A friend writes to ask why it remains so difficult for people with disabilities to find jobs and in particular why this is so hard for blind people in an age of technology and the ADA.
My friend is a scientist. He understands how things actually work.
Of course the problem for people with disabilities regarding employment has nothing to do with "how things work"—in reality the problem has to do with symbolism.
Here is what I wrote to my friend early this morning:
Dear (Name Withheld):
The answer to this question is relatively simple though like most easy things it’s also discouraging. Disability functions in general as a series of metaphors or "sign systems" as the French scholar Roland Barthes would put it. The study of signs in culture is known as "semiotics"—and without giving a treatise the crux of the biscuit is that everything we can see is culturally embedded with variegated meanings that are the product of history. This is true of everything from a "stop sign" to your mother’s wedding dress.
Disability has functioned historically in stark metaphorical terms: the blind for instance are identified in Greek mythology as being either monstrous or irrational figures or, prophetic souls who have been given a compensatory gift from the gods. In the ancient world criminals were routinely "blinded" to serve as constant reminders of criminality as they begged in the streets. Accordingly there is a several thousand year period in western cultural history when blindness has been semiotically designated as an exemplary and unhappy figuration. Drama, fairy tales, kid’s books, movies, all reinforce this signifying process. I wrote a little bit about this in my book "Planet of the Blind". The writer Georgina Kleege has addressed this subject in her book "Sight Unseen" and now in her new book of imaginary letters to Helen Keller.
These pejorative ideas about blindness were so pervasive that it was believed impossible to teach the blind to read until the early 19thcentury.
Again, as I say, these old fashioned notions are not sensible but they exist in what Carl Jung would call the "cultural or universal unconscious" of civilization.
Changing this kind of thing is obviously not so much a matter of technology but really a matter of public education.
I am typing right now without the benefit of sufficient coffee so I hope this makes sense?
As I think about these matters I’m often reminded of the up side of symbolic or figurative dynamism in culture. When human beings understand how symbols can assist their social and political goals then transformation can happen very quickly within society. Rosa Parks comes to mind. James Meredith.
We need more competent disabled people in our nation’s television and movies. We needed this about two decades ago.
I hereby volunteer to be a TV detective. Along with my amazing dog I will have Confucian poetry and logo-rhythmic dancing in my arsenal.