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Monday, April 13, 2009

Cumulative Impact of Disability Based Bigotry

My son and a group of friends went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina for a week. We had a great time even if the weather was a little cold and windy to sit out on the beach. Yesterday I tried to catch up with the news as I spent most of my time in North Carolina relaxing and reading one bad novel after another (I have terrible taste in fiction). Regardless, I was interested in an interview Governor David Paterson did that was broadcast by the Capital Connection while we were away. Paterson was interviewed by Alan Chartock of WAMC and revealed for the first time just how deeply the SNL skit that mocked his blindness hurt. My initial reaction was not positive--anyone elected to a highly visible public office has no grounds to complain about media bias. Mean spirited humor, biased news coverage, and viscous political attacks are the norm today. As I fell asleep last night I began to wonder if my lack of sympathy was a bit too hard edged. Paterson was not elected to the Governor's office and his performance to date has been a mix of success and failure. In short, Paterson strikes me as an ordinary man and a competent politician. But what struck me in the interview was the the degree to which the SNL skit hurt him.

Previously, through his spokesman, Paterson remarked that he can "take a joke" and objected to the way SNL ridiculed the fact he was blind. Paterson's bland reply made me wonder if he really had a heart. During the Capital Connection interview Paterson gave a clear indication of the impact the SNL skit had on him. Paterson stated that the SNL skit brought back a flood of memories--none of them positive. Like many people with a disability, Paterson was taunted and teased growing up. Play grounds, school buses, and hallways demonstrate there is a hard edge to humanity. People with a disability are easy targets and children can be shockingly cruel to each other. I have no doubt Paterson suffered and he noted:

"I noticed I caught myself in the days after the Saturday Night Live event especially since the media was asking me about it so much being a lot more careful how I moved around. Being a lot more conscious of trying to face the audience and not appear to be looking away. And being just a lot more insecure about how I presented myself when I don't think disabled people should. People are who they are. And I thought to myself, you know, I thought I had gotten rid of those demons when I was a teenager. But I guess somewhere latent in my personality was this reaction if I felt I had been humiliated."

Humiliated--that is the perfect word to describe what the SNL skit sought to accomplish. It effectively humiliated Paterson and by extension every person with a visual disability. Paterson was an easy target and his blindness just to good a target to pass up. The problem with this sort of humor is that it is never ending. Its cumulative impact is impossible to ignore and works its way into our concept of who we are. I know far too much about this as do most people with a disability. I was subjected to the same sort of ridicule and humiliation as Paterson growing up. Indeed, I am unaware of any person with a disability that escaped such abuse as a child. While I have moved on with life, the words and taunts I was subjected to left invisible scars. Thus like Paterson I often am struck by how I internalized this sort of disability based abuse. To this day, I almost never try to enter the front door of any building. I am never surprised when people think I am not competent. The rudest and most intrusive questions rarely bother me. When I teach architectural barriers in the classroom are common. Elevators, bus lifts and mass transportation hassles always occur. This is the norm for me, it is my life. I do not expect to be treated with the same respect as a person that can stand or walk and I do not assume any where I go will be accessible.

In the America, we have laws such as the ADA that are designed to make sure none of the above takes place. Heck, we have a legacy of almost 40 years of laws and legislation designed to make inclusion possible for people with a disability. Yet I encounter disability based prejudice daily, it is a common occurrence. Why does society tolerate and condone this? Most people simply do not care. Disability is not relevant to their lives. From an economic viewpoint, access is not valued. Why spend the money on ramps, elevators, or wheelchair lifts on buses when so few people need them? This is why SNL can get away with humiliating Governor Paterson. Our society does care about people with a disability. Children are taught from the moment they enter school that separate is acceptable when it comes to people with a disability. Kids with a disability arrive at school on the "special bus". Once in school kids with a disability are shunted off to "resource rooms". Parents with a disability are not included because gyms, auditoriums, and ball fields are not accessible. The message learned is not hard to miss--people with a disability are different, they are inherently inferior. Given a socially inferior status, they are free game. Go ahead ridicule and humiliate children and adults with a disability. Why even the President of the United States can make bad jokes about the Special Olympics. This utter lack of social standing, pun intended, leads to a 70% unemployment rate, segregated housing and transportation. This all takes place decades after Brown v. the Board of Education that ruled separate is inherently unequal. Paterson knows all this and wisely chose to keep hi mouth shut. Me on the other hand I am too much of a hard ass. I don't like being treated unequally and quick to point out the inequalities in life. This does not make me popular but I do sleep well at night knowing I have done my best and somehow in a small way advocated on behalf of those not willing or unable to assert them self.

7 comments:

Wheelie Catholic said...

This is one of the best pieces I've seen written about the SNL skit about Governor Paterson vis a vis disability issues.

The daily pounding one takes mounts up- and,for a child, forms self image and so many other things. Thanks for speaking up for my nephew and so many others.

william Peace said...

Wheelie, It is indeed a daily pounding. People with a disability are assaulted day in and day out. Over time this has a profound impact on one's concept of self as described by sociologist Erving Goffman. To me, this post is less about Paterson than the routine nature of disability based prejudice. And thanks for the kind words.

Full Tilt said...

Thanks for articulating issues so many of us deal with throughout our lives. Disabled since birth, I began a general blog using another ID and quickly found that one of my blogging buddies, recuperating from surgery, crowed about the dearth of resources available to disabled people "If only they ask," and said that she had learned not to "deride people with hang tags" as cheaters for things she could not see...

When I pointed out that the derision was ridiculous and that the resources she crowed over were and are limited and that attitudes rather than disabilities themselves are the cause of so much misery, I was labelled as hostile. Since when is speaking up hostility??? When it cuts against the grain of abject ableism.

Your piece and its points illustrate precisely the mindlessness and insensitivity people who do not live with disability practice. I hope it makes people like my former friend think...

Thanks!

william Peace said...

Full tilt, I am often told that I am a "difficult" person because I point out obvious access problems and I am quick to defend my civil rights. Long ago this bothered me but that is not case anymore. I have rights, you have rights, all disabled people have rights and it is incumbent upon us to assert them. If this makes me a "difficult" person, I can live with that characterization.

akheffernan said...

Your post articulated perfectly the split between those "invisible scars" left over from the taunting of childhood or the stares and comments and the desire to (as you say) "advocate for those unwilling or unable to assert themselves". It is extremely difficult navigating this divide--for me, I feel like I vacillate between advocating for rights and speaking up and feeling humiliated. Though the sting has lessened as I have grown older, I still have days where the smallest of things can break through that armor.

william Peace said...

AK, I could not agree more that there is a fine line internally and externally with regard to advocating for one's rights. I am silent sometimes when confronted with bigoted remarks and allow this to ruin my day. Other times I can be as confrontational as the rudest people I come across. But what does not change is the way negative comments seep into my concept of self, here I use the term self via Erving Goffman. I just read your blog. Good luck! thoroughly enjoyed your first thought provoking entry.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Got here via Alison! Great post.