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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Demeaning Language Associated with Disability

Anti disability rhetoric abounds. Disability is inherently bad. Parents who have a child with a disability, often referred to as a special needs child, carry a heavy burden. Adults with a disability are characterized as suffering. Peace suffered a SCI. John Doe suffers from cerebral palsy. The disability itself is not of importance. Disability and the language used to describe disability is routinely negative. The type of writing is not relevant. The tabloid New York Post or the high brow Atlantic, New York Times, academic journals all use negative language when describing a person with a disability or a disability related issue. As I waited for dawn this morning, I read two stories that framed disability particularly badly. Both stories were published within twenty four hours of each other. I could have selected many other stories but the articles I will deconstruct were typical--one for mass media consumption the other solid reporting undermined by ableist language.

First, is typical British mass media trash framed as a feel good story about overcoming disability that fits squarely into "inspiration porn" (a term I do like to use because its shuts down nuanced discussion). The title itself is objectionable. "Cerebral Palsy Sufferer Tom, 23, Lands Full-time Job at Altrincham Supermarket--After 950 Rejections in Five Years". Link When I read the title I assumed the article would be about disability based bigotry in the work force. No such luck. The article completely ignored all the questions I had expected to be raised. Why are people with a disability unemployed in such great numbers? Why was the man in question, Tom Stephens, rejected 950 times in the past five years? Instead of asking hard questions the article was a puff piece of overcoming on the part of a man who suffers from cerebral palsy. Tom "endured a fruitless search for employment". He did not encounter disability based bias. The plucky Tom "never gave up, but all those rejections really knocked my confidence". Who is credited with getting a job? An employment agency Ingenues. This agency let Tom attend a special eight week program involving three weeks of classroom based learning followed by four weeks on the job training. Tom was one of seven people with a disability to complete the program. The feedback from the store manager where Tom works has been "fantastic". Tom shows "great enthusiasm and willingness to learn". The condescending tone is sadly all too common when it comes to evaluating the work ethic of people with a disability. The article essentially pats Tom on the head for doing a good job. Clearly, Tom is highly unusual and is ever so special. This is ableism run amuck.

Second, and more disturbing, is a article in the Atlantic entitled "Nowhere to Go: The Housing Crisis Facing Americans with Disabilities"by senior correspondent Gillian B White. Link: I expect much more from the Atlantic. The language used in this article was deeply objectionable. The reporting was important. Anyone remotely familiar with disability knows three constructed obstacles derail the lives of many people with a disability: lack of accessible housing, access to mass transportation and unemployment. The article in question details the results of a Harvard University report that found 7 million renter households have a person with a disability. The lack of access is a problem that is going to get worse before it gets better in large part due to the fact the Baby Boomers are getting old and are aging into disability. Clearly sympathetic to the lack of accessible housing what's the problem? The language. Here are a few tidbits.

Mobility is "the most common challenge" associated with disability.

"Disability challenges" is referred to repeatedly. 

Use of the words "confined to a wheelchair". 

Use of "needs of residents", and "specific needs".

Disability "can worsen" with age. 

Making apartments more "accessible isn't impossible". 

There is no incentive to to make access a "priority". 

There is no focus on the civil rights of people with a disability. There is only passing reference to the ADA and the law is framed as a quasi architectural compliance law rather than civil rights legislation. Thus in a "good" article on the lack of access the language used undermines the positive thrust. Lost is the fact that only 1% of rental housing is accessible for a person such as myself. In terms of the entire country the Northeast where I live has the least accessible housing. Many rentals are old and existing housing is typically cut up older housing into small apartments. Few single family homes are accessible. Even newer homes built after 2003 are largely inaccessible. Just 6% of new housing is accessible. I think this is an overly generous assessment. In Westchester I saw development after development go up in the post ADA era. None of the homes were accessible. Developers were creative in insuring a lack of accessible homes. Upon initial construction I saw ramps on a few houses. Buyers deemed accessible ramps an eye sore. These ramps were designed to be removed by builders yet the letter of the law was met. Once sold the ramps were quickly and easily removed as it was attached to the house with lag bolts. 

What is lost when discussing accessible housing is that the features required to provide access to all benefit all people. Grab bars in the bathroom are good for elderly parents and make convenient towel racks. Raised electrical outlets make them easy to reach for all people. Ramps into a house are a delight when moving in or out. Ramps will please every service man who is lugging in a large heavy new appliance. Wider hallways make getting that appliance in a breeze. Wide doorways and halls reduce the need to paint as walls do not get beat up. Ramps will delight kids. 

Few get or care about the above. Look at the comments following the Atlantic article. Providing accessible housing in minute proportions is acceptable. There is little need many contend. 5% is more than adequate. Think about this. You are moving to a town with 1,000 homes. If you need an accessible house 950 choices are eliminated. 95% of your friends who live in the same town live in inaccessible homes. Your social life just took a huge hit. How do you raise a child knowing that 95% of his or her friends live in an inaccessible house. You do not come across people with a disability because the vast majority of housing is inaccessible. I know this all too well. At this time of year many people have parties to celebrate the holiday season and New Year. I do not go to such parties because I am not invited. Virtually all my friends live in inaccessible homes. A few friends make custom ramps and go out of their way to be inclusive. I appreciate the effort but as I age I am increasingly resistant to using ramps that do not remotely comply to the ADA. I just cannot risk a bad fall. So as I age I become increasingly isolated. My ability to navigate the world diminishes due to the aging process. It is no wonder I dread the season of false good cheer. 

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