Leo’s Letter: Hidden Figures

As I watched the movie Hidden Figures, I was once again struck by the depth of discrimination facing African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. So what does this movie have to do with disability? The most obvious connection is the experience of segregation and disenfranchisement.

People with physical disabilities found themselves in hospitals while those with intellectual/developmental disabilities found themselves in state institutions.  Despite different building titles these facilities kept both groups of people “safe” and prevented their inclusion in society. Parents were told to forget about their kids, but many refused that instruction and stayed connected. To paraphrase Tom Corcoran, a South Shore PR professional and friend from that era, “society wants to hide people who are different, cover them with a rug.” This reality was very much alive circa 1970s and 1980s.

African Americans or Black Americans during the same period faced barriers simply based on color and a slow response to address the injustices faced over centuries of discrimination. Hidden Figures focuses on three heroic African-American women who play significant roles in our “Race to Space.” In one example, a mathematician, who clearly exceeds the problem-solving capacity of most of her peers, is able to demonstrate propositions which can ensure the safety of the initial space flights. The movie goes in depth on the John Glenn’s first orbital flight and his confidence in Katherine Johnson (now over 100 years old!), who he required to confirm the go/no go coordinates of his orbital flight. Katherine had been sent back to a “computers’ pool” of contracted workers despite exemplary performance.  As the movie ends you realize she was finally provided with the proper role and, years later, a building was named in her honor.

Despite the similarities between the plights of African Americans and people with disabilities, we recognize the differences.  Supports in addition to “opportunity and acceptance” may be needed to ensure people with disabilities may perform effectively in competitive settings.   While for those with an African American or other diverse background, opportunity and acceptance may be all that is needed. But this too requires the right educational practices and family support for those struggling in working class or poverty income situations.

As for people from diverse communities who also have disabilities (and cope with a lower socio-economic status) we know that they face a harder climb to opportunity and supports.  State offices have to recognize the economic struggle the families face. My colleague and friend Dr. Renald Raphael has noted the importance of family supports in the communities where he and his team work (Haitian American Public Health Initiatives or HAPHI). In fact we can take a lesson from the word, Haiti, which is derived from the words for “high land” and build much higher expectations for all our communities. This is the plan as The Arc partners with DDS, DESE, and other state and private agencies to reach out to families and students across the state in an employment transition project.  Building higher expectations will be a challenge for us at The Arc, but we are committed to it.

Bottom line: prejudice and discrimination – whether unintended or explicit – have not disappeared. We see it in all communities as people with disabilities, poor or affluent, face low expectations and limited options. “Hidden figures” in any context do not advance growth among people or society.

Together we can improve our outcomes and strategies.  We will be coming back to this topic from time to time. It is an essential one to make our system of care or support one that is responsive to the needs of individuals and families.


  1. There is a group of people who even the most ardent advocates are discriminating against-those with severe and profound intellectual disabilities. The newest ideas and proposal by the advocacy groups do not include any innovation or inclusion for them. Most are relegated to mini institutions called day habs where they spend the days with 60 plus individuals who require one to one care but only one to four staff is available except for the lucky few who happen to get some DDS wrap money. They get a bit more attention but mostly just extra personal care.

    Other populations of individuals with disabilities have been integrated into the communities and released from sheltered workshops. We emptied large state institutions only to move the lowest functioning population to institutions in the community. This population is being discriminated against. Changes are needed.

    REHAB the DAY HABS!!!

  2. I agree with “Rehab the Day Habs”, but I think the demise of the sheltered workshops is a disgrace, a do-Gooder project gone terribly awry. Now many individuals with intellectual disabilities are sitting around while the agencies who provide services for them cast around to place dozens in community jobs, very few of which can or will pay minimum wage. What for profit company is going to hire 10 or 20 former piecework employees at $11 an hour? Fast food companies are already trying to automate production so that they can hire fewer employees…And how is the agency supposed to handle the logistics of transporting all these people to different job sites? Where are these people going to find work? It will be volunteer most likely and the pride of earning a paycheck, however small, will be denied to the very population which this bungled social policy was supposed to benefit. Did anyone in government think this through? All we are doing is further excluding these people from active, gainful employment and the attainment of a more fulfilling life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *