32 Years of Challenge Gets You Cake and Stuffies

bio_dave_hingsburgerOver the past couple of days I have been bombarded with emails and alerts about a story of a woman with Down Syndrome who is retiring after working for 32 years at McDonalds. Many of you will have seen the story. I simply can’t link to it. I’m afraid I just can’t. It’s an important story, but as often happens her story and the story of her employment has been co opted to tell a different story, a story not about her at all.

I watched 5 or 6 news clips and read a similar number of newspaper articles. They all spoke about her with the greatest of disrespect. ‘A woman with a child’s heart,’ was perhaps one of the worst things I read about her. They spoke about her being loving, and about the hugs she gave, and about how SHE made THEM feel grateful and reminded them about how good their own lives are. They showed pictures of this elderly woman having stuffed toys being shoved at her, literally shoved at her. Then they spoke of how she will spend the rest of her days in a day program dancing and colouring and maybe doing some volunteer work.

The picture presented was one of a stereotypical woman with Down Syndrome whose hugs were more important than the work she did. She worked the fryer, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. She worked peak periods in the store. She worked hard. But, that isn’t the story that was told, or even needed to be told.

This woman 32 years ago entered into a workforce that still today has huge attitudinal barriers against people with intellectual disabilities as potential employees. The unemployment rate of people with intellectual disabilities is astonishingly high. Now full acknowledgement of that McDonalds for being willing to not only hire someone with a disability but to teach them to do a real job, a valuable job. I would imagine having someone with Down Syndrome working in a potentially dangerous position took some courage. Fryers scare me.

Her work record, her diligence to her job, her attitude to work, all of these things make her a pioneer, make her more than a ‘hug giver’ or a ‘grateful maker,’ they make her an everyday confrontation of bigoted attitudes towards disability. She broke the glass ceiling for people with disabilities, and let’s admit that that ceiling is very, very low, but even so, she broke through it. The celebration of 32 years of gainful employment of someone with an intellectual disability is a celebration of 32 years of breaking stereotypes, of challenging bias, of demonstrating competence in the face of expectations of failure.

Not one article spoke of what her work meant to the movement towards seeing people with disabilities as equals as valued as contributors – not one.

No, even though she challenged stereotypes, she was presented as a stereotype.

No, even though she did adult work, in an adult environment, she was presented as a happy child who receives stuffed toys at a retirement party.

No, even though she stands shoulder to shoulder with women who crash through low set glass ceilings, she was referred to in patronizing tones.

Her accomplishments, were great, everyone agrees on that. But they buried those accomplishments under treacle, under feel good narrative, under heaps of stereotype.

Did a reporter do any kind of analysis as to the workplace, employment and access to people with intellectual disabilities – has it changed over 32 years? No, because to do that would take away from the easy task of writing about a Down Syndrome woman who gave hugs and made people grateful for, simply put, not being her.

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