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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

High-school Prom: A lesson in discrimination

I did not go to my high-school prom. I knew few people in high-school in large part because I spent most of those years in the hospital. As an adult when the subject of proms comes up I often see women cringe when they look at photographs of the dress they wore. Men shake their head over the bad haircuts, peach fuzz on chins and awkward poses. Some recall getting drunk. Others recall a sexual tryst. While high-school proms do not resonate for  me, I understand for many (perhaps most) it is a big deal. Thus I read with interest about a young man in Oregon who tried to go to his prom and was confronted with an inaccessible venue. Initially I was not impressed. When my son was in public school the administration was consistently hostile to any effort I made to be involved with my son's education that required a so called reasonable accommodation. For instance I was prevented from going on any field-trip because the school owned a single short accessible bus referred to by students as the "retard bus". My son was aghast at the suggestion this bus might be used. Thus when I read about the young man who encountered an inaccessible venue I thought this was business as usual. The articles I read were largely supportive and the comments nothing short of hateful. The primary goal seemed to be finding out who could be blamed for the so called mishap. See "Disabled Lake Oswego Senior Arrives for Prom but Can't Get In,   

I have no interest in assessing blame. I refuse to play this classic American game. I do not care about who is to blame. I care about fixing the problem. The problem is the inclusion of this young man was an after thought at best, his existence singularly unusual and never to be repeated. I have encountered the situation this young man encountered many times in my life. People who suddenly notice a gross lack of access become upset. It is as though the lack of access never existed. Stupid ideas are suggested. Maybe we can lift him up a flight of steps? Great idea provided the person getting lifted is not dropped. And yes this has happened to me many times when I was young and dumb enough to allow people to carry me. The principal was upset and stated "we are trying to come up with any way he could be there". Far too little far too late. This young man's mother was furious. She expressed her fury to the school board and encouraged the school to find out what went wrong. It appears all agree the student had the right to attend the prom. Gee, how nice and liberal. A school official noted in a letter sent to parents "this is a mistake that never should have happened. We have a responsibility to provide accessible facilities for school functions, and we should have been aware of any limitations prior to leasing for this year's prom". I have three words for the school official: utter bull shit. Let me explain what the school official is really saying. We screwed up we are sorry. It was an isolated error. Osrry but this was no small mistake. It was a flagrant civil rights violation. The telling phrase is "we should have been aware of any limitations". I have heard this type of line dozens of time. What the official is really saying is we like the venue, it fits our budget. In the future we will make sure no pesky wheelchair users show up for the prom. If such a person is going to attend we need to know in advance. Only then will we search out accessible venues. If the pesky wheelchair user that insists on showing up, creating extra work, and selfishly draining the school budget is not liked or deemed a problem child an inaccessible venue will used. The only difference is the person will be notified in advance. Again, this was standard practice when my son was in public school. I sincerely doubt anything has changed in the last three years given the fact school budgets are increasingly limited. 

Most news reports state the school has been accommodating in the past. They also state the young man in question attended school dances and sporting events such as football games. These sort of statements are bizarre and remind me of a line I hate to hear directed at me--"It is so good to see you out". Is this student not supposed to go to football games and dances? Yes, the ordinary is impossible for us pesky crippled people. Wow, you can attend a dance! Wow, you can drive! Wow, you like sports! It is as though you are almost human. Bipedal people rule. Bipedal people have the power to decide when and under what circumstances the ever so special wheelchair user is permitted to show up. Of course this is ever so generous of the morally and physically superior bipedal hoards that rule the country. Sorry but no. The young man in question father stated sorry is not good enough. I agree. I do not want to hear sorry. I want to know the rock solid plan that is being devised to make sure this never happens again. Better yet, I want to hear about a group of parents that ban together like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) dedicated to making sure every prom in the United States is 100% accessible. But let's not stop there. Every prom will also have accessible transportation as well. When that happens I will know significant social progress has been made. I am hopeful we may have taken a tiny step forward. In Salem Representative Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) a member of the National Council on Disability spoke about the incident.

