Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Power, Privilege and Visions of Justice: A Tool of Oppression

Today I am going to simply describe events as they unfolded last night endeavoring to be objective. Wish me luck.
My local LGBT Center was sponsoring a class entitled "Power, Privilege and Visions of Justice." I was intrigued, so I sent an email saying I'd like to attend and asking that the instructor be told a blind person would be in the class.
Two weeks later, I attend the first class. As we are waiting for things to start, people are handed something in print. I am given nothing and told nothing. Class starts and a clipboard is circulated. I never receive it.
Going around the room, we introduce ourselves. I know when to speak because I know the person sitting directly next to me and can cue off of her.
Next, we engage in an activity in which we are to raise our hand if we agree with this or that statement. At the appropriate points, I dutifully raise my hand without any notion of what my fellow classmates are doing.
Asked to give examples of oppression, I mention that The Center's prostate support group was listed as a "gay men's" group and point out bisexuals aren't included. I am told we will not be discussing such things in this class.
After being directed to read part of our syllabus silently, we are asked a series of questions as feedback so the instructor can decide about certain aspects of the course. Then we are told our assigned reading will be at the center's desk beginning the following morning. The expectation is that we will come back to pick it up.
At the end of class, I wait until the room is empty before approaching the instructor. First, I make sure he was told I would be in class and when I learn he knew, I tell him all the aspects of class that bothered me. It was as if he had never considered any of it. His only thought was that he might have to read the materials aloud to me. Or, well, the parts he thinks are important.
I'm thinking about not returning to this class.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Left Out

This is becoming ridiculous. Utterly. Ridiculous. I just read an email promoting a concert that should have filled me with longing to attend. Instead, when I saw the "no electronics and no talking" venue rule, I immediately thought, "Excuse me? Blind people might need talking to describe visual aspects of the show and we might need our electronics to get there or to read while we wait. Are you planning on banning books and newspapers too?"
It would seem that I cannot avoid noticing policies, procedures, and language that excludes disabled people. Everywhere I turn, everything I hear, the ways disabled people are excluded have suddenly become impossible to ignore.
Here are some that happened in less than 48 hours:
1. Everyone in the world is posting photos to Facebook without any descriptive tags. The latest craze is to "repost" those you like, again without descriptive tags..
2. My local radio station of choice is giving away Hawaiian vacations. To enter, you must input words into an inaccessible form on their website.
3. A musician who had to have seen me enter the tiny room as well as get up and use the restroom didn't provide context for visual gestures etc in his patter.
4. A list of the "civil rights movements" of the recent past included everything except the disability rights and immigrant rights movements..
There has never been a time when I did not see such practices, but suddenly they have become commonplace. While it is conceivable that there has recently been an exponential increase, it seems more likely that I have somehow changed. Honestly, it would be great to change *me* back.
Noticing exclusionary practices when you are a part of the excluded group is upsetting. The most benign interpretation is that you never entered the mind or minds of those shaping the procedures. For a while, it is possible to believe that is exactly the situation. Over time, faith erodes and you begin to wonder how anyone can not consider disability with such persistence. The question running through your mind becomes, "Is this willful ignorance?" At your most skeptical, you contemplate global conspiracies to eliminate people like you from the human consciousness. After all, out of sight is typically out of mind and what can't be seen can't be disturbing.
When your perception of such circumstances increases, it is akin to constantly bumping your injured thumb on EVERYTHING. Metal ease is no longer possible.
This is in fact impacting my quality of life. Literally. I am trying to make peace with the continual bombardment. Perhaps if I assume I'm going to be left out I can find some sense of belonging. I am, at least, in good company.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

History Lesson

This week I offer a pair of pieces that have grown from my experiences with the Occupy Movement.

