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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Disability Rights are Civil Rights

Disability rights and civil rights are considered to be different. There is significant resistance when I equate disability rights with civil rights. The reaction to linking disability rights and civil rights is often emphatic--emphatically negative. In large part the reason why people do not consider disability rights a civil rights issue is that they have no exposure to people with a disability and the social model of disability. Disability for the public at  large remains a physical problem--the impairment model of disability reigns supreme. Blind people advocate for themselves. Deaf people too. I am a member of the chrome police and selfishly advocate for wheelchair access. By logical extension the main problem a paralyzed man such as myself has is the fact I cannot walk. Nothing could be further from the truth. The least of my problems is the inability to walk. The major impediment I encounter is the social stigma associated with disability. My presence, indeed my existence, is not valued. Given this, the majority of people will balk when so called "reasonable accommodations" are required by law. Without a social mandate for inclusion the last 40 years of legislative initiatives designed to empower people with a disability will continue fail. For example, the ADA and inclusion of children with disabilities in schools will be considered an onerous burden forced upon local authorities by the federal government.  Inclusion and access is not about civil rights but a needless economic burden imposed on schools. A perfect example of this line of thought was the recent U.S. Department of Education letter that stated extracurricular athletics are an important part of education and that schools must provide comparable athletic opportunities to students with disabilities. The letter was designed to help schools understand what their legal obligations were. When I read the letter signed by Seth M. Galanter Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights I was convinced of one thing: it would be met with howls of protest and be ignored by the vast majority of schools.

The negative reaction to the U.S. Department of Justice letter was expected. In my experience, when disability issues come up at secondary schools and universities the reaction is rarely if ever positive. I cannot think of a single instance when I was at a meeting and there was universal support for a disability related issue. I have also learned not to make comparisons between disability rights and other minority civil rights--especially when it concerns race. This sort of comparison prompts a knee jerk response. "Utter bullshit" is said with force. Rolling of the eyes or walking out of the room are typical responses as well. What this response conveniently ignores is basic facts. For instance, the aforementioned letter was written by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. It was signed by Seth Galanter, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. The Federal Government considers disability rights to be a civil rights issue. Let me state that sentence again: the Federal government considers disability rights to be a civil rights issues.

I find it hard to fathom why twenty plus years after the ADA was passed into law disability based bigotry abounds. Disability based bigotry has been on the forefront of my mind because I made the mistake of reading the comments to Jemele Hill's commentary on ESPN about Oscar Pistorius (she quoted me in her column). See link:
Hill is a controversial figure at ESPN. A native of Detroit, Hill was hired by ESPN in 2006 as a national columnist. Prior to speaking with Hill I read a few of her columns and would venture to guess she was hired because she is a well qualified, well educated and articulate black woman who is not afraid to voice her opinion. I felt she would be receptive to a disability rights perspective and I was correct. I expected a strong reaction to her column. However the vitriol directed at her and by extension disability rights was a shock.  I ignored about 80% of the nearly two-hundred comments about her column. The remaining 20% fit into two groups--race based bigotry and the refusal to reject Oscar Pistorius was inspiring (an example of inspiration porn." Here is a random sampling:

On inspiration: 

If Pistorius had overcome his disability and become a garbage man it would have been an inspirational story.
Pistorius was not overhyped. There is no hype in the universe that would suffice the story of man with no legs competing in a sprint in the Olympics
You watched the performances and formed no opinion about courage, determination, and drive required to overcome his handicap? Nonsense.  
 Does Jemele really want to down play what Pistorius achieved & done to become a successful athlete (& yes also overcome his disability)?

 On race:

Unbelievably she did choose a quote that in some round about way compared this situation to racism.
Comparing the plight od the disabled to that of black people. Completely pointless.
This is just a long line of racist comments that she has put into her articles.
Did she just throw in a quote that being African American to being disabled?
Hill lost me when she compared being black to being handicapped towards the end of the article.
I knew she was going to get race in there!
The article baffled me. 

