Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Making It About the Person

Yet again life pushes my planned post aside for something more of the moment. Seems to be a theme lately.
When a disabled person asks for an accommodation, the subsequent exchange typically becomes focused on the individual making the request. It is about what *they* need, why *they* need it, and how *they* will be given it. Viewed from that personal perspective, blame, judgment, and criticism are far easier and more likely to happen. Moreover, it pits the individual against a system, which is daunting and disempowering.
I grant you that when a single person makes an accommodation request, it is easy to frame the entire thing around the individual. If you can make it about *them* and *their* needs, then once it is done, nothing further must happen and you can see the individual as one of those annoying disabled people who always wants something special. The alternative, of seeing the request as one person pointing out an area in need of improvement, is far more challenging and represents a kind of thinking that naturally makes necessary broader changes. Should a wheelchair user point out an event is held in an inaccessible location and it is viewed as demonstative of a larger concern, then not only does that person need to be accommodated, but other events must be planned with similar considerations in mind. Furthermore, any failing cannot be foisted onto the requesting individual because they were just pointing out the problem.
There are probably other ways of deconstructing accommodation requests, but for now I want to stick with these two because I believe they represent the medical and social model of disability beautifully. The medical model says disability is a result of a specific body not being able to do specific tasks. (Inherent is the assumption that you *should* be able to do those tasks in a specific way.) The social model explains disability as a function of societal structure where the individual is only disabled because the world functions in one way and the individual functions in another. (For an excellent demonstration of the concept, read about hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard in the 19th century.)
This has suddenly become crystal clear in my life as I deal with the latest bit of insanity. The short story is That I volunteered to be the liaison between the LGBT Center and a person promoting a documentary on bisexuality. It took me a while to get to reading the literature, but when I did and got clarification, I discovered I was helping to promote an event where I would not be able to follow the film because certain portions were in French and German with English subtitles only. I got rather annoyed and took a few days before deciding I could not be involved in the event.
The LGBT Center supported my choice, but the person promoting the documentary decided to take the issue to the Bi Forum's discussion group. She made it about me. " Jen has been in the forefront in organizing the event for August, but when she found out this film had some subtitles, which she is unable to read, she has felt compelled to pull out all together." She went on to ask if anyone knew how I could be accommodated, although I'd explained it to her in an email, and asked if someone else would like to promote the event in my stead.
By using my name, by saying "can't read," and by minimizing the subtitles with "some, this woman has made it about me, my inability to do something, and that I am upset over a trivial thing. From my perspective, this is not about me but about anyone with a print-related disability and I simply pointed out a flaw and backed out of promoting an event that was inaccessible. Juxtaposing the two ways of viewing the same situation in light of the medical and social models of disability I thought might be illustrative to my readers.


jesse-the-k said...

Bingo! What an excellent analysis of a lousy situation.

The medical model fails along many dimensions, but here's one in particular: it demands that the personal requesting the accommodation needs the accomodation. So a hearing wheelchair user can't advocate for CART, nor a deaf person speak up for alimentary issues.

Jen said...

Excellent point which actually did contribute to the situation I described. She was unable to see that I was working from a broader based of overall access because she assumed blind people only have concerns for what blind people need.

I am still so angry about this that I want to do something more, but I can't quite come up with something both cathartic and not utterly petty. I hate it when I insist I behave like a grown up.