To get yourself in the appropriate mood, imagine yourself crammed into one of those chairs with desk attached as a person stands before the room with a blackboard as backdrop. a
In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act which included Section 504 containing arguably the most ground-breaking sentence in terms of disability rights. a
“No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Forty one words that would change the face of employment, education, and public access for the then approximately 35,000,000 disabled people in the United Sates. aFour years after the passage of the law, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) had yet to sign the regulations that would allow for implementation and enforcement. a
Frustrated passed endurance and schooled by their struggles over more than twelve years as well as the efforts of other civil rights groups, disabled people took action organizing protests at ten sites across the country, including Washington DC and the federal building in San Francisco. aWhile the other nine protests ended in a couple of days, the one in San Francisco stretched twenty five days. a
The occupation in Washington DC is particularly of note because of the reason it was unable to continue. aThe Secretary of HEW Joseph Califano, who was being pressured to sign the 504 regulations, ordered no food or medicine be allowed into the building. aCalls to the press to publicize this decision went unanswered and the protestors were forced to leave. a
UC Berkeley's campus in the 1960s is usually acknowledged as the birthplace of the disability rights movement in the United States. aFrom one man in a wheelchair (Ed Roberts) matriculating to the formation of the Physically Disabled Students Program to the founding of the first Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, the Bay Area was the "cradle of disability rights." aBy 1977, the activists were educated, savvy, and determined. aThey were also done with segregation and their second class status. a
I want you to imagine the situation for a moment. aA bunch of wheelchair users, blind people, Deaf people, people with developmental disabilities, and others with disabilities set forth to occupy a building that lack simple things like accessible bathrooms. aSome needed assistance to eat, dress, or perform bodily functions. aSome were dependent upon respirators. aMany had medical conditions and extended occupation presented a major health risk. aStill, one hundred and twenty five of them stayed for twenty five days. a
Fortunately, the city of San Francisco was there to help and many occupiers credit their ability to stay to this support. aThe Mayer sent over mattresses and portable shower heads. aGrocery stores donated food and the Black Panther Party cooked it. aLabor unions offered support. aSeveral priests stayed with the occupiers to provide physical assistance. aWith the support of an entire city, an "army of cripples" managed something not seen before or sense.
To keep the occupation going, people were assigned tasks and consequently learned new skills. aAs had been the practice within the movement for some time, disabled people helped each other with the blind carrying out physical acts while wheelchair users might read print materials or be sighted guides. a What came into being was as Judy Heuman one of the organizers described it, "a little community" with transformative power. a
One day, a group of occupiers played "I Wish" and a young woman who used crutches said that a month ago she would have wished to not be crippled instead beautiful, but now she knew she was beautiful. a
Eventually, it was decided that a small contingent must travel to Washington and directly lobby Joseph Califano and if possible President Carter. aA DC labor union provided a moving-type truck to transport the activists around DC. aA wheelchair user would ride the lift up and wheel into the back of the truck. aWith everyone inside and the door left open slightly for ventilation, the wheelchair users would hold tight to the chairs ajacent so that instead of banging together around turns or at stops, they at least shifted in a mass. a
The goal became stalking Califano from vigils outside his home to "educating" the neighborhood children to appearing outside whatever building he happened to be inside. aA candlelight ceremony was held outside President Carter's local church. aUnfortunately, the protesters were unable to meet with anyone actually able to help.
Then, suddenly, Califano signed the regulations and in hindsight he sees it as one of his more notable acts. aOddly enough, it took two days for the San Francisco federal building occupiers to disband. aSome say it was because they wished to scrutinize the regulations to make certain they had not been watered down. aSome say it was so they could clean up the mess they'd made. aSome say it was because most of them finally felt like they'd found "their" community and didn't want to leave it for a less hospitable world. a
A landmark moment in U.S. protest history, few people know of the occupation of a federal building by one hundred twenty five disabled people, yet it is incredibly relevant today. aAs Occupy protestors gather, march, sleep, eat, and work to change the world, I hope each remember that disability is the one marginalized group joined without warning or choice. aLet disability matter now so that down the road those of you who become one of us inherit an inclusive world. Don't leave us out because tomorrow you do not want to be one of those left out.

Below are a list of materials I reviewed to refresh and expand my knowledge of the events.
NPR's coverage of the 25th anniversary of the 1977 events is here.
An article containing a great deal of historical context as well as specifics to the 1977 protest is here.
I also skimmed someone's paper for more context and you can find the PDF here.
In general, I highly recommend:
Joseph Shapiro, No Pity, People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement
(New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993),
And Wikipedia has a very comprehensive entry here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


This week I offer a pair of pieces that have grown from my experiences with the Occupy Movement.

