Janus-faced Prejudice

One particular prejudice not often considered, perhaps because it is all too obvious and common, is the prejudice of face. That is, keeping or saving face. Some people might prefer to call this reputation, as if that somehow makes it more acceptable. Be that as it may, it prejudices decisions and excludes people as things dispensable–as all prejudices do.

I worked for an Independent Living Organization (ILO) in a moderately large mid-western city. ILO’s are supposed to be fighting prejudice, specifically prejudice against the disabled that keep us sidelined, out of work and second class citizens. Let us call this ILO The Healthy & Entire Mortal, THEM. Many ILO’s are members of ADAPT, which began as American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, an organization that is dedicated to active demonstration against entities in society that show great prejudice and little concern for the disabled, such as Greyhound Bus, metropolitan transportation systems, air terminals/air lines, landlords and supermarkets. These protests are nonviolent yet extremely disruptive.

THEM is a member of ADAPT and takes part in demonstrations; however, only in demonstrations that are considered to be safe. That is, that will not result in bad press, which might disturb the delicate balance THEM’s Director has built up with the local business community. Thus, both sides of THEM’s face are saved: they appear to be activists and they appear to be more sensible minded members of the business community.

At THEM I was a certified and Social Security trained Benefits Specialist working to move the disabled on government benefits back into the workplace through the Social Security maze and without losing their medical benefits. I also advocated for my clients whenever problems arose. I was quite good. Several of the networking and information grids I developed were disseminated throughout the West and Midwest. I sat on the Kansas State board of the National Association of the Mentally Ill. I worked tirelessly for mental health parity and for extension of Medicaid benefits to those disabled who managed to find employment–in both Kansas and Missouri.

In dealing with one client, I came upon corruption within the very government organization that was set up to help the disabled: Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). This was in Missouri. My client was systematically being denied her benefits from VR by way of misleading information, sexual harassment, administrative Catch-22’s and lack of sensitivity to her disability. This situation had been going on for several years. In advocating for her and following her case through appeals and a move to legal action, I discovered that the administrative side-stepping and unwillingness to adhere to its own directives went to the top.

When the heat became too great for VR, trumped up malfeasances against me were used to bring pressure on THEM. THEM was told that if I was not fired, VR would cease funding THEM’s medical and assistive living programs. This is extortion, or perhaps bribery. Did THEM support me and thereby my client? No. Though VR was told I wouldn’t be fired, I was conveniently moved to the Kansas side of THEM’s organization, a rather fledgling, undeveloped aspect of the ILO. For THEM, though, this was simply the first of a number of moves to get rid of me while I became my own advocate, discovering that neither the legal branch of the government nor its head (the Governor) would do anything to right the obviously illegal situation.

A hostile environment was developed by THEM utilizing my big, 400 lb bullying supervisor who was, without the official title, assistant to the Director. This man continually gave me false leads as to my new job guidelines, limited my ability to do advocacy, engaged in baiting with disingenuous substandard performance ratings and indulging in administrative procedures that were a neverending labyrinth of incompleteness. Although I brought this to the attention of the Director and even utilized our hired harassment expert, a friend of the Director, it became obvious that this treatment, the hostile environment, emanated from THEM’s Director himself. My only victory was to resign at a highly inappropriate time and before enough information could be constructed to fire me. My big, bullying supervisor was furious. Throughout this entire process, I kept good records. Now, several years later, I still have this documentation (14 typewritten pages).

Why, one wonders, would THEM do this when its mandate is to help the disabled? My client withered and never obtained her legal right to benefits. Because, really, THEM was not dedicated, was not willing to go out on a limb–for either client or employee. THEM could have sought legal action against VR for their strong arm tactics in getting rid of me. THEM could have ridden the iron horse of legal action against VR for denial of appropriate benefits for my client. But, no, THEM folded under pressure in order to save face.

Denial of benefits to quite a number of disabled within the community would have accrued with the withholding of VR’s medical support funding–if made public, this would have had a devastating effect. Employees would have found themselves out of work because their position depended on this VR medical support money. But. . .a major aspect of VR’s wish to have me terminated was that I was disabled and not appropriate for “such a position” of responsibility. Thus, THEM was not only not supporting their employee but again not upholding their mandate to aid the disabled. This allowed THEM to remain a viable, business-friendly ILO that would not rock the boat. This allowed THEM to engage in the same prejudicial behavior that THEM was supposed to be fighting.

And so THEM saved face. At my expense. At one particular client’s expense. And at the greater disabled community’s expense, for THEM will not stand behind either their employees or their clientele. After all, what is important is what one appears to be.

THEM still takes part in safe ADAPT demonstrations and still helps clients who offer no threat to them or the workings of government. I am still in contact with this client, though my e-mail has been blocked by THEM. I still maintain contacts with ILO contacts in other States.

I sought several position in the US, missing most by one day and, eventually, one hour, before signing a contract to teach literature and drama and writing at a university in China. I am a published writer and have 30 years’ experience in theatre, including producing and running my own theatre before doctoral studies. I am presently engaged in academic research. I am engaged in recruitment and PR activities for this college. I am acting in commercials. I am in contact with the fledgling disability rights movement in China. Yet I am too disabled to do the job of helping the disabled; too disabled to hold a position of responsibility.

Although I have succeeded in the face of prejudice, it is sad that this situation exists; that is, that the very organization that is supposed to be helping the disabled is actually disabling them. THEM, though, is not alone.

James L. Secor, Ph.D.

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