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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.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jerry Lewis Protest Links

Jerry Lewis continues to draw the ire of disability rights activists.

Below are three links of interest Andrea Shettle have directed my attention to.

First, there is an online petition I urge readers to sign. Here is the link:

Second, there is a a Facebook Group dedicated to the Jerry Lewis campaign. Here is the link:

Third, Andrea writes that she has "blogged about the petition, along with a discussion on the difference between "pity" and "empathy,"; why Jerry's brand of pity destroys; and why real empathy is more likely to lead to human rights:

Monday, January 12, 2009

Carole Florman: Ms. Sensitivity?

I forgot to add one quote to my post today. Carole Florman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has stated she is "very concerned" about access for people with disabilities. According to Florman she hopes people with "special needs" such as the disabled, elderly and children take seriously the potential for enormous crowds and dreadful weather. She also thinks that:

"Some people may be better off trying to watch it [the inauguration] on TV".

Gee, thanks Ms. Florman. Now I know that not only were there circumstances beyond your control that prevent people with disabilities from attending the inauguration but you were also worried about our well being and safety. We disabled people are ever so fragile and dependent upon the kindness of others. This sort of antiquated thinking was used to prevent disabled children from attending public school (they were a fire hazard) or flying on commercial jets (they were a flight safety risk). The year is 2009 not 1959.

The fact is Obama is rapidly developing a reputation for holding events that are not accessible. He did this during the campaign and now in an event that is supposedly the most accessible inauguration in history his staff is telling people with disabilities they should watch the inauguration at home on TV.

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.