In National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Familiar Messages about Design as a lever for Disability Rights

By Bess Williamson

This October, the U.S. Department of Labor celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month with a pledge of commitment to “a robust and competitive labor force,” a bold motto (“America’s Workforce: Empowering All”) and a poster showing a group of office workers smiling as they huddle around a laptop together.

National Disability Employment Awareness Poster, 2018. A group of office workers gathered around a wooden conference room. A gray-haired white man in a red shirt sits in a motorized wheelchair, speaking to three co-workers. The other workers – a white or Hispanic man, a white or Hispanic woman, and a younger African-American woman – face him, seemingly listening with broad smiles. Overlaid on the image is the slogan AMERICA’S WORKFORCE: EMPOWERING ALL. Image via

This image recalls a history that I chronicle in my book Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design. With its brightly-lit contemporary office and a group of workers representing different races, ages, and genders, the poster shows how design is often used to support an image of successful integration of disabled people into spaces of work. The man’s motorized wheelchair fits seamlessly into the modern-styled office; in fact, at first glance, we might mistake it for an ergonomic chair with its pronounced armrests and black leather covering. The ease of interaction in which the disabled man engages his co-workers in avid discussion, suggests that disabled workers can and should have a place at the table of the American workplace.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month calls back to a history of U.S. public programming to encourage greater employment of people with disabilities, much of which similarly depicted disabled people using the latest technology to achieve as workers. The annual campaign is an expansion of National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week, which was established by President Harry S. Truman in 1945 as a part of the effort to reintegrate soldiers returning from World War II with disabilities including lost limbs, hearing, or sight. The poster announcing the 1951 version, by then shortened to “Employ the Handicapped Week,” presented a colorful drawn illustration of a man wearing a prosthetic arm and operating an industrial gauge with a metal “split-hook” style prosthetic hand.

Hire the Handicapped poster. A colored-pencil drawing of a dark-haired white man operating a scale or gauge. The man, dressed in a creased gray shirt, hunches over to look at the gauge while holding a beaker with one hand and steadying the scale with his a metal prosthetic hand. Text above him reads “America needs ALL of us” and at the bottom of the poster, “HIRE THE HANDICAPPED through State Employment Service Local Offices.” Via

This image fits among many depictions in this time of male disabled amputees performing tasks using the latest in what were called “artificial limbs.” Most famously, Harold Russell, an amputee veteran of World War II, appeared in the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives wearing two split-hook hands with which he ably lit matches, held beer glasses, and even punched a man who criticized his military service. Like Russell, the man pictured in this poster illustration uses the prosthetic hook actively, and in a high-tech position that suggest not only employment, but skilled employment.

Notable, too, is the continued use of the term “all” in these publicity campaigns. The U.S. government often issued policies promoting disabled employment with the message of inclusion as a common-sense move to eliminate the wasteful neglect of this hard-working population. However, we might consider what a different meaning “ALL of us” had in 1951 as opposed to the “Empowering All” message of 2018. In 1951, the emphasis in disabled employment campaigns was on white men, especially war veterans, to be incorporated into a workforce that was deeply segregated by race and gender. The 2018 image, by contrast, depicts an ideal workplace in which “all” implies inclusion on the basis of race, gender, and age as well as disability.

In both 1951 and 2018 publicity posters, design plays a role in the idealized inclusion of disabled workers. In both cases, the technologies that make disability visible seem to match the work environment, whether that is a technical laboratory or a conference room. Taken together, the posters reveal how important the image of an accomplished disabled worker has been to U.S. disability rights policy. The images here are not of pitiful “sufferers” of diseases nor innocent children in need of charitable aid. National Employ the Handicapped Week was one of the first federal disability efforts focused on social inclusion rather than medical or social support. While “awareness” alone was a fairly weak mechanism of change, these employment programs pre-dated any federal law governing inclusion in education or accessibility in architecture and transportation. These images show how central the notion of employment has been to the American image of a successful, and integrated, disabled person.


Bess Williamson is Associate Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of the forthcoming Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design (December 2018).


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