Sunday, September 25, 2005

Where's the Common Sense in this Entree?

Rebecca (I Have No Blog, and I Must...Blog) sent me this today:

Food: Eat, Memory: Line of Sight By GABRIELLE HAMILTON from the NY Times Sunday Magazine of 9/25/05.

Ms. Hamilton's article is apparently an excerpt from a forthcoming book called "Don't Try This at Home." This article is an "essay" about her experience with an apparently blind applicant for a job opening in the restaurant she owns and in which she is the executive chef. I encourage you to click on the title and read the article before you read this blog entry.

I don't know whether Ms. Hamilton's actions were prompted by a) painfully sincere political correctness; b) painfully sincere pity for people with disabilities; c) painfully sincere ignorance of the laws governing the employment of persons with disabilities, which would explain her failure to ask the most obvious of questions. Or d) All of the above.

In summary, Ms. Hamilton gave the job applicant a "trail" -- essentially a try-out in the kitchen during a dinner shift. He was applying to be a line cook, and his resume indicated adequate and appropriate experience, according to Ms. Hamilton. She was also impressed with his education -- particularly in the area of philosophy -- and his manner on the phone.

When he showed up, the first thing she noticed was "...that he was blind. His eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby." Okay... Colorful description. Is this lurid description of the alledgedly blind job applicant supposed to convince us that Hamilton is not psychotically politically correct?

Gamely, Ms. Hamilton began the interview and found his answers to be appropriate; he knew the jargon of the restaurant biz. Then, when he was shown the menu, "[h]e held it up to his face as if to breathe in its written contents, to discover by inhaling what it said in plain print. I felt more certain than ever when I observed this that he was blind, but naturally doubted myself because obviously the guy had worked in restaurants, something that - though we may joke - really can't and shouldn't be done."

I copied the material in quotes verbatim from Hamilton's essay, and I'm not sure of her meaning. Is Ms. Hamilton saying that it was unreasonable of her to think he had a vision impairment at this juncture? Is she saying that she doubted her observations because it was her professional judgment that he had worked in restaurants before, and therefore, could clearly not be visually impaired? To what is she referring when she says, "something that - though we may joke - really can't and shouldn't be done"? I'm honestly unclear.

Let's break this down.

  • If someone has a visible disability, it is permissible for the prospective employer to ask the ostensibly disabled applicant specific, job-related questions as to how they will perform the functions of the job. For example:
  1. "You appear to have a pretty severe vision impairment. Is the kitchen where you've worked in the past set up in a special way to accommodate your disability?"
  2. Or, "The kitchen is, as you know, a very busy, crowded and dangerous place. Do you have special procedures or use special tools to do your job, in light of your apparent visual impairment?"
  3. Or, "To be candid, you appear to be having difficulty reading the menu. If you have a vision impairment, then I need to ask you some questions about how you perform some of the essential functions of this job."
  • While it is true that it is illegal, under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, to discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of disability, it is also true that an applicant with a disability must be able to perform the essential functions of the job at hand. The legalese term for this is that the applicant must be "otherwise qualified". Giving this applicant the benefit of the doubt regarding his ability to perform the duties of a line cook was absolutely the correct thing for Ms. Hamilton to do, both morally and legally. Speaking from my own experience, I would not assume that someone who was severely vision impaired - blind - couldn't job, but would have had grave doubts. That said, the disabled applicant must be "otherwise qualified" -- that is, able to do the essential functions of the job, "with or without accommodations", hence the questions I mention above.
  • Regardless of the guy's visual status -- the fact that he didn't disclose his situation, particularly and most especially during the "trail", was nuts and completely self-destructive on his part. The law doesn't require a job applicant to disclose their disability until such time as they want/need to request an accommodation, including during the application process [I always ask if the building is wheelchair accessible, before I get there, for example].
  • Example of "the right way" to approach a disability issue at work: A visually impaired computer programmer is hired by a company. When she shows up at work, she mentions that she has a visual impairment [meaning something more serious than the kinds of impairments the rest of us wear glasses for], and that she needs a screen enlarging utility on her computer. If she is smart, she will also have medical documentation of her vision disability (which the employer can require), the name of the screen enlarging utility she wants to use, and info about how much it will cost, compatibility info and purchasing info. (This last is not necessarily her responsibility -- the employer has an affirmative responsibility to help a disabled employee figure out their accommodations -- but the reality is that if you don't have your shit together, your job viability is going to be severely limited by factors other than their initial disability.)

Ms. Hamilton handled this situation abominably, whatever her "well-intentioned" motivations. Her politically correct programming clearly overcame her innate intelligence and business acumen. (I'm assuming that she has the latter, if she's running a successful restaurant...) She seems to know that she handled it badly, but it is unclear to me if she understands the decision points at which she could have done things differently, and that this guy also screwed up, and not just because he had a disability and shouldn't have applied for a job to work in a busy kitchen.

The other bad actor was the blind guy. I'd love to know his story. Maybe his resume was legit, and he had had the experience he claimed to have. Maybe he had multiple sclerosis and was experiencing an exacerbation that was taking out his vision, suddenly and unexpectedly. It was still his responsibility to cop to it -- either before or at the very beginning of the "trail". Maybe he had lost his vision to diabetes, and hadn't come to terms with the extent to which he was now functionally limited. Who knows?

Maybe he lied about the experience on the resume and was trying to land a job and get his story straight later. If he'd been competent -- gee, sounds like it might have worked. Scary.

Speaking as one who has a) a visible disability; b) experienced employment discrimation over and over again; and who c) has routinely applied for jobs for which I was overqualified, in the hope of just getting any job at all, I will say that this guy is not playing for my team. Crips who behave in this way screw things up for the rest of us, who have to play the credibility game before we ever get to getting our references checked.


Katja said...

I agree that it's a bizarre story, and you've deconstructed it well.

I suspect that both parties' failures are due to pure ignorance. Those of us who have had our consciousness raised (that'll date me!) are few and far between.

Anonymous said...

Saw your post -- thought you would be interested in AFB's reaction to Hamilton's article:

Molly said...

Good breakdown of the Hamilton article. I read it twice because I couldn't figure out what she was trying to say. Had the blind man misrepresented himself, had she behaved badly? Then I realized that she doesn't bother to learn anything from the experience or make any conclusions, she just wants to tell a story that embarrasses and makes all involved look absurd. Unworthy and irresponsible journalism then, in my view.

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