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Downton Abbey: a Disability-Inclusive Workplace?

Filed in Disabilities By on January 14, 2016

Like many people, I’m currently relishing escaping to Downton Abbey for an hour each Sunday night.  For those who haven’t succumbed to this show’s lure, it follows the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants on an English country estate during the early 20th century – a time of dramatic social change.

I’m well aware that on one level, the show is a soap opera in (very) fancy clothing. Downton’s “upstairs” residents seem to spend an inordinate amount of time dressing for and eating dinner, but that’s easy to accept because the costumes and conversations are such a treat.

Mrs. Patmore, the cook, experiences vision loss. Image credit: PBS

Mrs. Patmore, the cook, experiences vision loss. Image credit: PBS

Visual feast aside, though, the show has some serious subthemes. Most of these relate to changing social mores and are fairly transparent. But others are more nuanced, and one I’ve observed with interest over the years is the show’s depiction of disability-inclusive workplace practices.

As head of the estate and thus employer of many servants, the family patriarch, Lord Grantham, has on several occasions acted wisely when it comes to supporting employees with disabilities. While his character typically longs for the past, on this issue he’s very forward thinking − and I believe today’s employers can learn from his actions.

For instance, when Mrs. Patmore, the estate’s longtime and beloved cook, begins experiencing vision loss, Lord Grantham arranges for cataract surgery and lays out a return-to-work plan. This is the kind of thing that really excites us in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, because we’ve long trumpeted the importance of strategies for retaining the talents of workers as they acquire disabilities or develop age-related disabilities.

John Bates, the valet, uses a cane.

John Bates, the valet, uses a cane. Image credit: PBS

The show has also touched upon attitudinal barriers. Followers since the beginning may recall the prejudice directed at John Bates, who arrives in the first episode to serve as Lord Grantham’s valet and uses a cane due to a combat injury. At first, some of the other servants doubt his ability to fulfill his responsibilities, with one actively fanning the flames due to jealousy at being passed over for the job himself. Eventually, if not immediately, Lord Grantham supports Bates, declaring an end to any discussion of him leaving. Through our employer research, we know that visible CEO commitment is one of the most important factors in establishing a work environment that supports (and actively hires) people with disabilities. It works wonders in Downton Abbey, too.

Bates isn’t the only disabled veteran employed at Downton; for a short time, there is a valet named Henry Lang, who has post-traumatic stress disorder (referred to as shell shock), which manifests as extreme anxiety and sensitivity to his surroundings. In this case, both his employer and fellow servants are flexible and accommodating from the start, especially one whose brother had similar experiences; however, he does eventually leave his position.

It’s important to note that the show’s portrayal of disability has not always been stellar. To my knowledge, none of the characters with disabilities is played by an actor with a disability. And when estate heir Matthew Crawley returns from World War I with paralysis, necessitating the use of a wheelchair, the general consensus is that he can now never marry. Though accurate to the period, the storyline could have challenged the negative stereotype. Crawley spontaneously recovers, so all turns out well … until, of course, the plot turns for him once again.

Sadly, Downton Abbey is closing its doors at the end of the current season. But it’s my hope that its portrayal of flexible employment practices will help reinforce to 21st-century employers the importance of ensuring their doors remain open to all qualified workers, including those of us with disabilities.

Jennifer Sheehy is the deputy assistant secretary of labor for disability employment.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Love Downton Abbey, big fan of Jennifer Sheehy, so of course thoroughly enjoyed this fun, witty and insightful blog post. Thank you Jennifer!

  2. joy glicksberg says:

    Never realized this aspect of “serving” at Downton Abbey until read this perceptive article. Enjoyed its perspective and its apt writing. Many thanks.

  3. Paulann Pierson says:

    Though I work in the disabilities field, I had not really thought about this aspect of the Downton Abbey story line. Thanks for making it feel more “virtuous” to be watching what you have accurately described as a glorified soap opera.

  4. I was pleased to eventually read the caveat “none of the characters with disabilities is played bt an actor with a disability.” Well, that is a major issue for me. All of the above disabilities portrayed can easily be performed by any non-disabled. And the quick recovery from paralysis is overused, convenient gimmickry. DOWNTON ABBEY needs to do much more in the presentation of disability and actors with real disabilities to get me to return to watching it as a regular viewer.

  5. Anthony Crisi says:

    What resources does the Department of Labor have for persons with mental and psychological disorders, namely: Borderline Personality Disorder? Some person with this disorder, even though after completing school, such as hairdresser, find difficulty being hired or retained. And, when such persons cannot find work — gainful employment, how do they provide for their basic needs, food, clothing, shelter? What is available to them when they are considered adults and cannot afford basic necessities, without health insurance? After endless efforts and applications for work, such persons find continuous rejection; and, if hired, are soon fired or “laid off”. When all fails, would such persons qualify for disability? What resources can the Department of Labor provide?

  6. John J Jansen says:

    I enjoy Downton Abbey and I enjoyed this well written article.

    However, as a taxpayer I do not understand why someone with the title “Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment” is spending time composing such a piece. This would seem to me to be the work of a newspaper critic or a college professor. I do not see how the interests of the taxpayers or the disabled are served by such a piece.

    The national debt totals something near $18 trillion and why we are spending taxpayer funds on this blog and this well written piece is incomprehensible to me. If Ms Sheehy wishes to critique television shows I think she should start a blog and do that on her time and not on my dime.

    Once again the article was well composed and well written but I do not believe that is the purpose of a government functionary.