Elephants, Taboos, and Poster Children

As anyone reading regularly will know, I am currently engaged in a job search. Recently, a friend who was making some introductions regarding the search asked if it was okay to reference my disability. This touched off a well worn internal conflict. On the one hand, I thought about all of the times that I have experienced prejudice, and I wanted to say no. On the other hand, I thought about the motivators, from compassion to affirmative action, which might drive a contract to be more receptive, and I wanted to say yes.

The momentary conflict subsided. I remembered that my disability was so apparent, even from my resume, that avoiding it was nothing more than ignoring an elephant in the room, making something taboo when it did not need to be. But I could not stop thinking about the implications. Prejudice is a horrible thing, and I cannot blame anyone who, having the option of hiding their disability, chooses to do so. But what about the other side?

I was unquestionably a poster child. Yale used my face on their diversity newsletter when I was a student. I parlayed that into real face time, and used it to work with then President Richard Levin and his wonderful staff to make Yale a more inclusive place. Long before the photo, I concluded that, in light of my good but nor elite numbers, that my admission was in part due to the disability status. Though admited with soft high school numbers, I graduated from Yale cum laude with a 3.79 GPA. So, it seems that I got in in part because I have a disability, and we know that I was used for promotional purposes because of that disability, but I was also hugely academically successful, and was also able to partner with others to actually materially change opportunities for future Yalies with disabilities, something that I would not have been able to do if I were not both at Yale and openly a person with a disability.

What does this mean for my friend’s question? I do not want to be hired at a job at which I will not succeed, but I am a good lawyer, and reasonably confident that I will excell at any job for which I were to be hired. What then the harm if disability gets me through the door, other than that to say so is taboo?

Further, we are, as a society, fast approaching a tipping point in the way that the business world utilizes disability talent and reaches disability consumers. What if, just like at Yale, I have the opportunity to build from poster child status and in so doing gain the opportunity to bring my employer to the leading edge of these trends? This strikes me as a net positive, especially because, given i would also contibute as skilled lawyer in the legal position for which I was hired, it is all added value. Yet, in order to bring that value, I cannot reject being held up, but must rather embrace it. Again, it is easy for me since my large wheelchair makes disability the elephant in the room, ignored only by conscious choice. That said, it is not easy to overcome the taboos to embrace that role. So, sometimes I struggle.

I told my friend to use his judgment in the introductions, even as I will use my judgment should I be offered a job. I am curious, though, have others wrestled with this? Readers, those with disabilities and without, what do you think of embracing these taboos if the result can be real change, or even the less lofty but equally valuable goal of putting food on the table? I know that I will continue to wrestle with these questions each day, and I encourage you to consider them.

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