Downton Abbey: A Disability-Inclusive Workplace?

Editor’s Note: The following has been cross-posted from the U.S. Department of Labor’s blog.

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.

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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