Thursday, September 01, 2016

32 Years of Challenge Gets You Cake and Stuffies

Over the past couple of days I have been bombarded with emails and alerts about a story of a woman with Down Syndrome who is retiring after working for 32 years at McDonalds. Many of you will have seen the story. I simply can't link to it. I'm afraid I just can't. It's an important story, but as often happens her story and the story of her employment has been co opted to tell a different story, a story not about her at all.

I watched 5 or 6 news clips and read a similar number of newspaper articles. They all spoke about her with the greatest of disrespect. 'A woman with a child's heart,' was perhaps one of the worst things I read about her. They spoke about her being loving, and about the hugs she gave, and about how SHE made THEM feel grateful and reminded them about how good their own lives are. They showed pictures of this elderly woman having stuffed toys being shoved at her, literally shoved at her. Then they spoke of how she will spend the rest of her days in a day program dancing and colouring and maybe doing some volunteer work.

The picture presented was one of a stereotypical woman with Down Syndrome whose hugs were more important than the work she did. She worked the fryer, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. She worked peak periods in the store. She worked hard. But, that isn't the story that was told, or even needed to be told.

This woman 32 years ago entered into a workforce that still today has huge attitudinal barriers against people with intellectual disabilities as potential employees. The unemployment rate of people with intellectual disabilities is astonishingly high. Now full acknowledgement of that McDonalds for being willing to not only hire someone with a disability but to teach them to do a real job, a valuable job. I would imagine having someone with Down Syndrome working in a potentially dangerous position took some courage. Fryers scare me.

Her work record, her diligence to her job, her attitude to work, all of these things make her a pioneer, make her more than a 'hug giver' or a 'grateful maker,' they make her an everyday confrontation of bigoted attitudes towards disability. She broke the glass ceiling for people with disabilities, and let's admit that that ceiling is very, very low, but even so, she broke through it. The celebration of 32 years of gainful employment of someone with an intellectual disability is a celebration of 32 years of breaking stereotypes, of challenging bias, of demonstrating competence in the face of expectations of failure.

Not one article spoke of what her work meant to the movement towards seeing people with disabilities as equals as valued as contributors - not one.

No, even though she challenged stereotypes, she was presented as a stereotype.

No, even though she did adult work, in an adult environment, she was presented as a happy child who receives stuffed toys at a retirement party.

No, even though she stands shoulder to shoulder with women who crash through low set glass ceilings, she was referred to in patronizing tones.

Her accomplishments, were great, everyone agrees on that. But they buried those accomplishments under treacle, under feel good narrative, under heaps of stereotype.

Did a reporter do any kind of analysis as to the workplace, employment and access to people with intellectual disabilities - has it changed over 32 years? No, because to do that would take away from the easy task of writing about a Down Syndrome woman who gave hugs and made people grateful for, simply put, not being her.


Frank_V said...

Good journalism in general is in a serious decline. Due to the Internet-centric attitude of "Free is always better", reporters are now being paid next to nothing, if if they are paid anything at all. Our movement towards equality is seriously hindered by this reality.

Thanks Dave for being such an excellent media-critic/disability rights advocate!

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt said...

I saw the part about 'now she can be in adult daycare all day long because they only have that during the day' and my heart dropped.

Did they pay her appropriately all those years? Does she have a retirement fund she earned? Are other intellectually and physically challenged people being given the opportunity to work? Did she rise as high in her job as she was able to? Who will replace her - or was she one of a kind, and they've done their token?

So many unanswered questions.

Dave, you need to interview this woman - and tell the real story of those 32 years.

Cari Watrous said...

Excellent piece as always, gotta add my vote to you interviewing her as it would be wonderful to know some facts about this pioneer.

Adelaide Dupont said...

That would be a great story for Labor Day 2016.

Mary Nau said...

Agreeing with the above comments and would love to read an interview of her that you conduct. I'd love to learn more about this woman. So many times I wish I could videotape real stories about the real lives behind the faces. But I hesitate because I dislike any feel of exploitation. But there are many compelling and worthy stories that I so want to hear and want others to hear. You are well trusted and able to write and share such stories and I, like so many others, treasure it when you do.

amanda cheverie said...

I think it would be super cool to interview her. Good idea Alicia. Love your blog, as always Dave.

amanda cheverie said...

I think it would be super cool to interview her. Good idea Alicia. Love your blog, as always Dave.

Elizabeth said...

You did such a better job than I was able to at articulating why this story was problematic. You've made me so aware of how frequently stories are focused on the abled rather than the lives of the supposed subject. Thank you for your advocacy!

Unknown said...

I reread the article last night. It would be great to hear what she has to say but I wonder if her mother would allow that to happen. At this point the mother is coming towards the end of her life, and to be decreasing the daughter's level of independence doesn't sound like a good plan for the daughter's life after mother passes away. I guess I would have hoped this family would choose to support Freia in moving to independence (group home, yes, some are not so great but some are) now, as mother will not always be present. Just my thoughts, not claiming to know what is best for anyone. Clairesmum

Sean said...

Every article I read about Freia David, her name wasn't even mentioned until at least the second paragraph, if not the third or fourth. Sometimes not at all.

Every lede made it seem it was Down syndrome retiring after 32 years, not a dedicated employee.

The story of someone retiring after 32 years at McDonald's is newsworthy in its own right.

How the people who know Ms. David best celebrate this accomplishment and express their affection for her isn't really an issue for me.
What is a much bigger issue is the disability getting the lede over the person.

Thanks for your continued great work.

Unknown said...

The Boston Globe article was suprisingly good, and does in fact cover just about ALL the issues -- from her being a competent pioneer, with pioneering advocates, her competence and commitment as a worker, right up to her mother, as an elder, facing up to her daughter's increasing disability, risks of the job in the face of forgetfulness, and recommending retirement. I bet none of the feel-good articles speak the word "Alzheimers."

However -- this is probably the first coverage, as the Globe is the local paper. Which means all the OTHER outlets read this article, and wrote sentimental dehumanizing drivel. See what you think:

--Patricia Hawkins

Sherry-Lynn K said...

I just read it and I think the Boston Globe's article was pretty respectful, even with the headline, which didn't even mention that she has Down Syndrome. :)