They them, just not they/them

It is becoming more common (and sometimes much simpler) to ask people what their preferred pronouns are, rather than just guessing. The fact that some of my peers prefer to go by they/them got me thinking of of the paradox of they/them. As a personal pronoun, they/them is troubling because they and them are plural references. In my work with disenfranchised groups, I have regularly encounter whole groups of individuals covered by the blanket reference “they/them.” This post talks about the challenges of throwing a big blanket over the diverse community of persons with disabilities (PWD). It is a bit more serious than some of my stuff but I tried not to get too deep in the weeds. I hope you find it a thoughtful read. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:

Story: They/them, just not they/them

I recently mis-gendered one of my peers during a conversation. I was embarrassed over my mistake. I try to be respectful of the pronouns people choose for themselves because, why not? I felt compelled to put some context on my error. The example I gave was: I have known my oldest daughter Jessica for more than 30 years. Occasionally I’ll call her by her younger sister’s name, Rachel. I feel bad when I do this but assure her that it is not intentional.

The use of they/them pronouns seems to be confounding to many people. I get that. A contrasting use of the pronouns they/them comes into play regarding disenfranchised groups. A challenge I have in exploring the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in professional settings is the use of they/them in reference to PWD. Unlike misgendering my peer, they/them is regularly used to describe the wide variety of persons who are included under the umbrella term “the disabled.”

The work of Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) takes place in the organizational development (OD) space. While reviewing an academic data base recently I found a 2020 article entitled “Disability Inclusion: Catalyst to Adaptive Organizations” (Moore, 2020), in the Organization Development Journal. This sounded like an article worth reading, it was. Unfortunately, it proved to be an example of disability stereotyping.

The article described Walgreens’ TWG: Transitional Work Group (Supply Chain) program. The catalyst for the program was the experience of a Walgreens’ executive with a child who is affected by autism. The TWG provides an opportunity for individuals with disabilities, in supported employment programs, to receive training and employment opportunities within Walgreens’ warehouse operations. The work Walgreens’ is doing is commendable. The authors describe how the managerial environment has adapted to support the program.

Where the article gets sketchy is in the author’s depiction of persons with disabilities (PWD). Participants in the TWG program are alternately characterized as workers with “limited skills” and as PWD. The characterization of the program participants as having limited skills, while clumsy, is more accurate than generalizing PWD as persons with limited skills. The use of “limited skills” and “disability” interchangeably implies an equivalence between disability and skill limitation. Some persons have limited skills. Some persons have disabilities. The Moore study only talks about a group of individuals who fall into both groups.

The generalization of persons with disabilities (PWD) as a homogenous group (the disabled/them) led me to my doctoral dissertation topic, “An exploration of the organizational environment supporting persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings” (Lococo, 2018).” My plan was to use a research design similar to Moore’s study. A major challenge was finding organizations willing to be studied with the rigor required of a doctoral program. After having many doors slammed in my face, I changed the design to include subjects with disabling conditions working in professional settings. Two studies that were foundational to my dissertation topic illustrate the paradox of persons with disabilities (PWD) representation.

A survey of 3,797 employers on perceptions of PWD in the workplace (Domzal, 2008). The study categorized employers by size and industry. It also Identified those employers who did/did not employ PWD and those who actively recruited PWD. The survey instrument collected information regarding the experiences of employers as well as what they thought would help them to me more inclusive of PWD. The study included the finding that 72.6% of the respondents felt that the nature of the work of their organization was a barrier to the inclusion of PWD. What the study did not do is differentiate PWD. As a result, it is unclear if the survey responses were based on an image of Stephen Hawking (the late astrophysicist) or an individual with cognitive disabilities who might find satisfaction in the challenge of simple tasks.

In contrast, a study of why organizations reach out for assistance in providing inclusive support to employees with disabilities, paints a different picture. The primary reason 82% of employers contacted the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) was to retain/promote existing employees. On average, these employees had been with the company just under seven years, earned more than $60,000/year and 58% had a college degree or higher (DOL, 2020).

Applying the lessons

The work of Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) focuses on the organizational infrastructure supporting the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in professional/skilled settings. This is the work of organizational development (OD). The intersection of disenfranchised groups and Main Street is also the work of organizational development.

The Moore study examined the intersection of PWD and workers with limited skills. My dissertation examined the intersection of PWD and persons in professional settings. Moore’s characterization of PWD as being synonymous with persons with limited skills, reduces the opportunities for both generalization of findings and further analysis of those findings.

Food for thought

  • What assumptions are held regarding persons with disabilities (PWD)?
  • How do these assumptions compare to assumptions of other disenfranchised groups?
  • What power dynamics are implicit in the held assumptions?
  • How/where do assumptions get validated/challenged?
  • As an organization, what is being left on the table (money, talent, opportunity) due to unquestioned assumptions?

References

  • Domzal, C., Houtenville, A., and Sharma, R. (2008). “Survey of Employer Perspectives on the Employment of People with Disabilities
  • ” Prepared under contract to the Office of Disability and Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Lococo, D. (2018). An exploration of the organizational environment supporting persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings. Cardinal Stritch University.
  • Moore, J. R., Hanson, W. R., & Maxey, E. C. (2020). Disability Inclusion: Catalyst to Adaptive Organizations. Organization Development Journal, 38(1).
  • U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Office of Disability Employment Policy. (2020). Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact. Retrieved from: https://askjan.org/publications/Topic-Downloads.cfm?pubid=962628
  • Walgreens Co. (2021). Disability inclusion. retrieved from: https://www.walgreens.com/topic/sr/sr_disability-inclusion.jsp

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For more information:

Dan Lococo, PhD
Barrier Knocker Downer
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414.333.5846
Twitter: @danlococo
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Mainstreaming on Main Street
Supporting organizational environments inclusive of persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings

Copyright 2021, Dan Lococo, All rights reserved

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