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The summer after freshmen year was chock-full of new experiences. They were the kind of experiences that you read about in American road novels. Traveling worldwide and taking plane ride after plane ride reminded me of trashy teen romance films about travel, parentless escapades, and a reckless summer.
As if I were living a Kerouac novel or an “Eat Pray Love”-esque movie, I met people who played protagonists in their own lives, and fleeting co-stars in mine. In Manila, I met an artist who developed his own style of art and recently opened an art studio catered for people with autism. In Indianapolis, I met a budding public speaker who has delivered speeches at multi-million dollar fundraisers. That same weekend, I met an actress whose show ran for six seasons and won both Golden Globe and Emmy awards.
What unifies all these people who crossed my path? It’s not just their excellence. Rather, they all have intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
In the United States, there are over 6.5 million individuals with IDD. There’s been broader representation of people with IDD in popular media in recent years, and these long awaited representations have been slowly changing perceptions of people with disabilities. But even with the progress we’ve made, we still do not view people with IDD as full-members of our society. This is clearest when looking at the widespread lack of employment for people with IDD.
Unemployment rates for people with disabilities are at 85 percent—levels that for any other group of Americans would be unacceptable. Studies have shown that people with IDD aid in the general productivity of a work environment. Employers also reported that the number of challenges faced by an employee with IDD were much fewer than those expected at the time the individual was hired. It turns out that the reason that people with IDD are not hired is not because they lack ability, but because people assume they lack ability.
This insight highlights the main problem that this country has with people with disabilities. The biggest challenge for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is not their disability, but rather the way people treat them because of this disability. We do this when we drop the r-word casually, forgetting the way our words belittle people. We do this when we infantilize our friends with disabilities by talking down to them or assuming we need to speak for them. In any instance where we forget to focus on an individual’s ability, we’re creating problems for people with disabilities that would otherwise be nonexistent.
In 1988, Gallaudet University—the only institution of higher education catered to deaf students and the hard-of-hearing—faced weeks of protest when a non-deaf individual was chosen as president over a deaf candidate. While this incident was exceptionally hypocritical, our own university falls into a similar inability to view individuals with IDD as capable of meaningful employment.
For the first time in my life, my campus community does not reflect the broader American landscape that is filled with people with IDD. Part of this is the fact that avenues to higher education for people with IDD are limited; for example, Harvard lacks any sort of program for the mainstream education of students with IDD. But this is beside the point, because it’s not the only way Harvard can welcome people with IDD into the community. One of the simplest and most empowering things the University can do is to hire individuals with IDD.
There is an abundance of jobs that individuals with disabilities have the ability to compete for. There’s no reason I shouldn’t run into workers with IDD in Widener Library or when visiting a professor in their departmental office. Our community can be better and hire a more diverse workforce. It’s not a groundbreaking recommendation, but it may take time for Harvard employers to see it as a priority. Doing our part to help create opportunities for people with IDD is critical, and employers must approach that task seriously, both here on this campus and nationally.
Waiting indefinitely for others to employ people with IDD would feel disillusioning to me, were it not for the fact that many students who graduate from Harvard will hold positions of power once they make careers for themselves—roles in which we can directly open up opportunities to people with IDD. At that point, as we sit behind mahogany desks with the responsibility of making hiring decisions, I hope we consider applicants who happen to have intellectual and developmental disabilities. We must shift our perspectives so that we see them as productive members of society, unlike the way they’ve been viewed for decades. When that choice is on our desk, I hope we don’t diss ability.
Ruben E. Reyes, Jr. ’19 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Leverett House.
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