While I envy Hill's salary as a national columnist for ESPN I do not envy the harsh and bigoted remarks that accompany her writing. To receive such racist replies to my work would bother me to the point I could not write.  On September 15, 2011 Hill wrote that "Why are you such a racist? I'm asked that every time I write a column about race. It baffles me". I feel equally baffled when people tell me "its always about you" meaning I am a self absorbed narcissist. The reality is it has never been about me. It is about the person who follows me and the hope they will not struggle with ingrained bias and a hostile reaction to their presence. To maintain bias exists but is not a major variable is grossly misleading. The same point was made by Hill and I would maintain is the primary reason she is labeled a racist by her detractors. Hill noted that:

To me, it's a copout when people admit that "racism is alive" or that it still exists in some form. It reduces racism into something abstract. It becomes a mythical idea, and this distances us from pushing ourselves to think about where racism does exist, how it exists, and whether its existence impacts how we think, feel and process.
All of us have been influenced by race. It doesn't make us bad people. Our country has a long, ugly history of racial division. Anyone who assumes that the unpleasant remnants of that history aren't still present in our culture and the way we think is being wonderfully naive. Yes, it would be a tremendous relief if every time race played a role in a situation, a blinking sign would flash, "HEY, EVERYBODY, THIS IS RACISM!" But that's not the way it works, and thinking that it should work that way marginalizes the issue... I don't write about race to create a stir, but rather to promote open and honest conversations. 

The quote above by Hill is spot on. Substitute the word race or racism with ableism and its meaning remains equally pointed and correct.  The problem is all people know what racism is. Few people know what the word ableism refers to. And that is a problem, a significant problem, all the legislation in world cannot obliterate.  What we need is a social revolution.


Elizabeth said...

I think I've said before that your writing sometimes provokes me in an uncomfortable way, but I find that your honesty also helps me to see and understand something with more clarity. Those who comment in anger, I think, are driven only by anger when made uncomfortable. I have learned NEVER to read comments on important pieces of journalism because they are often vicious and ill-informed. I'm grateful that you keep the discussion going, and while I might not agree with you all the time or perhaps disagree with the way you present something, I would add that opposition is true friendship. As for disability rights being equivalent to civil rights --hell, yes, and anyone who argues against that comparison is absolutely wrong.

Eric Fischer said...

It has always been a given for me to read all comments, 'know thine enemy' and all that, but without a doubt the majority of comments are negative when dealing with politics or social issues.
Negativity, despite its presentation in cyber-realism gives us a disturbing look of the vocal minority we are up against when advocating for a change for the better.
Anger seems to me born of ignorance, a lack of education in part, ingrained beliefs as well. Rarely do you see true anger, one that stems from personal experience, which would be understandable.
People are generally resistant to change and when the world view you present forces them to either hold their ground or change, mostly the former is tenaciously adhered to. Vigorously defended.
I have seen bigotry and racism first hand and feel it stems from a person's innate sense of what is right and what is wrong. Yesterday, when describing my son's deteriorating condition a person, with all the best of intentions, asked me, "is it worth prolonging his life?"
That all depends on where you place value, doesn't it? In relation to disability rights being human rights, since we have such a poor record with human rights, disability will always be a 'second cousin, twice removed', those who advocate, 'bitter and angry'.
I try in my way to advocate for my son. And by that I mean I share my belief that he has an innate right to exist and that his suffering is actually much less than most people, though I concentrate on the issue of suffering and how hard it is to not only keep him alive, but to try and offer him some quality of life. This effort is overwhelming and the lack of social support has caused no small measure of damage, both to him and his chances at survival and to myself.
All the while I feel I am actually pandering to people's misconception of which life is worth living, mumbling about my son smiling, as though I have something to prove.
How in God's name can anyone think he doesn't have the right to live?
People point out the cost, and I don't mean in monetary terms, as though there is something more valuable than traveling through life with the ones we love, each doing according to his ability, no measure to small to be seen as equal.

Middle Child said...

I never find anything to disagree with when you write - it as mentioned reminds me of how Don used to speak about things - After reading "Culture of death" then finding Not dead yet and then your blog - the fire has returned - I was worn down by years of fighting for Don to have some small justice - and probably for my own peace of mind needed a break - but reading here and the other places has me started again...have a new Media Release...will post it when I can...thanks

Unknown said...

Of course there has to be rights for the disabled. My biggest inspiration of my life is Terry Fox and I doubt a stronger human being will ever make the kind of statement he did. He did not want pity but help preventing what had happened to him. All that being said I hope for the best for all of the brave people living with a disability.

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Unknown said...

Whatever they may call it, respecting human rights is a given. It’s even part of basic human decency. It’s already hard being disabled and having to take the mockery of many people is insult to injury, almost literally. It’s now time to promote the equal rights for PWD and they must have the same legal freedoms that we ”normal” people have. I’m glad that there are lawyers that can PWD’s can go to when they need legal assistance with their problems. :)

-Erminia Cavins-