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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obama Inaugural Lies

For months I heard the incoming Obama administration describe the forthcoming inaugural as the most accessible in US presidential history. In the last week I heard a very different story about the inaugural emerge. Millions of people are expected to attend, the weather is projected to be cold, and security overwhelming. Bridges will be shut down, cars banned in a two mile radius of the Capital, elevators will be shut off, and mass transportation at crush capacity. The Presidential Inaugural Committee has not minced words: people with disabilities, the elderly, and small children will encounter numerous and overwhelming obstacles. According to Carole Florman, who I have sarcastically dubbed Ms. Sensitivity, the inaugural committee is "trying to paint a realistic picture". My fellow blogger Steve Kuusisto at Planet of the Blind has translated this statement into plane english:if you are disabled or elderly do not come to the inaugural. Yes, we get the message.

None of the above differs from what I have already written. Two things have changed: first, a few media outlets are picking up on this story. The Associated Press published a story today that contained a statement from the Presidential Inaugural Committee that is not just wrong but grossly misleading. No, Ms. Sensitivity did not put her foot in her mouth again. This time it was Kevin Griffis, a fellow committee member who stated "At every event that the Obama campaign did during the election, we wanted to be sure to be welcoming to Americans with disabilities, so this is not something new for us. I think just the scale is larger". This statement brings me to my second point. Mr. Griffis statement about access is as absurd as it is false. Multiple campaign events were not accessible. I know because I tried to attend several in the metropolitan area and they were not accessible. Other disabled people had the same problem. When I contact the the Obama campaign I was told access was not their responsibility and now the very same people are trying to tell me that insuring events are accessible is nothing new?

The lack of access at the inauguration is disheartening. Obama was swept into office promising change and his message was embraced by people with disabilities. Having a president that understands disability has energized many, myself included. Perhaps this is why I am so upset, campaign events were not accessible and now the inauguration presents identical access issues. This sort of disconnect is not uncommon. Large corporations often boast about access and use disabled people as part of their advertising campaigns. Yet, when a person with a disability appears nothing is easy and barriers are common place. For instance, Avis rent-a-car had an ad campaign that featured a disabled business man renting a vehicle who was all smiles. This was great advertising but the problem was it was divorced from my experience. When I made reservations with Avis the car with hand controls was rarely ready when I arrived. As I waited for my car I watched dozens of people leave and I assure you I was not smiling. I was just pissed off.

There is still time for the inauguration to be made accessible and inclusive. However, time is growing short. I am sure many people with disabilities will try to attend and I wish them luck. Organizers have included accessible bleachers and raised platforms at the National Mall. I just hope people with disabilities can get to these locations. If not I am reminded of my days at Columbia University where I earned my PhD. When I was a graduate student the Office for Students with Disabilities was in a building that was completely inaccessible. When I expressed my dismay to the administration they thought the lack of access was a technical problem, one that highlighted the barriers on campus. I hope the Obama administration does not use the same thought process.


Cecily said...

The Obama team's efforts towards accessibility have been pretty scattershot all along. While they did include a Deaf woman in the convention's performance of "Yes We Can", access for Deaf audience members was totally ineffective. Shoshanna Stern (the Deaf performer) writes that

"I was beyond thrilled that my parents were able to come and watch me, that is, until I discovered that my parents were seated, by the ADA people at the DNC (not the people who arranged my appearance) with all the other deaf people, almost behind the stage and three tiers up. None of them could see the stage at all and the interpreters couldn’t even hear parts of Obama’s speech from that distance. I was fortunate enough to meet a deaf delegate, Leah Katz-Hernandez, and a professor, Dr. Veith, that were sent by Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university for deaf people in the world. Even though they were on the floor, they were again seated in the ADA section there, and again, they could not see the stage or the interpreters. There were two interpreters on podiums to the left and the right of the stage, but unfortunately, they were probably not seen by a single deaf person in the Invesco Stadium that night."

It would be nice to see a more result-oriented approach to real accessibilty across the board.

william Peace said...

I will accept scattershot though I would characterize access as inherently difficult at Obama events. Those that plan Obama events really needs to get up to speed on access issues before they the press pounces on this subject.

Bluegrass Pundit said...

The Media continues to smooch Obama's butt
Time magazine is putting Barack Obama on the cover for the 15th time. You can see the covers here. This level of coverage is unprecedented. If the editors of Time were poodles, they would be humping Obama's leg. Now, the final insult has occurred. ESPN is broadcasting Obama's inauguration. We won't even be able to turn the channel to sports on inauguration day.

william Peace said...

