A Rousing Speech Agitating for Humanity, Democracy, and Disability

December 4, 2009 at 6:48 am | Posted in Fighting Prejudice, Philosophical Problems, Work Life | Leave a comment

Yesterday at work I gave my presentation about communicating about disabilities. It went very well — there were a lot of good questions and comments, and it was a lively group with a most dynamic manager. I sat through the rest of their staff meeting and came away thinking, Damn, I’d like to work for that organization. Their management is that cool.

After the presentation, I started to think about the next one, which I mentioned long, long ago in this space. In February I will be talking to an all hands for my product line. The program manager asked me to address a specific question: All other things being equal, why should I hire someone who is disabled who will need accommodations? The question is blunt, but, I think, fair.

At my company we talk a lot about the business case for diversity, and the party line is that a diverse group is more creative and better able to solve problems. (I almost wrote, “to problem solve,” an icky corporate formulation. I have this terror that I will spontaneously speaking and writing in nothing but Corporatespeak, and that I won’t be able to stop.) To be honest, I don’t know if that’s really true. As I wrote before, I’m not sure that female engineers are any more likely to come up with a fresh approach to a knotty problem than men are. It seems to me that it would make more difference where and how they’d been educated and what sort of work experience they had. That seems to lead to the gloomy conclusion that, all other things being equal, you should shun someone who needs to take the occasional Mad Day.

That’s wrong, of course. As I wrote in my previous post on the subject, disabled people bring a lot of unique qualities to the table, including resilience and determination. There’s more to it, though. I’ve worked in this metrics-driven environment for so long now that I’m a little ashamed to suggest that perhaps intangibles count as much or more than that which can be measured. I believe that it’s true though.

Take two average departments, or sections as we call them at my company. Give Group One a dynamic manager who is cheerful, treats workers with trust and compassion, and willingly works alongside them when necessary. This manager acknowledges her employees’ expertise, and she actively encourages them to experiment, make mistakes, and thereby devise true process improvements.

Over Group Two, place a crappy manager — not an outstanding tyrant, but just a technocrat who works poorly with people. Manager Number Two does not trust her workers — she insists on checking their work, and is incensed at every typographical error. She doesn’t think to compliment them when they do well, but never fails to criticize them publicly for mistakes both small and large. When they come to her with questions she huffs and rolls her eyes; if they present her with a problem and ask for the resources to solve it, she flushes red with sheer irritation. If one employee slacks off, she berates all of them in staff meetings, thereby giving the hard workers the impression that she sees them as one undifferentiated mass.

In our little mental exercise, award Manager Number Two with every sort of technical expertise, and a solid background at the company. Make manager Number One a relative rookie who is new to the industry. I still predict that Group One will always outperform Group Two. They’ll suffer less turnover, take fewer sick days, and enjoy higher productivity. Group Two will surf the internet every time their manager’s back is turned, and they’ll use up every sick day they have and then some. They’re probably more likely to get legitimately sick, too. Certainly they will hate their jobs and view the company that promoted Manager Two with suspicion.

What does this all have to do with disabilities? After all, probably plenty of disabled people are lousy managers or slack employees. My point is this: The intangible and immeasurable always matter, and they will out in the end. When the metrics come down, Manager Two will blame her lazy employees and say that it’s impossible to get good help these days; Manager One wisely understands that a section is only as good as its section head, no matter how experienced or conscientious the individual employees may be. At the end of the day, even though all of its advantages are intangible, Section One will prosper and Section Two will decline.

Here’s the thing: We’re hired because they need people, not machines or trained pigeons, to do our jobs. They need us to apply our judgment, empathy, compassion, wisdom, and creativity — our humanity — to every aspect of our work. Of course, along with those excellent qualities come our shortcomings. We take sick days. We get repetitive stress disorders if we don’t take regular breaks. We get bored and our minds wander. And, yes, some of us may need to take the occasional inpatient Mad Break. You can accept this fact and accommodate your workers when they need it, or you can treat human qualities as individual weaknesses and watch your workers stream away to join the competition. In a competitive industry — and ours is very competitive — it really does pay to treat your employees like full human beings. That’s true whether or not you can quantify the benefits.

The business case, then, is not for diversity, but simply for humanity. We all make allowances for each other all the time. In the end, the product ships, the cathedral gets built, the mural gets painted, and we create a little more of that odd product we call civilization. We do it because of our weak humanity, not in spite of it.

You can build a civilization using slaves who you treat as disposable bits of machinery, or you can encourage everyone to take responsibility, throw themselves into their work, and take a bit more of what civilization has to offer: leisure, security, comfort, happiness. The former is a dictatorship; the latter is a radical democracy consisting of citizens, not slaves.

Hm. I like that. It’s a bit over-dramatic, perhaps, but I really do believe that it’s true.

OK, enough. I have to go to the grocery store to buy roses.

Love to all.


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