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Friday, June 20, 2008

30 Days in a Wheelchair


I have posted a few clips from You Tube and I hope I have properly attached the episode 30 Days in a Wheelchair from the FX program directed by Morgan Spurlock. As many know, Spurlock is the director of Super Size Me, an outstanding documentary about the fast food chain McDondalds. If you have not seen this film, you are truly missing out on a devastating critique of the food sold at McDonalds.

The episode, 30 Days in a Wheelchair, from the FX TV channel series left me with decidedly mixed feelings. Overall, I thought Spurlock did an outstanding job depicting the social and economic reality reality many people with spinal cord injury encounter. The sense of culture shock for newly paralyzed people comes across with the force of a blunt punch to the nose. It prompted me to recall how outraged I was when I first experienced gross social injustice. But what bothered me about the entire episode was the unrelenting focus on what paralyzed people cannot do. Each and every scene highlighted the obstacles paralyzed people encounter. Yes, each and every problem has a solution but why such a negative focus. This critique is flawed I suspect in that I am all too familiar with the social consequences of paralysis. Perhaps the general public totally unfamiliar with life for those that use a wheelchair will be enlightened. I suspect this is Spurlock's audience and hope that the proverbial light bulb will be lit and people will learn the major obstacles paralyzed people encounter are social. This is the real message of the episode, one I hope that comes across loud and clear. In the end though I am not convinced this is the message people will get. Will those unwilling to open their mind simply think "Thank God I am not paralyzed like the poor bastards on that show". This is why I have reservations about the episode and its focus on what paralyzed people cannot do rather than what can be done and achieved, a critique I am not sure is on target. I am curious as to what others think of the show.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Bush a Proponent of Disability Rights?

I was reading the Sunday New York Times with my usual cup of coffee and waiting for my son to wake up when I almost gagged to death. My fit began a few paragraphs into an article by Robert Pear, "Plan Seeks More Access for Disabled". Apparently the Bush administration is about to propose "far reaching" new rules that would create greater access for disabled people. This comes after a five month review that is scheduled to be published by the Federal Register. The public is encouraged to comment. Golly, isn't the Bush administration great! Let's help out those poor disabled people! But wait--the proposal is "stirring concern". The US Chamber of Commerce hates the idea as do small businesses. They claim ADA law suits are already an onerous burden. In response the Bush administration has proposed "safe harbors" for small business. I guess local businesses need to be protected from the hordes of roving disabled people hell bent on suing them.

Stories such as the one I read in the NY Times never cease to amaze me. I do not understand how any reporter could write "the proposed rules flesh out the meaning of the 1990 law, which set forth broad objectives". Within a few strokes of the key board any reporter or researcher could learn that the ADA has been gutted by the Supreme Court. In decision after decision the Supreme Court has increasingly narrowed the definition of disability and eliminated as many people as possible from the ranks of the disabled. What modern medicine could not do the Supreme Court has done--cure the disabled.

I am not opposed to the new rules and am a proponent of the ADA Restoration. To me this highlights a huge problem, one that has been present since the ADA was passed 18 years ago. The ADA, inherently flawed in my opinion, is not valued. That is, there is no social support for the inclusion of disabled people. Yes, we Americans love the idea of inclusion but when it actually comes to hiring an interpreter for a Deaf person, providing a braille menu for someone who is blind or building a ramp for a person such as myself that uses a wheelchair we hit a brick wall. These things cost money and businesses and even our own state and federal government balk at the expense. Sure, I have been told, we want to be inclusive but this is expensive and the codes complicated. The result is nothing is done--access is still perceived to be an individual problem for those angry selfish disable people. And what do these angry disabled people do? They do what every other American does--sue the bastards! This in turn leads the Chamber of Commerce to spread fear via comments such as this: "the proposed rules are so long and technically complex that even the best-intentioned small business could be found out of compliance by a clever lawyer looking to force a settlement". More obnoxious commentators refer to the ADA as "legalized racketeering".

The fact is society does not care if the world to be accessible. All businesses complain about the ADA, secondary schools refuse to provide lifts on buses, airlines routinely harass disabled passengers, and universities complain bitterly about "flawed students", those with learning disabilities that expect more time to complete tests. No law can truly make a difference until there is the social demand for inclusion. The law suites filed under the ADA are just the tip of a social ice berg--they address the practical problem of access but not the root cause. Thus expensive and time consuming law suits will not cease any time soon because they are the only reasonably effective way to force society to be more accessible. Simply put, law suits are effective as is civil disobedience. If people want these law suits to disappear it is within their power and requires a fundamental shift in thought. Welcome disabled people. That's right, welcome disabled people, support their civil rights as you would defend your own. Ask for a braille menu. Complain when the bathroom door is so narrow a wheelchair user could not possibly use it. Ask why the elevator is broken. Question why an interpreter for the Deaf is not provided at a lecture. Demand a wheelchair lift be added to most buses. When flying do not complain about the folding wheelchair that prevents you from storing your suit case. When all these things happen the world will really change and we may not even need the ADA. Ah, visions of equality dance in my head on a gloomy Monday morning.