I do not like the emotional tone but the positives of Gelser's short speech far outweigh any minor complaints about language. I was struck by one image though. The fact the young man ended up alone with his parents while all the other seniors danced away and had great fun. Imagine if the seniors, this young man's peer group, stopped--that is they refused to dance. Imagine if in mass they refused to participate in an event that was exclusionary. This would have been civil disobedience at its finest.  This could have made national headlines. What a wasted opportunity. Sorry, I am dreaming big today. 


Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Bill, I share your feelings about the young man's friends participating in this exclusionary event. This is something that I fundamentally do not understand. I find it nearly impossible to enjoy something from which I know that others are being excluded, and I have left many venues on this basis. It's called solidarity. It's something that is fundamental to social change, and it's always very sad to me when people miss these opportunities. People in the minority need to have people in the majority act in solidarity with us; we can't do it alone, nor should we have to.

Jo Kelly said...

I found this rather odd as well when I read it - if this kid is so popular, how could they just forget about access in the planning stages? Makes no sense - I hate to admit it but it does seem like he was purposely excluded. Crap! And yes, his friends should have stuck by his side that night. Mine would have!

My other comment is - why isn't this kid checking on the acess ahead of time? He needs to make that a habit, otherwise his life will be full of so much unneeded disappointment.

william Peace said...

Jo, I have seen this happen many times. You know the drill--arrive at a location that is not accessible. People apologize and go on with business as usual. You are left out. I have even seen this happen after an adaptive ski lesson. Skied all day and had fun. All agree to go to bar for a beer. Said bar is upstairs. Everyone but me gets to enjoy a beer. The "reasonable accommodation" is a beer can be brought down stairs. Great, I love to drink alone. Ugh. And yes this guy had better learn to advocate proactively. It may be 20+ years since the ADA was made law but the world is still not designed for people who use a wheelchair.
Rachel, I have rarely if ever seen the sort of solidarity you desire. In fact I can only think of one time when when I had the total support of others. We cannot do it alone and this is exactly why the disability rights movement stalled.

Moose said...

One of the things I do is help run a conference for Open Source Computing. My colleagues and I believe that the word "Open" means "Open and available to all".

Before I got involved there was a party each year at a nice bar/restaurant across the street. Nice beer, good food, nice people. But their party room is downstairs with no elevator. We no longer hold the party there, although we encourage attendees who miss the place to go give them their business at other times.

The rule is now, *all* venues must be accessible. We currently use a bar/restaurant that has a second floor loft that is inaccessible, but the rest of the place - the big main floor, the entrances, the rest rooms - are all 100% accessible. The first time we used this bar/restaurant we went over a few days ahead and checked the place out, just to be completely sure. If it had not been we would have been too late to cancel the party but we could have at least warned people about its accessibility limits.

It's not hard to find out if a place is accessible. Most places will say so if asked, but you have to check, too, as a lot of able people can climb a step or two every day and not notice they're doing it.

We still occasionally get complaints that we don't use the former bar/restaurant, and most people accept the explanation why we moved the party. A few insist that we're being "politically correct" for the very few disabled people who attend. I always point out that "Open" does not mean "Open, except for you, you, and you." If that doesn't shut them up there's no hope of them getting a clue.

william Peace said...

Moose, You get it. Open means open to all. Imagine if all businesses and organizations did this. Instant social demand for access would exist. Inaccessible venues would be lose business and be at a disadvantage. Your comment reminded me what I often hear thrown at me--"you are in this for yourself and are narcissistic". The people that state this fail to realize I am fighting for access for me and the untold number of people who will follow me.

Shannon said...

This situation could have so easily been avoided had the school checked the accessibility of the venue.

I liked the representative's speech. Accessiblity is not a kindness - in the minds of many, it is something that people with disabilities should be grateful for when they get it, and just "get over it" when they don't. When we complain, we are seen as being too demanding.

william Peace said...

Shannon, I agree the best line was "accessibility is not a kindness". Sadly, the perception that access is a kindness or a choice is rampant. Most people without a disability truly do not get access is required by Federal law and is enforced by the Department of Justice.

Analisa jain said...