Disabled Speech Matters

Photo of Michael, a client at Lifeworks, wearing an orange "Disabled Speech Matters" t-shirt that he designed.

Photo of the back of Michael's orange t-shirt. Text on shirt reads "Do not mock my speech ever!" “Do not mock my speech ever! Ask for clarification. I will say it again,” reads the back of Michael’s bright orange t-shirt. Michael, who works in event security at various stadiums and venues around the Twin Cities, designed the t-shirt after his speech was mocked by a colleague at an event he was working earlier this summer. Michael says this isn’t the first time something like this has happened in his career. This time though, he wanted to do something meaningful to raise awareness about his experience. Rather than shame those who have talked down to him for the way he speaks, he hopes that taking action will encourage others to treat workers with disabilities with respect and dignity.

Michael enjoys the work he does. For the last few years, he has had the opportunity to work security at events such as Minnesota Vikings games. He has proven through his hard work that he is a capable employee like anyone else would want to be, so it came as a surprise when a coworker mocked his speech during a conversation. “This was beyond unprofessional to me,” he says. “Why would you do that? Do not mock my speech. It’s not okay.”

When Michael started working at his current role, he remembers attending a training on how to interact with guests and employees in wheelchairs, but he says there was no “specific verbiage addressing how to interact with a person with a disability, or perhaps more accurately, to not mock people with disabilities.” Michael offered to train his fellow employees on disability inclusion, but when his offer wasn’t acted on, he turned his focus externally so that others could better understand his experience.

The idea for “Disabled Speech Matters” came to Michael shortly after the incident. “At home, I wrote down my message on the computer. My friends and family said this was a cool idea. Let’s do it!” Michael quickly got to work on the design of the t-shirt. On the front is the phrase “Disabled. Speech. Matters. Promote Awareness.” Michael hopes to raise money by selling the t-shirts to bring greater attention to the barriers people with disabilities face in the workplace. He hopes to turn these efforts into action by holding a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol “to put funds in [speech] technology and more training” in October for National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Photo of Michael with the staff at Minnesota Bank and Trust, a division of HTLF Bank. They are all wearing the Disabled Speech Matters t-shirts that Michael designed.Michael chose the t-shirts to be pink and orange so that they can’t be ignored. The back includes a list of sponsors that helped support the production of the t-shirt, including Minnesota Bank & Trust, a division of HTLF Bank. Sue Ellen Toppings, the On-Site Manager at their Minnetonka branch, said, “We are excited to be sponsoring Michael’s t-shirts, embracing our company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion that creates the foundation of our collective strength as a community. Together, we celebrate unique experiences and diverse perspectives, ensuring everyone is treated with dignity and respect.”

To promote his cause and sell more t-shirts, Michael set up a GoFundMe page that folks can contribute to. Michael notes that these funds will help market his advocacy efforts. He also started a Facebook page where folks can buy a t-shirt and stay connected with Michael as he pushes for a rally at the Capitol.

Photo of Michael wearing his orange Disabled Speech Matters t-shirt and smiling in his apartment.Michael recognizes that what he experienced is something that other people with disabilities face both at work and in our community. One barrier to disability inclusion in the workplace is the perception that an employee with a disability lacks the necessary education, training, experience, or skills to perform their job responsibilities. Many organizations are taking meaningful steps to build a culture of disability inclusion. However, there is still a long way to go before workers with disabilities are fully valued as employees. This reality leaves many workers with disabilities in a position where they need to advocate for themselves. “Don’t let people walk on you. Get angry but in a positive way. Don’t become bitter,” Michael advises to those facing similar discrimination.

By advocating for himself, Michael hopes to change the realities that people with disabilities face in their jobs. His message reminds us that even though someone may communicate differently, their contributions and work ethic should be acknowledged. Michael plans to continue working at the job he loves and is just getting started in his work to drive change.

Don’t let people walk on you. Get angry but in a positive way.