supports. However, today only one-in-three Americans with a disability has a job. Of those who have a job, 400,000 work in sheltered workshops, also known as “enclaves” or “crews.” These institutions literally and legally can and frequently do pay people with disabilities sub-minimum wage. The lack of opportunity for people with disabilities leads to poverty, prison and, as we see in the fictionalized true story behind Me Before You, even death.

A serious, systematic and ongoing communications campaign that highlights the benefits of inclusive hiring, self-employment and entrepreneurism is needed so that people with disabilities can achieve the American dream, just like anyone else. That should be a key part of our Tikkun Olam.

Polls, focus groups and experience show that there are four types of messages and audiences that are needed to expand opportunities for people with disabilities. Serious communications campaigns are needed for all each of them:

CEOs and other employers need to understand that people with disabilities can be the BEST people for jobs. This is best done through business-to-business success stories. EY, Starbuck, Walgreens, Lockheed Martin, Uber, Northrup Grumman, grocery stores and other employers have seen that people with disabilities can be extremely capable and loyal workers.

While there are few Stephen Hawkings — with or without disabilities — people with disabilities can work highly successfully in hotels, healthcare, tend our parks and facilities, assist aging seniors, and be super talents in developing computer software and engineering solutions. They serve in the IDF and make a positive difference. CEOs and business leaders need to know that when skills and abilities are aligned that people with disabilities can be the BEST people to get a job done.

Human resources professionals and on-the-ground supervisors need to understand that hiring people with disabilities is generally easy and inexpensive, and that any costs incurred are more than offset from increased loyalty. Hiring managers and supervisors are key implementers who can turn high minded policy and business goals into action at the ground level. However, studies show that many of them are afraid of what they don’t know about people with disabilities. They are also afraid of potential legal action, costs, or other failures. They need supports and training that will empower and enable them to overcome their own fears and to excel at recruiting, hiring, supervising or working with teammates with disabilities. Vocational Rehabilitation staff and community agencies can help support human resources professionals and managers in dealing with their own specific fears and stigmas surrounding hiring people with disabilities. Moreover, free online and in person training is readily available to help from a variety of sources. Our group, RespectAbility, has free online webinars, as does ASKJAN.org, USDOL and others. The National Organization on Disability and the U.S. Business Leadership Network also offer strong resources.

Parents of children with disabilities and the people that serve them need information, resources and high “employment first” expectations. From the time disability is first recognized, education for high expectations must begin. Parents of all races and backgrounds need to be empowered and confident in getting their children the proper diagnoses and/or early interventions their children, or people acquiring new disabilities due to accident, illness or aging, need. 

We need to recognize that research from the University of California at Davis shows that “African American and Latina/o children are still more likely than Whites to underutilize certain services (especially preventive and primary care), end up in the most intensive care settings, and to experience poorer outcomes.” As captured by Beulah Iyabo Agbabiaka in her issue brief on “The Intersection of African Americans and Disability”, “Disability is a complex issue in minority communities since it represents a cross cutting cleavage between two areas of discrimination.” She goes on to write that the label of disability plus the label of race “has the doubly negative effect of making the scarce resources of job opportunities and economic advancement even more unattainable.” As such, combating stigma through positive images and media must also include communities of color.

Parenting a child with a disability, just like raising a “typically developing” child, is deeply rewarding. Still, it can be challenging regardless of economic means because there is so more to know, and it can take time to implement the right things for success. The obstacles grow more complex for low-income families, single-parent households, new immigrants and parents with limited literacy skills or access to online toolkits and other resources for parents. These parents may not be fully prepared to help a child with a disability, or may not know how to advocate for their child. Without a diagnosis and advocacy, children can be denied access to an appropriate Individualized Education Plan (IEP), 504, behavior or therapy plan. Parents of children with disabilities need culturally competent training that will empower them to enable their children to gain skills and independence.

People with disabilities themselves need self-confidence and high expectations as well. Our group has a communications campaign, #RespectTheAbility, which shows success. There is also a growing group of highly talented self-advocates who are batting for hearts and minds via the internet and media. Many of them are telling stories of “woe” from the disability discrimination experience. That is extremely valuable. But we also need to tell the story of “wow” – the great things that Jews with disabilities, including Marlee Matlin (deaf), Sheldon Adelson (who now uses a mobility device), Steve Wynn (legally blind), Whoopie Goldberg (dyslexic), Izsak Perlman (mobility device user) and others achieve. Anyone and everyone can do their part to showcase success stories to bring the crown of a good name to people of ALL abilities.

About the Author
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of www.RespectAbility.org, a non profit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She is also the co-founder/director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust. The views are her own and do not reflect those of any organization.
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