Friday, September 29, 2023

F ³: Accommodations and Fitness - - a Shorts Story


This week I found myself wading into a conversation (on Facebook) about acceptable work attire in Washington. That’s a rather roundabout way of saying I really don’t care about what Senator John Fetterman wears in the Senate. As long as he is doing his job and his heart is in the right place, I’m satisfied that he’s doing what he was elected to do.

Honestly I feel as though a lot of time has been wasted on this topic when there are far more pressing issues on the table - - a possible government shutdown comes to mind - - and I’m really tired of all the  bloviating and posturing. I realize that I’m not as committed to the concept of “appropriate attire” as most people. My opinions on school dress codes are pretty much the same as my feelings about the Senate. 

Requirements that dictate how people must dress are not somehow innately good or true or handed down by the almighty. They are completely manmade, a kind of artifice that persists only because we buy into them. 

On the other hand, I have seen arguments this week that the attempt to make allowance for Fetterman’s preferred work attire was an example of white people in power bending the rules for each other in a way that they would never do for Black coworkers. I can’t deny the truth of that. If we are going to loosen the dress code* in the workplace then we should also take a long look at how it has been used to police blackness and/or used to point up Black employees as somehow different from the norm. 


Now I’m really getting to the point.

When I heard about the brouhaha over Fetterman I immediately wondered if he had sensory issues with clothing. Having spent many years working with special needs children, I’ve seen how clothing can truly be a source of torment, especially for those who are autistic. What if Fetterman is autistic? Obviously, we don’t know that one way or the other. We do know he has long struggled with depression. He’s been open about being hospitalized for depression. And he is very likely still recovering from a stroke which occurred during his Senate campaign.

If Fetterman is dealing with all this, and is still doing his job, why isn’t wearing the clothing he feels most comfortable in accepted as a reasonable accommodation? 

Ahh…accommodation. When we use that word then we often think of the word disability. And for many people it’s a quick hop, skip, and a jump from disability to “unfit.” Perhaps it’s just easier if people think of Fetterman as eccentric, or slovenly, or disrespectful of the norms. God forbid they should think he is “unfit.”

Disabled people are more than 25% of the population. Stop with the disability awareness slogans. We need ableism awareness. - - Gregory Mansfield, lawyer and disability rights advocate 

What is ableism? 

Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other. Ableism is intertwined in our culture, due to many limiting beliefs about what disability does or does not mean, how able-bodied people learn to treat people with disabilities and how we are often not included at the table for key decisions. - - Center for Disability Rights 

There’s such a strong thread running through our culture that says, “If we need to provide accommodations for you, it means there is something wrong with you. You don’t really belong.” That is ableism, through and through. How freeing it would be to say that we are committed to giving people the things that they need to do their jobs, live their lives, access health care, and so on. Doing that would remove the binary concept of disabled vs “normal”. Each person receives according to their needs. 

Well, we can’t make allowances for him. Then we’d have to make allowances for everyone.

Disabled people are twenty-five percent of the population. Many have all kinds of skills, talents, and abilities yet are unemployed or chronically underemployed because an ableist society sees “disabled” and equates it with “unfit.” Incapable. It is absolutely possible to be disabled and be the best person for the job, on that committee, or for that elected office. 

But it is only possible if abled culture lets go of this notion that being capable means you can’t possibly be disabled. Or that providing accommodations is some kind of special gift we are giving out, rather than a basic right which should be easily available to all. Here in Howard County we experienced a truly ugly example of this attitude when a member of the school board came under attack for receiving monetary support due to a disability. If they were disabled they shouldn’t be on the school board. If they were doing a good job on the school board they clearly weren’t disabled and thus were committing insurance fraud.

Ableism is intertwined in our culture, due to many limiting beliefs about what disability does or does not mean, how able-bodied people learn to treat people with disabilities and how we are often not included at the table for key decisions.

Accommodations are the things which empower the disabled. Ableism insists that, to receive them, you must give up your power. You must prove how helpless and unfit you are. 

It is entirely possible than none of this applies to Mr. Fetterman. I am in no position to know. In the meantime Mr. Fetterman appears to be making accommodations to the attitude of the Senate, rather than the other way around. 

*See also sexist dress codes.

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