An interesting scene on last night’s episode of Mad Men, which is set in the 1960s. A top executive at the Sterling Cooper ad agency — known as a “pure account man” — got his foot run over by (a drunk secretary on) a John Deere lawn mower. After he is rushed to the hospital, the doctors must amputate his foot.
So the big wigs at the agency arrive at the hospital, and big wig #1 says, “He was a great account man. A prodigy. He could talk a Scotsman out of a penny.” Then big wig #2 says, “Now thats all over.” Don Draper tries to defend the amputee, but there’s really no discussion. Says big wig #2: “The man is missing a foot. How is he going to work? He can’t walk.” And big wig #1 pipes up, “The doctor said he’d never golf again.” Both big wigs agree that they will need to “reevaluate” their entire organizational strategy.
It is true that the exec would have had a major disability with the loss of his foot. But in the 1960s he would have been fitted with a prosthetic and surely could have continued his career. It is the assumption that a disability is debilitating; that it makes one physically or mentally weak; that it misrepresents the public’s perception of a company or its brand — this is what has kept people with disabilities from succeeding in the workplace.
Says Joan Harris, Mad Men’s smug office manager who had tied the tourniquet on the man’s leg and wore a blood-spattered dress: “One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary is running you over with a lawn mower.”
The same holds true for many people with disabilities. Car accidents; sickness; an unruly horse, like the one actor Christopher Reeve rode in 1995. But in today’s society, the tempo has changed for the better. We now are getting to, “What CAN the person do? And how might they do it, just differently?”
In last week’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance? A young woman named Allison Becker, who is hearing impaired, auditioned for the judges. A contemporary dancer, Becker she says she hears music differently than everyone else — she relies mostly on feeling the vibrations. Afterwards, one judge says: “I know it hasn’t been easy and people have doubted you. You are an unbelievable inspiration because you didn’t give up. What you’re doing today is going to make a tremendous difference. By showing up here today, by dancing beautifully, by seeing the light at your eyes.”
Nearly 50 years later, people with disabilities have more opportunities to show their talent, to defeat assumptions. The Americans with Disabilities Act played a large role. People haven’t changed. Disability hasn’t changed. But today we’re allowed to hear the music differently. If we could apply this dance concept across the employment landscape, talented people with disabilities would prove over and over again that they’re worth a shot.