At the start, I want to make it clear that I am completely behind the Occupy Movement and with all my heart hope it succeeds. I have never experienced such an open, engaged, and collaborative group of people while at a march or protest. I encourage you to find your local Occupy Event and go forth to participate. My instincts tell me that this is the beginning of something that will shape our lives for decades to come.
A couple of weeks ago, my journey began with a question: how are disability issues being framed in the context of Occupy Wallstreet? Googling didn't yield anything interesting. Neither did poking around various websites. Independent news media didn't seem to realize disability even had a place within the movement. I kept looking.
Meanwhile, a Declaration of Grievances was released and a sentence jumped out and smacked me.
"They[corporations] have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one's skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation."
I was floored that disability was not included in this sentence, until I thought about it. Among disabled people who can work, there is a sixty percent unemployment rate. I suppose when disabled people aren't likely to be in most workplaces, they are forgotten when it comes to inequality and discrimination.
Unfortunately, disability is not a magical shield offering protection from the economic reality currently confronting most U.S. residents. We face foreclosures, lay-offs, loss of health insurance, increases in children's college tuition, and salary cuts. In fact, about the only area where we have some protection is education for state vocational rehabilitation services assist with tuition and related expenses IF YOU QUALIFY.
then there are the economic realities specific to disability. The so-called "safety net to protect our vulnerable members" has holes through which you can drive a tank. Our benefits are being cut, cost of living increases are a distant memory, and qualifying for assistance has become harder than ever. Part of the 99% and part of this country, we are somehow still not part of the discourse.
When Occupy San Diego began to gain momentum, I started to look for signs that it was considering the needs of disabled participants. Finding none, I emailed a friend involved in the General Assembly and voiced my question. The GA had considered physical access to the occupation site and were open to other input, which of course I gave. From the changes I saw on the website as well as her feedback, I know my concerns were heard.
I went to the first march hopeful that while the national movement was possibly not including disability, at least my local part of the movement was being clueful. That attitude lasted through realizing bull horns obscure lip-reading. It survived the person with me and standing next to me being told, "She's so brave for coming here." It did not, however, last after the third time steps were a part of the march route.
I have yet to be able to get back to Occupy SD since it isn't precisely something I can do on my own. My contact tells me they want to educate themselves on able-bodied privilege and I hope I can be a part of that process.
In the interim, I continue to seek out press coverage. And I continue to be frustrated. Inclusive organizing principals are touted, but disability is nowhere to be found. As people speak about the various movements that have come before and helped give birth to this one, they mention King and Stonewall and women's liberation. They do not touch upon Ed Roberts, the independent living movement, or disability rights.
In fact, they do not even acknowledge the longest takeover of a federal building in U.S. history was carried out by 125 disabled people for 25 days in April of 1977. This is why The next post is a history lesson.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Grey's Anatomy of Appearance

With a plastic surgeon as one of the regular characters, Grey's Anatomy has more than the average dose of appearance-related storylines. There was the woman whose face was entirely rebuilt so she didn't recognize herself. There was the husband who had become a recluse because of chronic growths. There was even a man having a face transplant. And now they've done multiple storylines involving children with facial birth defects.
This passed Thursday, I was struck by the way one doctor articulated why an infant needed surgery. In arguing for who she considered the "best" surgeon for the job, she gave a long list of all the ways the boy's appearance would impact his life from social isolation to who he took as a prom date to the job he landed to who he married. To me, it felt like a laundry list of how I know social standards of beauty have, well, messed with my life. Social isolation as a child? Check. Prom? Never went. Spouse? Still single at age thirty nine. Job? The jury is out on that one because I don't have the energy for employment.
I was struck by the difference between how people talk to me about appearance versus the way this show did. When I get frustrated by the negative consequences of the societal evaluation of how I look, people often very gently tell me I'm wrong. I get lectures on how complicated relationships are or explanations about how nobody at my age has an easy time making friends. My expectations are too high. My devaluation has nothing to do with how I look.
In less than sixty seconds of dialog, a television show pretty much substantiated every feeling I've had about how my appearance – or rather how society perceives it–has impacted my life. While painful to hear, it was also liberating because unlike what people say to me, this was akin to an uncensored opinion that nobody thought you'd overhear.
My question is this: why do people who love me show such, excuse the term, blindness when it comes to this? Is it harder for them to accept the reality I inhabit than it is for me? Perhaps it's a sort of empathy gone awry. Nobody likes to think their friend will have a hard life where people will judge them harshly and they especially do not want to share such a negative prognosis with the person who will have to experience it.
I liked the clean, clear perspective shown in Grey's Anatomy because it described reality. In denying this reality, as a society we actually further perpetuate the problem for you cannot address what you are not willing to acknowledge. Far better to find a solution than to engage in further burying our heads in the sand.
and in terms of solving the problem, there are really two choices. We either change people to fit the definition of acceptable appearance or we alter the definition itself. Clearly, I have a strong preference as to which path we take.
I find it fascinating that we teach our children to not judge based on appearance and yet we somehow do not actually change anything because those kids grow up to have the same, in my opinion warped, beliefs about our outer shells. It is one of those cases where actions don't simply speak louder than words, they in fact drown out the words.
One part of the storyline made me extremely happy. A doctor told the mother, "We're going to make this handsome felllow even more handsome." That's the kind of thinking that might have an effect.