Debunking myths about people with disabilities

July 22, 2018

You’ve probably heard some of these myths:

“My neighbor wrenched his back at work. He’s on disability. Now he spends his time out on the lake fishing. If he’s healthy enough to fish, he’s healthy enough to work.”

Or, “My neighbor is on disability. She’s says she’s bi-polar, whatever that means. She stays inside all week, but on Friday night, she’s out at the bars drinking and dancing, and I’m paying for it with my tax dollars. She could work. I know she can.”

Here’s one of my favorites: “My nephew lives in Chicago. Every day when he rides to work, there’s a guy standing there asking for money. He’s dirty and wears some old army fatigues that smell bad.

“He’s got a sign that says, ‘I lost a leg and can’t work. Please help.’ My nephew always gives the guy five bucks. One week my nephew’s furnace broke. After he paid for the repairs, he was a little short on cash, so he walked right past the guy and didn’t give him anything. ‘Hey!’ the guy says, annoyed. ‘Where’s my five bucks?’”

These stories all vilify people with disabilities as lazy, entitled, and dishonest. I’ve known hundreds of people with disabilities, but I have yet to meet the ones characterized in the above stories.

I have a disability. My hand was amputated after a farm accident when I was 12 years old. I’ve worked all my life, mostly in newspapers, radio, TV, and film. Today I work as a support specialist for people with developmental and cognitive disabilities.

“Lazy" assumes that people with disabilities don’t want to work. Most of the people I’ve known who deal with a disability want to have a creditable role in the community. It’s in our DNA. For millennia, everyone in the clan wanted a place of distinction around the fire. Humans are hard-wired that way.

In my current job, I provide support for a young man who deals daily with the effects of autism. We began producing a radio show. The guy’s got stage presence. We have a hoot. Then we went out and sold advertising for the show. He made a few bucks. It wasn’t enough to live on, but the satisfaction of having a role in the community? Priceless.

The truth is people who deal with disabilities want to work, but employers won’t hire them.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t one of those, “Let’s all bash corporate America” columns. I’ve run my own businesses. I know how difficult it is to make a buck. Consumers place a premium on paying less for more, and who can blame them with real income shrinking every year? But cranking out cheeseburgers faster is usually not what people with disabilities do best.

Then there’s the issue of health insurance. People with disabilities put greater demands on health insurance policies. As employers search for ways to cut costs, they look closely at insurance expenses.

Entitlement? Anxiously awaiting a monthly disability check isn’t entitlement; it’s fear. Ever lose a job and wondered how you were going to make the mortgage? Been homeless or wondered where your next meal was coming from? Then you know.

People who deal with disabilities live on a roller coaster. They know the check can disappear tomorrow, depending on which way the political winds blow. They’re not allowed to build a cash reserve to tide them over through the hard times. Losing that check could mean death. If the check goes, so does healthcare and food. That’s real fear.

Dishonest? I knew someone whose frontal lobe didn’t work due to brain injury. A functioning frontal lobe filters the information received and expressed. Whenever a thought came to his mind, he said it. If you didn’t know him, you might be offended, but he was the most honest person I knew.

People with developmental disabilities are among the most honest people I’ve met, although the degree of honesty usually depends on their role models. Those who try to get away with something are usually angling for another soda or a piece of cake, not a government check. If you don’t understand how the system works, or even that there is a system, you can’t manipulate it. That requires a good lawyer, and lawyers shy away from the disabled. People with disabilities don’t have the money.

But the people who listen to and repeat myths about disability know real dishonesty. They project their fears and inadequacies on any convenient underclass, and if they can’t find one, they’ll invent one. They hate working so they assume everyone else does, too. When they screw up, instead of taking responsibility, they look for someone to blame, a way to vent their frustrations on those who can’t defend themselves. I wouldn’t hire people like that.

But those who know how to deal with hardship and overcome it, who know what it’s like to make tough decisions that affect their survival, people who know what it’s like to be turned down repeatedly and still keep going, I’d hire them in a minute.

More importantly, people who feel joy from being included are a joy to work with.

Evan Sasman is a support specialist for people with developmental disabilities and certified peer specialist in Wisconsin. He deals with a disability, a hand amputation and resulting PTSD. He is currently writing a book about PTSD and building a website about trauma issues. He lives in rural Bayfield County, Wisconsin, near Ashland. He is an award-winning journalist and has worked for newspapers ranging in size from small weeklies to urban dailies. He was previously editor of the Bad River Tribe newspaper and has taught at-risk students for the tribal high school. He is a former instructor for Lac Courte Oreilles Community College. He is a member of the Wisconsin Writer's Association and the Lake Superior Writers.

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