Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Where Law Cannot Tred

In any civil rights movement, political activism has a key role. Same sex marriage is only one example of political activism utilized to change laws that will directly benefit individuals. Without political pressure, the American's with Disabilities Act would not have become law, but as so many pointed out on its twentieth anniversary, progress hasn't met expectations. The position people with disabilities inhabit in our society still reflects a second class citizenship where we are not full participants in the greater world. Why?

Disability, as a marginalized group status, is unique for a physical difference and/or "inability" is readily identifiable. In the nineteenth century, we saw how a tangible bodily variation effected societal status. Phrenology – the practice of determining traits such as intelligence based on the size and shape of the human skull – was used to rationalize the oppression of blacks. Today, those physical differences amongst the various races are considered irrelevant. On the other hand, disability is commonly defined as an inability to function in two or more major life areas such as school, work, mobility, and socially. Thus, group membership provides All that is necessary to justify our second class citizenship.

If my status was entirely based upon and solely limited to the fact that I cannot see, I might be willing to accept my position, but this is not the case. Take a moment to really consider this. How, after all, is my intelligence or competency in question simply because I cannot see? A person with a cognitive disability might be limited in terms of intellectual goals. Jobs requiring manual dexterity or physical strength are still legitimate options, yet an entire system of social services agencies exist just to convince employers to hire people with such conditions. What I cannot do has little in common with the beliefs that characterize my social status.

Society takes the inability – a fact – and adds what it perceives to be the implications of that truth. These perceived implications are based on fear, ignorance, and even well-intentioned compassion. Sometimes, as with blindness, it's inaccurate conclusions such as sight is necessary to bake. Other times it's more subconscious, such as fear shaping conclusions. The discomfort felt around a person with Down's Syndrome minimizes a desire for contact and the assumption that the individual has nothing meaningful to contribute because of their intelligence is an easy excuse. Even compassion leads down an erroneous road for often Deaf people are thought not to enjoy music and left out of invitations to go clubbing. (FYI, the base in of loud music can be felt.)

This crucial element of implication in the chain from difference to discrimination cannot be attacked with laws. It is embedded in the minds and hearts of people, perpetuated by what we teach our children, and magnified by a rigid societal structure. (Rather than embracing the idea of ramps, people are physically barred from public spaces, then devalued because they cannot access the places necessary to, say, perform a job. If disabled people are to be freed of their second class citizenship, hearts and minds will need to change.

Consider two pieces earlier published in this blog. You Can't Play gave a list of ways people like me are relegated to a lesser position and very few can be fixed by legislative act. Is There Disablism in Dating? argues that attitudes about disability subtly shape partner preferences. Is Congress going to pass a law that requires people to find me appealing as potential mate?

On the other hand, if we can alter the implication portion of the equation, it will ease the way for legislation or make it less necessary. After all, a law is only needed when people aren't going to do the right thing on their own.

Does this mean I think political activism is pointless? No way. I do believe that shifting how people conceive of disability deserves more effort and attention. WE need spokespeople that immediately pop into American's minds when they think about disability. How many of you know who Judy Heuman is? Justin Dart? Steven Drake? I'm certain Ellen Degeneres and Jesse Jackson are both known to you. Can you even think of someone with a disability who is in the public eye changing how society perceives physical difference?

With this blog, I try to be one of those people, but first someone must stumble upon it. Many disabled folks are doing the exact same thing – using the web to educate. Sooner rather than later, I believe we will reach some critical mass and a few articulate disabled people will emerge from the cyber world into real life. Making use of all the lessons I've had about "positive language" and manifesting what you desire in your life, I'm jus going to put out there that I will be one of those people.


Steve said...

I didn't know who those three were, but I do now. Thank you.

In response to your question, I can of course name Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox. Except, one could certainly argue that the reason I can name them is because of their fame prior to becoming disability advocates. I concede that's true.

I can also name "That guy with the prosthetic leg blades" who was forbidden from participating in the Olympics because his blades were apparently giving him a superhuman advantage. Except, as I demonstrate, I can't name him... Google says "Oscar Pistorius".

Still though, even with ADA, and even with public awareness, there always will be lines that some people cannot cross. Consider Ted DeVitta and David Vetter, the two bubble children who had to live in a perfectly sterile environment. They could have in theory, walked around in spacesuits. Would society as a whole then be responsible for ensuring that there were no sharp edges anywhere nearby, in case one of them visited? Obviously, we should not be required to eradicate all microbial life on Earth solely for their benefit.

Jen said...

Hey Steve,
I spaced on Fox entirely. I admit he counts. Pistorius, though, was only in the public eye because of what happened and I don't think he was trying to address disability myths and misconceptions.

There's a key word in the ADA that just about every disabled person I know would immediately throw out in the case of the "bubble" kids -- reasonable. If they chose to go around in space suits, then I think a school they regularly attended would need to educate it's staff and students, make an effort to eliminate sharp things when possible, and make a good faith effort, but I don't think they should be held responsible if their best efforts aren't enough.