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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Berube Writes about Disability and Democracy

Michael Berube is a prolific and gifted scholar I admire very much. His observation about disability in American culture always make me think in new ways and are challenging at multiple levels. I just came across an article he wrote at Crooked Timber ( two days ago. Berube sarcastically writes that it is well past time to write about Obama and Clinton respective views on disability because "(a) no one knows the candidates have policy positions on disability and (b) policy positions on disability are not as important as flag pins." I urge readers to go to Crooked Timber and read what Berube has written as his words are as entertaining as they are thought provoking.

Racism, Segregation and Disability

It has been more than 60 years since Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play major league baseball. On April 15, 1947 Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers ending eighty years of segregation. Every April newspapers print stories about Robinson and the abuse he was subjected to by racists. This year has been no different. Stories about Robinson abound and on April 15 baseball players were permitted to wear the number 42 on their jersey (Major League Baseball retired Robinson's jersey number in 1997). Avid baseball fans are familiar with Robinson accomplishments on and of the field. School children are taught about Robinson's place in history and his refusal to respond to the most vile racist taunts. This year I grew weary of newspaper articles that seemed to focus on peripheral issues such as which current stars elected to wear the number 42 in Robinson's honor. Inspired to learn more, I went on line and came away even more impressed with Robinson's accomplishments. I learned that Robinson was much more than a gifted baseball player whose dignity highlighted the inherent wrongs of segregation. Robinson was a political activist in every sense of the word. For years he wrote a syndicated newspaper column, was an ardent supporter of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and forerunner of the civil rights movement.

Robinson's efforts were far greater than I had imagined and for the last two weeks have wondered why disability rights activists do not have a person of such character and fame. I have also wondered why disability rights in the broadest sense of the term has utterly failed to connect with other minority groups who encounter abuse, segregation, and purposeful discrimination. This disconnect is unfortunate because disabled people are among the most disenfranchised minority groups in this country (over 66% of all disabled people are unemployed) and are routinely subjected to shameful acts of exclusion and inexpressible cruelties—many of which are legal and socially sanctioned. The average American is taught that racism is wrong but that lesson does not extend to the rights of disabled people. Few care if disabled people are denied an education, segregated from their peers, and socially excluded. This angers me and reminds me of one of Martin Luther King most famous observations that touched millions: "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

King's famous phrase quoted above, was written on April 16, 1963 when King was in an Birmingham, Alabama jail. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” smuggled out of his cell one page at a time is considered a classic in world literature. It served as a clarion call to action because King noted that there were two types of laws—just an unjust. This led King to conclude that “one has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” and his letter provided the philosophical foundation for the Civil Rights Movement. There are four elements in King's letter that remain relevant today. First, the collection and interpretation of facts and the determination that injustice exists. Second, identification of injustice and a rally cry for change. Third, negotiation with the oppressors designed to eliminate injustice. Fourth, direct action against a specific injustice aimed to force change. All those subjected to injustice based on race or disability know real freedom and equality is never voluntarily given--it must be demanded by the oppressed. This was true in 1947 and 1963 for black men such as Robinson and King and for disabled people today who struggle against social isolation, invisibility, and a legal system that is hostile to disability rights. At issue for disabled people is a moral responsibility to oppose injustice, that is to overturn unjust laws and social norms or codes that compel and force them to obey social strictures that are inherently wrong. For instance, there was no logical reason for blacks to be ordered to sit in the back of the bus while whites sat in front. Likewise, all new mass transportation systems should be fully accessible to disabled people and there is no need for para-transit systems to exist.

In spite of two decades of activism and the passage of much legislation, segregation from mainstream society remains an all too common form of segregation disabled people encounter. The Americans with Disability Act, passed over seventeen years ago, was designed to prohibit discrimination against disabled people in terms of employment and requires most businesses and public spaces to take “reasonable” steps to accommodate them. Thus the ADA is comparable to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that, by establishing equal rights for minorities, provided a weapon for those struggling against injustice. While the Civil Rights Act has benefited many, it did not end injustice based on racial differences. Similarly, the ADA has benefited many but when the gains are measured against the gritty day to day reality disable people experience the law merely highlights the injustices that still exist. Thus I question what is the real value of the ADA and whether it is a just or unjust law. Needless social and architectural obstacles are the norm; for example elevators, if present, are made useless because they are locked; wheelchair lifts are often used to store trash, and bus drivers do not know how to operate a lift even though they are required by law to test it before they begin their work day. Such social and architectural injustices are accepted as inevitable, overlooked, and excused. This has led law makers to try and pass the ADA Restoration Act, an effort that amounts to tacit admission that the ADA had been gutted by the Supreme Court and that the law has failed to resonate with the general public.

King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” conjured up images of all that was inherently wrong with racial segregation. Robinson's skills on a baseball diamond and dignity off the field did much the same. The laws that upheld segregation were clearly unjust and overturned by nonviolent direct action. Fighting against injustice now has universal appeal and King’s words serve as a reminder of how debilitating injustice is on the minds of all humans who experience it. Given this, King’s words still serve us well as they have inspired a new generation to bring gross injustices to the surface so that they can be seen, opposed and vanquished. The battle against injustice is long and arduous but with perseverance disabled people world wide will some day win.