Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sappy media stories about "walking again"

I am going to get a lot of heat for saying this, but I really hate sappy news stories about paraplegics being able to "walk again" due to some miracle machinery.

It is in response to this story that came out a few months ago. A student, who acquired a spinal cord injury in 2007, is set to walk across the stage at his graduation at Berkeley, with the help of a robotic exoskeleton and forearm crutches.

While I am not against a cure for spinal cord injury (quite the opposite, actually), I really don't like the emphasis that some, such as the media, puts on the ability to walk.

This may sound bad, but hear me out. Read the news story. It puts so much emphasis on walking and portrays people who are able to walk as somewhat "better" than those who cannot. It is totally ableist -- its basic message is, "You're more worthy as a person if you can walk."

That kind of thinking is what propels millions of dollars into developing these exoskeletons, which are cumbersome and not useful for regular use anyhow. As it is right now, nobody is going to a) be able to afford them, b) use these regularly, and c) use exoskeletons as the "band-aid solution" to paralysis. With these issues, all those millions can be better spent trying to find a cure for spinal cord injury, don't you think?

I find that stories like these serve a "feel-good" purpose for able-bodied people more than anything. Not being able to stand and walk is the most visible complication of spinal cord injury, and this story makes people think, "Hey, we're making progress!"

That is not progress. Progress is not only finding a cure for paralysis, but also finding improved ways of managing the complications of spinal cord injury. Many (but not all) people with spinal cord injury say that the ability to walk is a secondary concern to other complications such as skin breakdown, pressure sores, bladder and bowel control, body temperature regulation, muscle atrophy, autonomic dysreflexia, and so on. I'd rather see improvements in handling those problems first, because some of these problems can be fatal if not treated properly! Meanwhile, nobody dies from not walking.

I'm sure this blog entry is going to create a lot of controversy for whoever comes across it. And to be honest, I don't know how many people would agree with me. But those are my thoughts and I'm sticking with them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Equal opportunity employers. Kinda. Sorta. Maybe not.

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

--Animal Farm by George Orwell

I'm a pessimistic person in general. A lot of people are surprised when they hear it, but it's true. In my view, at the root of every person (even for me) is greed and selfishness, whether the person realizes it or not.

The same holds true for business. At the root of every business is greed and selfishness. Some businesses may have certain commitments or charitable goals, but at the end it is all about the bottom line.

Which is why they can't take a risk on workers with disabilities.

"We are an equal opportunity employer" is one of those things that ring hollow to me, right up there with the infamous cliché "We will keep your resume on file." It's something that a lot of companies have to say for one reason or another, whether it's true or not. I don't believe either one of those commonly-used sayings.

I have been actively looking for work for nearly a year now, with little success. Some recruiters and head-hunters have seen my resume and have noted that I have a lot of marketable skills. Some were actually quite shocked that I haven't had more luck.

I've landed several interviews. Except for one interview, one of the things that seemed to bug employers a lot (based on either their questions or their reactions to me) is the fact that I'm in a wheelchair. Some of these have claimed to be an "equal opportunity employers."

I remember one interview where the concern was not so much with the job itself but rather how I'm supposed to get to my job. Granted, it is in the Fraser Valley (which is a 45-minute drive away) but I repeatedly assured them that I can drive and have made the commute many times before.

Eventually, the interview contained about two questions about the job itself and about ten questions about how, as a wheelchair user, I would be able to perform my job. The funny thing about it is that the job is almost completely computer-based; I have the use of my arms, so it is strange that they would perceive my walking ability to be the biggest factor!

Now, some of you are probably asking: "Isn't it illegal to ask that kind of stuff?"

Technically, it is illegal to ask something like that in a job interview if it does not relate to one's ability to do the job. Some may ask about those things for the purpose of determining what accommodations (if any) need to be made, but that's about it. My use of a wheelchair does not affect my ability to do a job that is online- and computer-based.

Theoretically, I could raise a stink and turn this into a big deal. It would be a big black mark on the company. It would definitely get the interviewer in huge trouble.

But the problem with that is the same problem as going through border customs -- like a customs officer, the interviewer is your judge and executioner in many ways. They are the thing standing in your way to a job and career. You need to impress and please that person more than they need to impress and please you. If you cause a raucous, future employers will see that you like to rock the boat and cause a disturbance, and will hesitate to have a loose cannon like that in the company.

That's why I did nothing about it.

It's not right to have this happen, by any means. The fact of the matter is that discrimination in general is hard to prove, especially when it's often a "he said/she said" situation. If accused, the person could make up something about the job needing some manual labour better fit for an able-bodied person, whether it be lifting a stack of papers or whatever. There are so many ways to weasel your way out of a discrimination accusation.

Sometimes it's more subtle. I've had employers in the past act extremely uncomfortable at the fact that I'm in a wheelchair. I know it's not a good thing to do, but I purposely don't inform them about this fact unless I'm concerned about the accessibility of an interview location; I used to inform employers ahead of time but that often backfired on me so I stopped doing it.

Anyways, some employers act so uncomfortable that they would be in a huge rush to finish the interview early and rush me out of the room. Again, these are jobs that don't require the ability to walk and some were from "equal opportunity employers." For these, I knew I was ruled out as a candidate as soon as the interviewer saw me.

Is it any wonder why I don't buy into the whole "equal opportunity employer" statement?

Not all of it is bad. The one bright light I've seen so far is the University of British Columbia. I was interviewed for a position there. There was the initial surprise but that blew over quickly and I felt throughout my interview that they were taking me seriously. The only issue that came up was accommodations (mostly wheelchair accessibility) but they immediately said that it would be no problem. So far, they have been the best so far at backing up their "equal opportunity" statement.

Despite the progress made to breaking down barriers for those with disabilities, there is still a lot of work to do. There's a reason why stories like these and these and these keep popping up. It is easy to build a ramp and break down physical barriers, but the social and psychological barriers are still strong as stone and just as cold and unwelcoming.