The Color Purple

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 30: Health

PROMPT: Week 30’s theme is “Health.” A person’s health has such an impact on everything in his or her life. Do you know of any health related events in an ancestor’s life? What about an ancestor who worked in medicine or health care? 
My Granduncle James with a nice catch.

My granduncle James Robert Williamson (1912-1981) was prevented from achieving some of his personal life goals because of his health. In his time, he might have been described as “disabled.” The more appropriate—and sensitive—term now in use is “person with a disability.”

While James was in elementary school, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. His first seizure occurred on a family vacation–a road trip from their home in Pittsburg, Kansas, to visit family in Washington state. The incident had nothing to do with the trip itself; it was just the first time that it had happened.

James received a diagnosis and was prescribed medication that proved helpful in reducing the frequency and severity of his seizures.

James was a skilled woodworker, and he aspired to be a high school industrial arts teacher. Sadly, his disorder disqualified him from obtaining a teaching certificate.

I don’t know how much woodworking he did as an adult, but a beautiful example of his handiwork has been a part of the decor in my parents’ living room for many years: an exquisitely made table that will remain a family heirloom, for sure.

A high school shop class, 1962.

A typical teenager, James went out on dates. At some point, though, he abandoned any thoughts of getting married. My understanding is that this was due to fears that children he fathered might inherit his disorder. And the thought of marrying and forgoing having children struck him as an unreasonable thing to ask of a prospective bride.

These were issues I never really knew much about until after James had passed away. But, as I was thinking of this post and his disorder, I had to wonder:

Would James have had more options had he been alive today?

There is no doubt that a lot more is known in general about the brain today than was known in his lifetime. But do we know anything more about epilepsy now? Are different medications available now that had not been available in my granduncle’s lifetime?

I cannot answer these questions, but I would be interested in the answers I would get from a neurologist.

What about his fears of a child inheriting his epilepsy? Do we know more now about genetics than was known during his lifetime? Again, I don’t have the answer, but I’m sure a geneticist could tell me.

The fact that it is now common practice for couples looking to start a family to first have a consultation with a genetic specialist—often referred by the obstetrician—makes me think that whether or not more is now known about genetics, specialists are readily available in this day and age. I doubt that option would have been available to James—certainly not in the small Kansas town in which he was born and lived all his life.

As far as James having more vocational options were he living today, my cursory research leads me to think that teacher certification would have been possible for him. At the very least, he would have been perfectly within his rights to appeal a denial of his application.

That is due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress in 1990.

Here is what the Epilepsy Foundation has to say about the provisions of the ADA with regard to Safety-Sensitive Jobs:

People with epilepsy are successfully employed in a variety of jobs that might be considered high-risk: police officer, firefighter, welder, butcher, construction worker, etc. Epilepsy is a highly variable disorder and it is difficult to generalize about safety issues. Since the term ‘epilepsy’ refers to a broad range of symptoms and underlying causes, the Epilepsy Foundation advocates individualized determinations when epilepsy appears to be relevant to job hiring and placement decisions. Individual evaluations should take into account the type of job, the required tasks, the degree of seizure control, the type(s) of seizures, whether the person has an aura (warning), the person’s reliability in taking prescribed anticonvulsant medication, any side effects of such medication, and any accommodations which would help the person do the job.

Employers often raise safety concerns and may try to exclude people with epilepsy from jobs involving public safety.

It may be useful to point out to employers that most people with epilepsy can be safely licensed to drive, and the current trend is to require a three-month seizure-free period prior to licensing. Surely, driving is more hazardous than the vast majority of jobs available in the U.S.

Epilepsy Foundation website

I do know that, as mentioned above, James had been licensed to drive and did so regularly. And, yes: surely, “driving is more hazardous than” teaching and woodworking, even with potentially dangerous equipment such as circular saws in use.

The Epilepsy Foundation goes on to say that, under the ADA, “employers may not exclude employees for safety reasons unless there is specific medical documentation, reflecting current medical knowledge, that the individual would pose a ‘direct threat’ to health and safety.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has defined “direct threat” as “a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”

The Williamson Family: James is at left, wearing overalls. To his right, his Aunt Toosie Williamson; to his left, his cousin, Margaret Oliver; Opal Lee Fields Williamson, wife of his father; and David Williamson (James’s father.). Seated is James’s aunt Jean Williamson Oliver.

I don’t know whether teacher certification was denied my granduncle because of Kansas or federal law, whether he was discouraged from applying, or if he was told that he could not apply. But it would appear that if he were denied certification today, he would have recourse should he wish to challenge the decision.

That process is to file a complaint with the EEOC or a state fair employment practices agency. The Epilepsy Foundation provides information on finding an attorney in one’s area should the complainant wish to engage one. (It is not required.)

One would assume that woodworking machinery is more sophisticated and safer now than in the 1930s when he would have been looking for a job. Due to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) by Congress in 1970, safety features such as auto shut off or safety guards, for example, are no doubt now standard, having been federally regulated starting during the last decade of James’s life.

My uncle was kind, mild-mannered, and soft-spoken—just like his father. Neither liked drawing attention to himself. It is therefore difficult for me to imagine James going to too much effort to challenge what might now be considered discriminatory behavior, but who knows?

James never spoke of his disorder (at least within earshot of me.) I don’t know how much epilepsy was stigmatized in his lifetime. I’d like to think that if he were alive today, he’d proudly wear a purple ribbon on March 26th—Epilepsy Awareness Day.

I’d also like to think that he would “like” social media posts of mine bringing awareness to epilepsy and the search for a cure during the month of November—Epilepsy Awareness Month.

But why wait until November? Thinking of you, dear James!

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