Sense & Sensitivity by Harriette Cole


DEAR HARRIETTE: I started in a new job as a senior member of a work team. This company has a policy to hire people with disabilities, neurological or physical, as part of the support staff. My youngest son is in the autism spectrum, so seeing these people given the same opportunities as "typicals" is heartwarming. I see my son's future opportunities reflected in their successes, which might be as simple as leading an independent life.

Unfortunately, we still have remnants of social stereotyping and unconscious bigotry. While talking with my team, a couple of them wondered why the company had to hire people who "obviously had something wrong with them." The rest followed suit in the comment, trying to turn it into a joke. I took a deep breath and excused myself from the conversation and walked away. In that moment, I was reminded that the biggest challenge my son will have is the willingness of the rest of society to accept him.

Should I have called their attention to the unkindness of their comments? I do not want to abuse my position or create an uncomfortable work environment. I thought about talking to them about it, trying to open their perspective, but it might look like a "holier than thou" affair. -- Dad With Hope, Fairfax, Va.

DEAR DAD WITH HOPE: One of the greatest challenges we have is being able to live the standards that we say we believe. We often have lofty goals. Indeed, our country was founded on some of the loftiest principles. We have legislated many measures to protect us against our baser nature. And yet discrimination and stereotyping are still very much alive. Anyone who has the ability to see when offensive behavior is occurring has the opportunity to help open the eyes of those who are the offenders.

You are in the wonderful and sensitive position of being able to educate your staff on the value of the policy of hiring without discrimination. Yes, you definitely should talk to them about their comments. Do not scold them. Instead, gather them and tell them that you have given a lot of thought to what they said. You may want to share your personal story of the hope that you had when you started this job and how it made you believe there will be a chance for your child. Or you can keep it generic. Most important is that you give them a concrete understanding of the importance of valuing everyone in your work culture.

I read a fantastic book by scholar Malidoma Some, called "Of Water and the Spirit." In it, he explains that in his Burkina Faso, Africa, village when he was growing up, everyone was valued. Every single person had a viable role in the village. Those who were disabled were considered special, often as gatekeepers between everyday life and the hereafter. The point is that no one was considered worthless.

As time goes by, if you remain consistent you can teach your team that every person there is valuable by pointing out what each person is good at doing.