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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Down Syndrome: The Garcia Story

I am sure most people interested in disability rights have heard and read about Michael Garcia. Garcia is a waiter in Houston who has been hailed a hero or champion of disability rights. Garcia was serving a family of regular customers who had a child with Down Syndrome. According to Garcia a group of people at a nearby table were disturbed by the presence of a child with Down Syndrome. They requested to be moved to different table. Garcia overheard someone at this table state "Special needs children need to be special somewhere else". Offended, Garcia refused to serve these customers. All the major news outlets have published feel good stories about Garcia. There is no doubt Garcia and any other person that stands up against to such blatant disability based discrimination should be lauded.  Garcia risked his job and he has been widely praised on his Facebook page and the restaurant website.

The Garcia story is heart warming yet I cannot help but feel story after story missed the most important point: disability based prejudice is an every day experience.  Only one story I read about Garcia has attempted to explain why the incident in question is unusual: See George Estreich "A Child with Down Syndrome Keeps His Place at the Table" (  One does not even need to read the op-ed link. The title tells it all. The fight for inclusion of the most mundane sort for people who have a disability, eating out at a restaurant, is not easy and can often turn into a battle.  As Estreich points out, disability rights is a work in progress. There is no doubt disability based bigotry is less common. That is the sort of disability based discrimination I faced circa 1980 would be frowned upon. Large institutions such as Willowbrook State are closed. Progress has undoubtedly been made. However there is a long way to go. The greatest successes in terms of disability rights have been made in the law. The last forty years have witnessed law after law that seeks to empower people with a disability. The problem as I see and experience it is that the laws that protect my rights and the rights of people with a disability are ignored and lack value. Without a social mandate for disability rights all the laws in the world cannot protect my civil rights. Violations are the norm. As Estreich pointed out, there are no more Willowbrooks but are group homes an ideal environment for adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. The New York Times published a scathing series of articles about abuse in group homes. One has to wonder are group homes simply small institutions. The point here is not to question whether  group homes are the ideal but rather suggest disability rights is complex with a unique history that is not taught in our secondary schools or university system. The result is the average person does not equate disability rights as civil rights. As I have stated many times, disability rights and civil rights are one in the same.

I have thought about the Garcia story a lot in the last few days. I had a close friend visit me this week. He is a noted poet and scholar. He also happens to be blind and has a great guide dog. We decided to go out to dinner with two other people who are also blind and have guide dogs as well. The best night to eat out was Friday. My first thought was not where to eat but rather eating out on a Friday night is a bad idea. Three people, three guide dogs and my wheelchair take up a lot of space. Extended discussions ensued most of which revolved around determining where we would encounter the least resistance to our presence.  There is no doubt in mind the mental logistics we went through were unique. No bipedal person with sight would have been forced to make the same social calculations we made.  Estreich is correct in a very real and tangible way that we people with a disability have to fight for out place at the metaphorical table. I wish I could state our dinner went smoothly. Our meal was great, service good but our departure was an adventure. For my friend's take on this see the follwing link:


Middle Child said...

I find as I grow older that what irks me the most is people assuming they know - without actually knowing. So much, too much is based on what many people think is the reality of another's life quality etc. I make an effort to recognise in myself when I also tread the path of assuming I know when I have nothing to base that upon.

Many years ago in about 1987 my husband Don (who was a Quadriplegic), the two little girls and myself - had a lucky windfall and decided to have a real holiday in a really plush hotel complex. We were staying a week and because of Don's condition we needed a fair amount of stuff. We had a VW Microbus at the time and after adding the special mattress (deflated of course) a commode, battery charger and suitcases the back was chocka. Much had to be wrapped in black plastic bags - we didn't have many suitcases. By the time we pulled into the marbelled entrance to the drop off spot out the front we were all pretty exhausted and the back of the van was a disaster because we had had to unpack for a night stay on the way.

I still recall the look on the valet's face when I opened the back of the van. Stuff just poured out, cords poking out of the plastic bags - suitcases half opened, two sleepy kids with hair every which way, and then Don comes down the ramp amidst all of this - with a big grin on his face. The whole place just stopped and looked... no doubt wondering what sort of trash was coming in the front entrance ... we stayed the week and the kids had a great time which they deserved but after our arrival in that manner the motel checked with us every morning and demanded we pay if we could have ever scarpered - In the end I got a bloody bank statement printed out and took it to them. It was humiliating to do this and we all felt it but as the years passed we got better at dealing with this sort of thing - and became very outspoken if anyone tried to make us feel less worthy. Instead of seeing our real situation and helping us, we were judged because they assumed they a way this has done the girls no harm at all because they quickly learned about human nature and about what is the good way to live...they have become two fine adults with long memories and we still laugh about this for some reason -

Unknown said...

I got tired of being seated with my service dog near the bathroom and quietly said, "I'd like to be seated elsewhere." I got angry when restaurant staff yelled "No dogs allowed" over and over trying to intimidate me into leaving. I stayed, ordered, but didn't eat, fearing they'd spit in my food. I laugh when they fail to offer me a menu, assuming because of my dog I'm blind (I'm Hard of Hearing and have mobility problems). I am glad my spouse refuses to answer on my behalf when people talk to him and not me. Now, I try to focus on all the friendly, good people and frequent their establishments as much as I can. Otherwise I'd be angry all the time.

william Peace said...

Burton, In recent months I have had the opportunity to observe how guide dogs are trained at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I am stunned when I read about the discrimination people encounter when working with a guide dog. These dogs are amazingly well behaved and trained. Observing guide teams is fascinating and it boggles my mind anyone person could object to their presence.
Lynn, Garcia deserves all the praise he has received. No question this is a feel good story. It even made me feel good! I agree such feel good stories are a double edged sword. Aside from the Op-ed piece in the NYT no news story actually discussed broad and systemic disability based discrimination. To me that is the story that needs to be told.