Yes, the mainstream media loves Obama. Many politicians have enjoyed this sort of coverage only to experience the opposite type of attention.

Becs said...

Oh, look, it's all going to be okay. The AP says so.

repsac3 said...

It's obvious the transition folks could've used more or better help and advice in getting this thing just right (does anyone know what people/orgs were advising them on accessibility issues, and how qualified they were?), and I have little doubt that as long as people keep pressure on the Obama team as regards these issues, they will improve as time goes on.

That said, I think you may be being a little hard on them regarding the inauguration. It's an unprecedented event, with unimaginable logistical issues, I'm sure. Granted, it appears they didn't do as good a job as you or might've hoped. But before I go so far as to place blame, I'd need to know how hard they tried to get it right, and how much of the failure was foreseeable and within their control to prevent, vs how much was an on-site learning experience that, while it failed those in need of particular accessibility this time, won't next time.

(I think it was becs who brought up their having two signers at an event, but then putting the deaf folks who needed them behind the stage, where they couldn't see the signs. One time may be an unfortunate logistical accident where one hand wasn't aware of what the other was doing, but if they ever did that again, it'd be a whole other story.)

I just think that, no matter how good the accessibility advisors are, there are bound to be issues that they either didn't think of, or that they had no means to control. But as long as they were qualified, and did their best to avoid either scenario--which will be the crucial issue for me as I watch this story play out and judge the participants--I can't come down too hard on the Obama folks for failing... long as they learn from the failures that occur & do better the next time.

william Peace said...

Repsac3, I doubt Obama events will offer better access in the future. His run for the presidency started two years ago and access has been hit and miss at best. IN terms of the inauguration, I don't think I am being too hard. Like all Americans, people with disabilities have a civil right to be included. If the inclusion of people with disabilities was valued there would not be any problems with access. I have no tolerance for people that tell me "oh, we tried our best but access was just too hard to figure out". This excuse has been used for decades and highlights that almost 20 years later the ADA is still not perceived to be civil rights legislation.

I do not think the Obama people have learned one bit about access issues--that is physical access to events. Signers for deaf people has been problematic far more than once or twice. Events that are not accessible is not unusual. These problems are unnecessary and should have been corrected log ago.

repsac3 said...

I can empathize with your plight, but I think you expressed a view closer to the truth in your "party pooper" post. To my way of thinkin', it isn't as much a failure of Obama & his campaign or transition teams as it is a fundamental failure everywhere. How many of the accessibility issues surrounding the inauguration would disappear if DC was a more pwd-accessible city every other day?

Absolutely, such issues need to be considered & addressed by the individuals & groups drawing crowds for special events. As the second person quoted said at the PP post, they do need to make it a central concern from the start, rather than an afterthought or an add-on. But that's only a part of the problem. DC (& many, many other places) needs to be more accessible everyday, and if it were, it would be more accessible for the inauguration, too.

I just don't think it was incumbent on the Obama team to lay new sidewalks or put in more permanent ramps & railings--though it still would've been nice if they had--you know what I mean?

The only time I can think of where anything near that level of planning & refitting is done is when the Olympics are coming to town--& even then, I don't know how well they actually do with accessibility issues, but at least they have the time & the drive to refit the cities for their purposes. Most of the time where special occasions are concerned, we deal with the infrastructure that's in place when we get there.

My question still is, don't these Obama teams have someone (or better, a team of folks) like you, with knowledge of & passion for pwd accessibility, advising them about these issues?
If not, they should.
And if they already do, I'd like to know what these advisors are saying in response to these concerns?

william Peace said...

Repsac3, I agree that access is a much larger issue than just one inauguration. Of course I do not expect Obama to suddenly lay down new sidewalks but I do think access should be a primary consideration. There is no reason why every event cannot be accessible--the logistical problems involved have solutions.

Obama does indeed have people who specialize in disability issues. Those that write and craft his policy papers include mention of people with disabilities in speeches are very smart and progressive. Where the Obama people fail is insuring physical access. I have contacted various people associated with organizing events and I have been blown off every time. This gets us back to the issue of valuing the inclusion of people with a disability. The presence of people with a disability is not expected nor desired--it is a "problem" that may or may not be resolved, it is a choice. We need to start from the position that access is a must, not something that one tries to include. Failure to make an event accessible is simply not an option. In this sense, Obama could lead by example: if there is no access than Obama does not attend. If he stated this on the first day of his administration the issue would go most likely disappear.