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Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Second Case of Wheelchair Dumping

Mr. Sterner is not the only disabled person to be assaulted by the police at the Orient Road Jail. A second case has come to light. According to John Trevena, Mr. Sterner's lawyer, Benjamin Rayburn, 32, who is paralyzed and currently serving a 10 year prison sentence was also dumped out of his wheelchair (Trevena represents Rayburn). Rayburn was arrested October 3, 2006 on charges of aggravated battery with a firearm and a warrant for grand theft. According to an incident report, Rayburn was verbally abusive and threw a crack pipe at the police officers. Rayburn refused to calm down and Detention Deputy Bret Strohsack wrote he was forced to "relocate Rayburn from his wheelchair to the holding cell floor". A video clearly shows Rayburn being dumped out of his wheelchair. Unlike Sterner, Rayburn broke the law and has a long criminal history. He was arrested for good reason--he shot a man in the back with a .32 caliber handgun (the victim recovered). No one at the jail has any intention offering Rayburn an apology.

The second case must prompt the Florida attorney general's office to broaden their investigation. Regardless of what a disabled person has done wrong, dumping them out of their wheelchair is inexcusable. I would also like the attorney general's office to investigate why it is standard practice to take away a person's personal wheelchair when arrested and replace it with a jail issued wheelchair. This by itself can cause a disabled person to be injured.

Sadly, the emergence of a second so called wheelchair dumping incident is not a surprise. I expect other cases will come to light in Florida and elsewhere. I suspect when disabled people are arrested they are more likely to be abused by police and inmates. The easiest and most effective way to abuse and humiliate a person that uses a wheelchair is to dump them onto the floor. This is clearly not only a physical violation but a human rights violation as well. Guilt is or innocence is not relevant. The sooner this fact is acknowledged the better.

Civil Rights People Do Not Understand

Yesterday was the sort of day that makes me love technology and yearn for social isolation. For my birthday last week my mother bought me an ipod touch. This new electronic toy is a useful tool and modern marvel. I absolutely love it. I have spent my evenings listening to music, podcasts, and audio books. After a week, I am confident that I know how to use most applications on the ipod and decided it was time to purchase a case for it in the event I drop it.

Content with the world and my place in it, I drove to local mall where the Apple store is located. My good mood came to an abrupt halt before I even got to the store. I found an empty spot in handicap parking and proceeded to get my wheelchair out of the car. A total stranger was walking by, came to a dead stop and began to stare at me as though I was a freak of nature. The behavior of this individual was not all that unusual--people often stare or at least take a long glance at me when I get my wheelchair in or out of the car. Why putting a wheelchair in and out of the car is so fascinating to people I will never quite understand. Regardless, when a person stops dead in their tracks to stare at me I get annoyed. I also stop what I am doing and stare back. This is exactly what I did yesterday in the mall parking lot. When I starred back the individual in question told me not to stop because, and I quote, "I didn't know people like you could get your twisted and ugly bodies out of a car by yourself. This is amazing, I wish I had my camera".

The person that accosted me undoubtedly took ignorance to a higher level than most people. Yet the behavior and statement was within the norm and highlights an inherent problem with American culture. Disability in the broadest sense of the term is not perceived to be a civil rights issue. The same person that accosted me yesterday would never make an over the top bigoted statement to a black person. He knows that would be wrong--it is a well understood and known cultural assumption that prejudice based on the color of one's skin is socially unacceptable. Can the same be said about disability rights? In a word, no. Disability rights author Mary Johnson has noted that no one wakes up in the morning and thinks "I am going to be prejudiced against disabled people today". Yet explicit prejudice against disabled people is routine and socially acceptable. Interactions such as the one I had with the person at the mall may seem trivial but when this happens day in and day out it has a cumulative impact. The message sent is clear: any one can comment on the mere presence of a disabled person because they are not fully human. Crippled people have no social standing--pun intended. We crippled people are not equal. Ordinary life is not possible and routine activities never thought of such as getting in and out of a car become major achievements. This thinking makes my guts churn. It makes me angry and what happens when I assert my rights? I am perceived to have a "chip
on my shoulder". The social predicament is a Catch 22 situation. I cannot assert my rights because I run the risk of being called bitter, mad at the world because I cannot walk. Conversely, if I do not assert my rights as a human being I am perceived to be the good cripple, subservient, happy for societal largesse.

My civil rights or lack of them as a crippled man never ceases to bother me. I have lost many nights sleep questioning why are bipedal humans so resistant to the inclusion of people with an obvious disability. Is it a matter of ignorance? Is it money? Do people resent ramps and elevators? What is inherently wrong with using a wheelchair? For the bipedal readers of this post I have news: there is nothing wrong with me or using a wheelchair. Walking is truly over rated. The problem is not mine it is yours.