At least the pay is good

Will the exploitation of people with disabilities never end? I’ll admit I’m naive. But I would hope that by the year 2013, people with mental or physical limitations would be regarded with more respect. The latest news indicates otherwise.

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It has come to light that so-called “guides” with special needs are being hired by wealthy families to escort them at Walt Disney World. Because the guides are disabled, they can move to the front of long lines for rides, allowing their client families to avoid waits up to two and a half hours.

The guides are hired through a special tour company, which charges $130 an hour for their services.  At the very least, I hope the guides are paid a good chunk of that amount, but I wouldn’t count on it.

This is nothing new

Of course, this scenario is nothing new. People with disabilities have been used by others for centuries. Only 100 years ago, William Henry Johnson, AKA Zip the Pinhead, was an attraction at a circus freak show in the New York region.

Zip had an odd-shaped head and was believed to have microcephaly, a condition in which the skull doesn’t grow large enough for the brain to fully develop. People with microcephaly often have intellectual disabilities; however, there was some doubt that Johnson had a low IQ.

Zip was displayed in a cage and billed as “the missing link.” It was the only way this impoverished, uneducated man could earn a living.

Free or cheap labor

Even before Zip made his debut, people with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses were displayed for public entertainment in hospitals and in town squares.

In the 20th century, it was common for people with disabilities to be put to work doing labor at state-run institutions.  They worked without pay on the farming and dairy operations that fed those who lived in the facilities. And they worked in the laundry and food service sections.

In Iowa, a recent court case ended with $50,000 in damages being awarded to each of 32 men with intellectual disabilities. The men had worked in what were described as slave conditions in a turkey processing plant and paid 41 cents an hour. They lived in rodent-infested bunkhouses and were subjected to physical abuse.

Is diversity just a trendy thing?

For at least two decades, it has been in vogue to promote diversity. At universities, government agencies and private sector companies, the push is on to hire and promote a wide range of people. We teach our children to be accepting and tolerant of others, no matter how different they might be.

I like to think the campaign for diversity isn’t just for people of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds.  By all means, it should include those with disabilities.

From the latest news, it looks like we still have a long way to go in not only accepting, but embracing and honoring people who have physical and intellectual disabilities.