by Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
Like many anglophiles, I’ve been waiting for the release of the Downton Abbey film.
I started watching the old television episodes to bring myself up-to speed and had a revelation that the show can help the rest of the world understand why we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and why there needs to be such a thing in the first place.
The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy says the goal of the yearly campaign is to “raise awareness disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America's workers with disabilities.” Every October, the department extols the virtues of hiring a person with a disability but to truly understand this, we need to look no further than Downton Abbey’s character of John Bates, the valet to the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley.
Mr. Bates fought alongside Crawley in the Boer War and was wounded by shrapnel. Because of this, he walks with a noticeable limp, requires a cane, and cannot easily climb stairs or carry things.
Bates comes to Downton Abbey to work. Much of the first episode centers on if he can accomplish required tasks. His stoic mantra throughout this is, “I can manage.”
The staff downstairs begrudges that they might have to pick up his slack. Mr. Carson, the butler, does not believe Bates can accomplish things up to the standard of such a fine house based solely on his disability. The rarely charitable first footman, Mr. Barrow, derides and undermines Bates, calling him “Long John Silver” because of his disability.
Upstairs, the otherwise genteel family members are not much better. They pity him and call him “lame” and “cripple.” They ultimately convince the Earl of Grantham that Bates has no place working there and Bates is “sacked,” as the Brits say. But for the earl’s last minute humanitarian impulse, poor Bates wouldn’t have made it to Episode 2.
Interestingly, the conversations at the venerable English estate a hundred years ago still occur in the modern, supposedly “enlightened” workplace. Workers who are capable but who happen to be disabled face the same slings and arrows as Mr. Bates. Questions of ability because of a disability resonate in the rank and file and in the C-Suites.
Potential employers and coworkers should understand that workers who happen to have a disability are some of the most accomplished and dedicated employees. They can meet and, oftentimes, exceed expectations if given a chance, just as Mr. Bates did. National Disability Employment Awareness Month gives us the opportunity to tell that story and make the case that our society should not be operating under the same antiquated and misguided assumptions about disabilities of a century ago.