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Q&A: Respecting employees with disabilities

For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, staff members Pauline Dowell and Nico Lang describe their experiences working at MIT.
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MIT Human Resources administrative assistant Pauline Dowell (far left) competes in the 2017 Blind Sailing World Championship.
MIT Human Resources administrative assistant Pauline Dowell (far left) competes in the 2017 Blind Sailing World Championship.
Image courtesy of MIT Human Resources.
Human Resources administrator Nico Lang (center), with Ella Grace (left) and Sienna, says she prefers that people talk openly and respectfully about disability.
Human Resources administrator Nico Lang (center), with Ella Grace (left) and Sienna, says she prefers that people talk openly and respectfully about disability.
Image courtesy of MIT Human Resources.

October is recognized as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. To help all MIT community members become more aware of our colleagues with disabilities, Pauline Dowell and Nico Lang recently spoke with MIT Human Resources (HR) about their experiences.

Dowell is an administrative assistant in HR and has been at MIT for four years. She is legally blind. Lang is an HR administrator with the Office for the Vice President of Finance and recently marked her fifth year at the Institute. She describes herself as a little person.

Q: What would you like people to know about having a disability and working at MIT?

Dowell: It can be difficult for me, but I always had to keep up with my siblings so I learned some adaptions. I memorize my surroundings because I don’t use a cane inside. When I first started working here, people made assumptions. They didn’t know what I use to get through the day — like an audible reader. It might take me a little longer to do the work, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do the work as accurately.

I work so hard at trying to be normal. When we first moved into our new office, I bumped into stuff. When my vision declined rapidly in the last few years, my eye doctor suggested I should get mobility training and learn braille. Braille isn’t very helpful on campus because there are no standards for its placement. It should be consistent — depending on where it’s located, it can be too high or too low. How do people find it? 

Lang: I’ve been lucky enough to work in three DLCs [departments, labs, centers]. People have a habit of overcompensating. Before I started at MIT, I had meetings with folks about what I would need to navigate my new office. Someone even suggested getting me a robot to help with my filing and reaching things up high. Now, a robot would have been great, but all I really needed was a simple step stool.

One reason why I’m a member of MIT’s Disabilities Employee Resource Group is because there’s room for improvement. Even when I was trying to self-advocate, the responses from various offices didn’t seem in keeping with how we address other diversity issues. As an HR person, I get to see it … we’ve stumbled around disability awareness.

Q: What could be helpful for your MIT colleagues to do?

Dowell: I would like for my kind friends as well as strangers to not grab me. I was waiting at the T. Do you know the yellow bumps on the platform? They’re to guide blind people with canes or dogs. Well, one of my colleagues grabbed me and thought I was in danger. But you can’t react badly because you’re an ambassador for the blind community. You can’t react to every slight — or else you become “the grumpy blind person.” You have to find a line between reacting and educating. 

I’m independent and can do things by myself. I can’t drive a car, but I can drive a boat. [Dowell is a winner of the Robie Pierce One-Design Regatta, an annual regatta for sailors with disabilities co-hosted by the American Yacht Club.] In general, I’d ask my colleagues not to assume that I don’t know what I’m doing. And I love when people identify themselves before they say hello.

Lang: People are hesitant to ask questions. Instead of taking the initiative to do something, you can just ask … you’re not infringing on my privacy or making me feel uncomfortable. My advice would be to ask — as long as you are respectful and appropriate. I don’t need people to get in front of the issues for me.

If you’re unsure about how to refer to someone with a disability, ask them. For me, Nico is a good start. I use the term little person. Dwarf is a clinical term, while little person is more broad. It’s probably best to stick with the most general term.

Q: What do you like about working at MIT?

Dowell: I think it’s a really good atmosphere for people with disabilities. I don’t feel like I'm "less than." People have been really kind. The library has audible books. There’s an adaptation department, and lots of resources. 

Lang: There are a lot of things that I like about working at MIT. The collaborative, startup, hacker vibe that permeates the student side trickles right into the administration. There’s not one right way to do something — if you’re doing something different, you’re encouraged to share that info. You can make your own way. I like how transparent MIT is, that it leans in that direction. 

Q: Did you fill out the self-ID race, gender, disability, veteran status form on Atlas?

Dowell: I didn’t at first — but it’s better than not. It could set up a dialogue where we know people who need adaptations. It’s good to know that it’s official – that I might need help. I know it’s anonymous, but it’s good to know what people need.

Lang: I didn’t understand what it was used for. I thought I was doing myself a favor; I didn’t realize it was anonymous. But self-identifying is important because I want to be counted. And it’s important for MIT to have correct data on the disability community; right now we don’t have the data. Only good things can come with a better, clearer picture of who’s here.

Our community needs some education with what happens with the data and who sees it — it will provide MIT with the right info.

Q: What else would you like to share?

Dowell: I have a degree in art and studied painting after college with a master painter for nine years. As I was getting really good, I started to lose my vision. My brain is at ease doing pottery, art — my form of meditation. I’m learning a lot about graphic arts. My passion is learning about art and sailing.

Lang: I’ve never had a strong relationship with the disability advocacy community. I sort of struggle with how to decide how much of my identity is tied to that. I don’t want to judge anyone who feels differently, but that’s how it’s always been for me. My background is in theater and that phrase, “all the world’s a stage,” is very true for those with presenting disabilities. People notice I’m a little person before anything else. I have a profound relationship to my disability. I can’t get away from it. 

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