Can disability be part of the solution to Metro’s problems?

May 5, 2016 | Michael Murray, Chief Operating Officer, AAPD

On May 3rd 2016, when speaking about a deadly event on the DC Metro and WMATA’s failure to learn from past mistakes, Robert L. Sumwalt, a Presidentially appointed member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said:

“[Metro], historically speaking, has had a severe learning disability…Learning disabilities are tragic in children, but they are fatal in organizations.”

Is it a tragedy when a child has a learning disability? As a person with a learning disability and ADHD, I appreciate the challenges that come with having a learning disability. In third grade, I could not read or write my name. Now, at age 33, I am the Chief Operating Officer for the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), a major disability rights organization. I may have lost much of the hair on my head but I still have a learning disability. I am proud of that fact. My staff know that I will unashamedly ask how to spell anything. Working with me is like being in a spelling-bee. My colleagues also recognize the creativity, enthusiasm, and innovation I bring to our work. My life has not been the cause of tragedy. In fact, having a disability has enriched my life and those around me.

And I am by no means the exception. People with all kinds of disabilities have made tremendous contributions to our society, particularly in the workforce. As President Obama said, “Americans with disabilities lead thriving businesses, teach our children, and serve our Nation…they are innovators and pioneers of technology.  They carry forward our Nation’s legacy of hard work, responsibility, and sacrifice, and their contributions strengthen our economy and remind us that all Americans deserve the opportunity to participate fully in society.”

Knowing the above, why would anyone, especially someone representing the President, compare people with learning disabilities to the cause of a tragic death. Metro’s failure to improve does not mean they have a learning disability. Not only is it an inappropriate comparison with zero relevance to the cause of fatalities on Metro, it reinforces inaccurate stereotypes that lead to low expectations and bullying. Additionally, this statement insults current and potential Metro employees with disabilities. Mr. Sumwalt should be recruiting the diverse perspectives of people with disabilities, not inadvertently discouraging us from bringing our talents and skills to solve Metro’s problems.

So, in conclusion, let me speak directly to my intended audience:

  • Youth with disabilities: Keep your head up. Be proud of who you are! There is nothing shameful about having a disability. It is a natural part of the human experience and can be an asset. When people make insulting comments about disability, remember, they likely have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.
  • Sumwalt: You should publicly apologize. Your comparison was offensive and damaging. Most of us have said things we regret. When I screw-up, I accept responsibility and learn from my mistakes. Take your own advice and learn from this situation.
  • Metro: There are many outstanding problem solvers with disabilities. Including the unique perspectives of people with disabilities can lead to innovation and creative solutions. We welcome the opportunity to connect you with these valuable potential employees.


Edit: On May 6, 2016 Mr. Sumwalt issued an apology for his statements. You can read it here.

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