Not So Brilliant Maybe?

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about disability “innovations” that aren’t as great as they seem to be. For example:

Special ID cards and police registries for disabled people

Parents of autistic and developmentally disabled children have been pushing for practical solutions to the risk of police violence against their disabled kids. One of the more popular ideas is creating I.D. cards developmentally disabled, and deaf people can carry that explain to police that they are disabled, and so may not behave in expected ways when confronted by police.

Grid of four different disability symbols with a light bulb image over them

This is one of those disability-related “innovations” that can seem practical and sensible, but only if you have a certain kind of idea about what the problem actually is. If disabled people’s tragic encounters with police are solely about miscommunication and lack of information about specific disabilities, then informational I.D. cards make sense.

However, if you factor in deeper, more entrenched ableism, and especially racism, then I.D. cards seem not only inadequate, but possibly dangerous.

Police are first and foremost people, who live in the present society, and carry the same kinds of ingrained prejudices other people have. These prejudices may be slightly reduced or short-circuited by training, but it’s doubtful at best that they can be completely undone. In tense law-enforcement situations, police officers may not take the time to read and absorb the information on an I.D. card, and may in any case react on instinct, complete with lifelong prejudices. And it’s certainly not unheard of for people in positions of authority to doubt the validity of people’s “special” claims of disability. Just look at the doubts people have about paperwork, insignias, and “certifications” for service animals and “handicapped” parking. People are suspicious that these things are obtained dishonestly. It’s not hard to imagine an officer thinking that a disability I.D. card might be misused.

Even more simply … what do we expect could happen when a developmentally disabled, autistic, or deaf person, with a gun pointed at them, moves to retrieve and show an I.D. card? Would police be reassured when a suspect puts their hands in their pockets or into a purse for their I.D. in a high-tension situation? And yeah, it’s only sensible to ask, what if the person is also black?

Disability I.D. cards seem to be another solution thought up by people with a basic trust in authority and rational communication … neither of which is very reliable in police encounters these days.

Wheelchairs that climb stairs

A few tech inventors have been trying for years to perfect and market a stair-climbing wheelchair. People who are excited about them seem to have one or two main reasons for their enthusiasm:

1. They are fascinated by new, high-tech solutions to the problem of poor accessibility. They’re cool!

2. They gravitate towards individual solutions that don’t depend on broader and seemingly harder to achieve improvement in physical accessibility,

Pessimism about the social goal of universal accessibility leads them to seek a personal way around the problem.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting and possibly significant that non-disabled people seem overall to be more interested in stair-climbing wheelchairs than actual wheelchair users.

Then there is the implied evasion of the social responsibility to promote general accessibility. If these cool wheelchairs somehow become standard equipment for wheelchair users, maybe we can all stop worrying about accessibility. Intentionally or not, this reinforces the idea that disability is a personal problem that disabled people are responsible for adapting to, not a social problem for society as a whole to deal with.

The problem is that these wheelchairs are only ever likely to be practical and affordable for a handful of wheelchair users. They are no use at all for people who are mobility impaired but aren’t wheelchair users, and no use to people who can’t afford these wheelchairs’ huge price tags. Also, they don’t seem practical for anything but climbing stairs. They don’t look suited for everyday wheeling around, especially in confined spaces like small homes or along narrow pathways.

Finally, they just don’t look safe, do they?

Retail businesses staffed by disabled workers

I got into a lengthy Twitter discussion this week about a “feel good” news story focused on an ice cream shop in Texas where most of the employees have developmental disabilities. Are these kinds of retail businesses designed to employ disabled people a big improvement over sheltered workshops? Are the owners praiseworthy innovators in the field of disability employment?

The only fair answer is “maybe” and “sometimes.”

It is of course possible for someone to start a business with the deliberate aim of providing paid jobs to disabled people in a public, mainstream environment that’s essentially the same as other retail businesses … and for the right reasons. If they pay Minimum Wage or above, don’t claim the legal right to pay less, provide avenues for advancement, include non-disabled workers in the mix, and include at least some disabled people in ownership or management, it could be a good thing.

But these crucial factors are rarely addressed in the inspiring “human interest stories” done about them, the ones that usually come at the end of a nightly news program to make you feel good. Journalists especially should look much more critically at how disability-related employment ideas actually work, and what the owners are really doing. Do they participate in media stories in order to promote general improvement in hiring disabled people in all workplaces? Or, are they taking a bow for being a humanitarian? Does the story focus on the actual disabled workers and how they feel about their jobs? Or, is it all about grateful parents and community leaders heaping praise on a charitable enterprise?

And what are we to think when the owner says something like this, from the article linked above?

“It amazes me … how hard it is to get good help, especially in an economy like this where you’re paying $10 an hour for busboys and they’re not sticking around,” says Landis. “The answer to me is the special needs population.”

This should be a big red flag for possible exploitation, intentional or not.

Are the disabled workers paid less than $10 an hour because their disabilities and prejudice in the job market make it impossible to find a better paying job?

Do disabled employees “stick around” because they feel they have no other options, and everyone in their lives tells them they should be grateful for having a job at all?

How do we draw a distinction between touting the quality and reliability of individual disabled workers, and “selling” disabled people as cheap, easy to handle employees … who won’t quit no matter what?


Any of these “innovations” can be valuable to some disabled people, in some very individual and very specific situations. The problem comes when they are offered as a panacea for deeper problems that society just doesn’t wish to deal with … problems like accessibility of the infrastructure, ableism and racism, and the balance between business profitability, fair labor practices, and a living wage.