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Monday, January 12, 2009

Obama: A Party Pooper

At the end of the year major news outlets reported that the presidential inauguration would present significant and most likely impossible barriers for people with disabilities. According to the Joint Congressional Committee on the Inaugural Ceremonies that is responsible for the logistical details, the drop off points for people with disabilities who want to attend the inaugural will be located many blocks away (parking near the Capital is restricted). The Joint Congressional Committee on the Inaugural Ceremonies website notes that "traffic conditions and restrictions may make reaching these drop-off locations extremely difficult". For those intrepid and fearless people with disabilities that make it near the Capital designated areas for them will be "limited in size and available on a first come first served basis". As for mass transportation, the WMTA has warned people with disabilities that they expect to be operating at "crush capacity". In other words, there is no mass transportation for people with disabilities.

When I read about the lack of access at the upcoming inauguration I yawned, shrugged my shoulders, and thought what else is new. Last year I tried to attend Obama campaign events and quickly learned wheelchair access was not a priority. When I contacted the local Obama campaign office I was told wheelchair access was beyond their control--it was not their job. The campaign directed me to contact the facility where the event was held to determine if it were indeed accessible. After much research and a great deal of time spent on hold I never was able to find out about wheelchair access for any event. The few people I spoke to stated that they would get back to me about access. No one ever contacted me and subsequent emails went unanswered. By the time the campaign ended I was convinced that Obama and his staff wrote great position and policy papers about disability. In theory, Obama understood disability. In contrast, providing physical access for people with disabilities was not a priority or concern. In this regard, the Obama campaign failed miserably.

My indifference to the news that the inauguration will not be accessible is embarrassing. What kind of bad cripple and disability rights activist am I? This thought came to me after reading the following:

Wheelie Catholic:

I've learned that people with disabilities are still struggling to be included in public events, to be a part of, to have access and achieve the simple act of being able to show up. I hope many people have the chance to be a part of the upcoming inaugural events. And I pray that future generations of people with disabilities will have a better chance to attend the inauguration. Because what I'll remember from this inauguration is how exclusion because of lack of access and inadequate transportation results in so many people with disabilities not being able to stand by and witness events.

Planet of the Blind:

How and when will disability accommodations go from being a clumsy "add on" to a "built from the ground up" concern? Will, as some now say, the aging of the baby boomers bring this about? Will a new generation of war veterans help the disability rights community and their veteran elders to keep the pressure on? Surely these things are true. But the "truer" thing is that our nation's universities must be teaching courses in disability studies and thereby introducing our next generation of planners and movers and shakers to the issues of universal design and best practices for making people friendly public spaces.

How can the organizers of the inauguration justify the exclusion of people with disabilities? According to Carole Florman, spokeswoman for the the organizing committee "We can't do anything about traffic, we can't bring people closer for drop-off than the security perimeter will allow, we can't do anything about the fact that the city is closing bridges". Wow, that is a long list of things that can't be done.

I am not dismissing security concerns nor the fact it is difficult to predict how many people will decide to appear. What I do question is the degree to which the presence of people with disabilities is desired and valued. In a city full of people with power I have no doubt their wishes will be met. VIPS rule, cripples do not. And this is part of the problem--people with disabilities are not in positions of power, they are not among the Washington elite. Thus people like Carole Florman think they have done their best to include access for people with disabilities. This is patently false. Richard Simms, executive director of the D.C. Center for independent living has pointed out that the exclusion of people with disabilities is "like a big bold sign that says that if you're a person with a disability, this is not your event". So much for Obama's platform of change--what I see is a decades old pattern of exclusion.

Barriers, physical and social, can be overcome if there is the will desire, and most importantly, demand for inclusion. There is no demand for the inclusion of people with disabilities. Access is never a top priority. It is as Steve Kuusito at the Planet of the Blind notes an add on that is considered after an event has been planned or a building constructed. In his estimation the lack of access is already "built in" the system. The social justification for excluding people with disabilities is ingrained in the structure of America society. Like many other people with disabilities I am sick and tired of excuses and apologies. Solutions to access exist and have existed for a long time. The ADA is almost 20 years old for goodness sake! Obama has the power to make the inauguration accessible to all but has chosen not to yield that power. This is a very bad sign for a man that swept into office with a vision of change, one that obviously does not include people with disabilities.


Wheelie Catholic said...

Bill- thanks for the link.

I, too, am sick and tired of exclusion. It's bad enough when it happens at sports events, religious events, social events - but disgraceful at an inauguration.

As Steve pointed out, the "add on" approach is what happened here. It's not fooling me because I'm used to it - the rolling of the eyes when asked about accommodations (which can feel like an exchanged blink - let's humor his/her request), then the phone call or two, then the "I'm sorry, but we can't do that..." and, with any comeback the patronizing "oh you're being so unreasonable- we tried - we took our time!" This is such a predictable,knee jerk reaction to even ASKING to be included -and why?

You summed it up- pwd are not seen as having power.

The real issue here is that our infrastructure can't handle including us on inaugural day because it also can't handle us every day. We haven't made the progress many want to believe we have. And even though this reality is now highlighted - still, the knee jerk response - not even an acknowledgment from anyone that this should/would/could be changed.

Yes We Can becomes No We Can't for pwd.

william Peace said...

Yes, the fact that it is the inauguration makes the lack of access particularly wrong. And yes the infrastructure is not present to provide access. This is grossly unacceptable. The ADA was passed almost 20 years ago. Two decades one would think is an adequate amount of time to make the fabric of society accessible. But this is not the case because disabled people remain disenfranchised in the extreme. Access as you point out is NOT a request but a civil right.

I know exactly what you mean about the rolling of eyes, the sighs, the million mile stare when one demands access be included. I know when I attend school board meetings people dread it when I show up.

Obama and his staff had better get on the ball or they will lose the support of the disability rights community. It seems to me Obama needs to hire people that have a disability and hopefully can prevent him from continuing to host inaccessible events. Obama has been doing this for a while and I am not amused.

Becs said...

This is disheartening but not surprising.

I remember a post in Crip Chronicles ( linked to a speech / commercial / spot of Obama talking about reinvigorating and enforcing the ADA. Honestly, this is a major reason why I voted for him.

I suppose I foolishly hoped that people from a minority group could understand that other minority groups are still struggling for their civil rights.

Fail. And he isn't even president yet.

william Peace said...

Becs, The lack of access at Obama events is an established pattern at this point. This is a serious failure in that many people voted for him because he wrote great position and policy papers about disability. Of course Obama could eliminate criticism by publicly pledging to make all events 100% accessible. This would be a bold initiative, one I doubt will ever take place.