I was recently recalling the story of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s novella “Of Mice and Men.” For those who missed this classic, Steinbeck wrote of two migrant workers, George and Lennie. Lennie was a bulky man with an intellectual disability. His life’s dream was to have a farm where he would raise rabbits because he loved touching soft animals. George was Lennie’s protector.
This classic is now a part of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books as listed by the American Library Association because of its offensive language and racial stereotypes, and, some say, the derogatory messages about the developmentally disabled. It was required reading for me as a high school student, as it was for my children. Yes, it is not easy to read because of the overt prejudice and discrimination but it was historically accurate for the time depicted.
The title comes from a stanza of Robert Burns’ poem To A Mouse,
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
This novella depicted the life of the migrant worker, always traveling to find the work that may lead them to a better life.
Lennie had a dream of a rabbit farm. From the beginning, despite our hopes, we know it won’t become his reality. I recall the classroom discussion around our dreams of what would constitute a “better life” and who or what, could support them or obstruct them.
October is Disability Employment Awareness Month. As with Lennie, the label of “disabled” for too many is an obstacle for the goal of employment. The term “tyranny of low expectations” is often used when those with good intentions minimize the dreams of employment for those with intellectual disabilities. Knowing the historical context of this story, Lennie may never have seen his goal of owning a rabbit farm. But times have changed, and we can work to remove the obstacles in the way of dreams of the disabled. Identifying and providing reasonable accommodations or exploring job carving where portions of a “dream” can be realized are two ways where employment opportunities are available.
Reading “Of Mice and Men” in high school accompanied my career decisions and helped acknowledge the path to my dreams. With Disability Awareness Month, how can each of us be an enabler of dreams rather than protector?