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.