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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lennard Davis, Sarah Palin and Disability Rights

There are many scholars in the field of disability studies that I respect. Foremost among those scholars is Lennard Davis, Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who published a wonderful diatribe against Sarah Palin, "Don't Trust Sarah Palin When She Cries Disability" in the Huffington Post (February 23). Many have weighed in on the use of the word retard, myself included, and the most recent political theatre related to an episode of the Family Guy. This prompted Davis to perceptively lament the latest "Sarah-Palin-Stands-Up-For-Disabled-People" incident. How and why Palin is perceived as a champion of disability rights is a mystery. Yes she gave birth to a son who has Down Syndrome and talks about "children with special needs". However, this hardly makes her an expert on all things disability. Indeed, scratch the surface and her record regarding advocacy for people with a disability is slim or at best mixed. I never hear her talk about the ADA, disability rights, health care reform as it relates to people with a disability, waiting lists in states for needed services that affect many adults like her son Trig. Instead, Trig and her entire family are used as props in an effort to exploit any situation to her political advantage. I suppose in America today this passes as effective politics. I just don't like it nor does Davis who noted the Family Guy controversy "isn't about Palin getting the joke: it's about her exploiting the situation to attack the left in any form". Davis concluded the "moral of this story isn't that the Family Guy is an insensitive show; it's that Palin is using Trig as hostage to shield her from the shoot-out of the last election. With Trig in tow she's not the incompetent former governor of Alaska or the incendiary anti-wonk, she is simply good Mom protecting her child and all people with disabilities."

To me, Davis' comments highlight the fact that Palin is the latest person mistakenly cast to represent the interests of people with a disability by the mainstream media. Before Palin we had Christopher Reeve and they share one thing in common. They either knew little about disability rights or simply did not care about the violation of those rights. Reeve accepted a medical model of disability without thought and focused on cure alone. While cure was a laudable goal, the way he went about raising money was offensive, demeaning and undermined decades of disability activism. Palin loves to talk about "special needs children yet she fails to acknowledge such children become adults. Those adults need resources and support services but that is not on Pailin's agenda. Shame on both Reeve and Palin for being so narrow minded.

Rather than just bemoan the lack of any nuance as it relates to disability rights let me ask the following: What can be done to advance disability rights? This brings me back to Davis and disability studies. If one goes to a wealth of information can be found. Not all of Davis work will appear to the general reader or activist in disability rights. But what really has always made me respect Davis is not just his scholarship but rather his ability to emphasize the importance of disability studies in the world we live in. Disability studies is not an abstract idea--it is a field that can make a real contribution to society and those with and without a disability. Thus he wrote:

I have come to see that disability studies is imperative. It is crucial that students in elementary and secondary school, as well as students in the university, grow up in close contact with people with all kinds of disabilities. It is crucial that disability studies be included in the curricula of schools so that when Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement are studied, when films on Stonewall are screened, Chicano authors are read — that disability history and culture be included as well from the accomplishments of Vietnam Vets and Ron Kovic to the Berkeley movement led by disability activist Ed Roberts to the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University. The drafting of the ADA should be studied the way that the drafting of the Declaration of Independence is studied. Students should be able to read the work of Nancy Mairs or Andre Dubus, to know about the disabilities of artists and writers like James Joyce, Harriet Martineau, and William DeKooning, as well as the more obvious Beethoven or Ray Charles.

To date, disability studies is an after thought in education. Few secondary schools mention much less teach anything remotely related to disability rights. Institutions of higher education are even more hostile to the inclusion of disability rights. Exceptions exist but they are as common as a man or woman with a disability that is gainfully employed. Here lies the problem: decades after forced institutionalization and segregation ended a legacy of invisibility remains. We people with a disability are out of sight and out of mind. People may cluck about access but when it comes down to a vote on whether to purchase that expensive bus lift or install an elevator it gets shot down every time. Why do such expenses get shot down? Based on my experiences there is only one logical explanation: the presence of people with a disability is not wanted nor is it valued. My existence is not valued. Trig Palin, the adult he will become, will not be valued. People simply don't care about disability rights, it is not a blip on the radar of most Americans. If people did care transportation, housing, and employment would not be inherently difficult for people with a disability. But difficult is common place and barriers, social and architectural, abound nearly two decades after the ADA passed. So on this gloomy Tuesday morning I wonder when and if I will ever be equal.


H said...

I can relate to "Institutions of higher education are even more hostile to the inclusion of disability rights." I am currently experiencing this first hand at my college. Never in a million years did I expect the discrimination I continue to experience; shockingly my biggest battle is dealing with administrators/staff.

I think the lack of inclusion regarding disability studies in primary and secondary school lends itself to the development of attitudes that disability rights are of insignificant importance. I find most people fall into one of two categories, those that simply don't get it and those that feel I am out to be a troublemaker by having a voice and standing up for myself. Maybe people are directly or indirectly taught people with disabilities are out to get something as opposed to standing up for their civil rights like any other protected group. It's almost as if many non-disabled people assume people with disabilities inherently lack validity when discussing disability.

I used to be one of those people that often thought stories about disability discrimination couldn't be that bad or that people were extrapolating on bad experiences. The more physically impaired I become the less shocked I am. No wonder so many people with disabilities don't like to leave their house, the outside world can be unabashedly hostile. So many people give up their fights, it's draining, disappointing and depressing. Whenever I fight back I remind myself each time I stand up for what's right that others stand to benefit too, it's been my only consolation most days for the past five months.

william Peace said...

Holden, I too am shocked to experience discrimination at institutions of higher education. Such institutions should be free of bias given the laudatory aims and presence of people who are smart. I also agree that people consider disability rights insignificant or view a person with a disability that asserts his or her rights inherently difficult.
Sadly, when it comes to disability nothing shocks me. Strangers routinely ask me rude and intrusive questions they would never pose to a person without a disability. For instance, the other day a young woman I never met asked "Can people like you have sex?"

Betty said...

Excellent piece. In my opinion, Palin has exploited her own child, although I've no use for her for a variety of reasons. And your comments about Reeve reflect my own. Reeve promoted the medical model of disability, as he was the able-bodied model of disability. He was the darling of typically oppressive ableists, and no friend of mine.