Last week I had the privilege of discussing workplace bullying and disability at the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium, an annual conference sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the feedback I received, I believe that my presentation offered a useful contribution to the conference. (More on that below.) In addition, for me personally, the biggest gift of the conference was being able to experience it and learn from other participants.
I’ve been to dozens of academic and professional conferences during my career, but this was my first attendance at a larger event where people living with various disabilities — in this case, especially those with visual impairments — formed such a significant share of fellow participants. One might claim that I was long overdue in this regard, and I would strongly agree. It is a perspective-changing thing to spend an extended period of time in such a setting, to be in a very different kind of normalcy. Many of the lawyers, advocates, and scholars are living with disabilities that happen to be among the focal points of their work. Substantively, this diverse mix positively influenced the quality, depth, and authenticity of exchanges on topics that are sometimes understood and treated superficially.
Conferences, symposia, and workshops have their own cultures or vibes. Some are friendly, while others are stuffy. Some help to foster a sense of community and inclusion, while others feature preening and posturing. The tenBroek event is a community builder, where people hatch ideas, teach and mentor one another, and renew friendships and acquaintances. It’s not as if everything is all hearts-and-flowers consensus. Among other things, there were earnest discussions about the need for more racial diversity among speakers and attendees. Nevertheless, the tenBroek symposium serves as an important annual gathering spot for folks interested in legal and policy issues concerning disabilities of all types.
Workplace bullying and disability
The session on bullying, harassment, and the civil rights of persons with disabilities was the final panel of the conference, and I happened to be the last speaker on it. This gave me an opportunity to explain the basics of what we know about bullying and mobbing at work, then go into why existing employment protections have proven inadequate to provide relief to so many abused workers. I then discussed the Healthy Workplace Bill and why it’s needed.
Although we have long understood that work abuse can cause mental disabilities or exacerbate current ones, we know a lot less about the experiences of those with physical disabilities and workplace bullying. During my remarks, I said that we would benefit greatly by learning more about that.
I also put in plugs for two organizations whose overall missions are very consistent with the work being done by folks at the conference, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (link here) and Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (link here), both of which I’ve mentioned frequently on this blog. (In fact, it was my connection with Prof. Michael Perlin, a mental health law expert who is active in both of these communities and serves on the NFB board, that led to my invitation.)
About Jacobus tenBroek
I also learned a little bit about Dr. Jacobus tenBroek , the NFB’s founder and a remarkable individual. The NFB’s Lou Ann Blake, in a 2006 biographical profile about tenBroek (link here), wrote the following:
Most Federationists know that Dr. Jacobus tenBroek founded the National Federation of the Blind in 1940. However, today in 2006, thirty-eight years after his death from cancer on March 27, 1968, the majority of Federationists may not be aware that Dr. tenBroek was also a constitutional law scholar, a civil rights activist, a leader in the reform of social welfare, and a distinguished national and international humanitarian. From his days as a law student until his death, Dr. tenBroek produced thousands of written documents, including letters, speeches, law review articles, and books.
Wow, what a powerhouse. No wonder his spirit helps to drive this conference.