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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Is walking Over Rated?

Like most people I spent the first eighteen years of my life upright. I took walking for granted and thought nothing about what life must be like for people who use a wheelchair. Fast forward thirty years and my thinking process has changed. I do not think about what life is like for people who can walk. Instead, I wonder why people who walk think this form of locomotion is so great. Sure walking is efficient and humans are designed to be bipedal. But for people with a physical deficit such as paralysis is it worth devoting all one's time, energy, and money in an effort to walk? I for one think not. The overwhelming importance society places on walking is never far from my mind because it helps form the basis for oppressing those that use a wheelchair. It is a given that walking is superior to using a wheelchair. Those that walk often think and tell me life "in chair" must be very hard. This assessment is correct, life is hard for paralyzed people. However, what people do not realize is that the problems I encounter have little to do with my paralysis and inability to walk. What makes life hard for those that use a wheelchair is the moral superiority of those that can walk. This came to the forefront of my mind last night as I read Harriet McBryde Johnson's wonderful book, Accidents of Nature. Let me share a quote:

It is funny. Therapists, teachers, relatives--everyone--they all think walking is such a wonderful thing. And we don't question that. We believe it must be worthwhile, or they wouldn't torture us for it. And then, finally, you get up on your two feet, take a few halting steps--pardon me, I mean courageous and determined steps--and the cameras flash, and everyone's inspired. But then you find out walking is a lousy way to move from place to place... When you start to think for yourself, you realize a wheelchair is a better way to get where you're going.

For those unfortunate souls that do not use a wheelchair let me clue you in--using a wheelchair is often a far better and more efficient way to get around. For instance, I can cruise around a museum for hours on end and never tire. I can propel my wheelchair much faster than those that walk. In fact, I often need to slow down if I am accompanied by a person that can walk. To me a wheelchair is not only an efficient means of locomotion but much more. When I am zoned in I have a deep connection between myself and the wheelchair I use. On a daily basis I feel a great sense of freedom and independence as I move around. In sharp contrast, many who can walk think life "in a chair must suck". What is not verbalized is that they believe a wheelchair represents a symbolic failure physically and morally. In essence walking is good wheelchair use is bad.

The ability to walk in our society is a pre-requisite for equality. Those that cannot walk are expected to devote all their time in an all out effort to walk again. These people, think Christopher Reeve, are respected, lauded, fawned over and invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention. Huge sums of money are spent and bizarre devices such as Robo-Skeletons are invented to get people upright. All such efforts conveniently ignored the social consequences of disability and cast a negative light on people such myself and millions of others that express no interest in walking. Worse yet, I am disabled and proud. This sense of pride in my body and wheelchair subvert an unquestioned cultural norm. For violating this norm I am perceived to be difficult. I am the bad guy that does not know how to accept what society is willing to hand out. Well, I for one willingly piss on such pity. I expect and demand much more out of life: to be treated with the same respect and dignity of those that walk. I think this is a modest expectation, one I hope to experience some day.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Blatant Discrimination at the Race Track

My father, John H. Peace, had a life long interest in thoroughbred race horses. Both my mother and father loved the track and the horses. Their life long dream was to own thoroughbreds and due to my father's hard work and great success in business this dream came true. For almost three decades my father owned and raced thoroughbred horses. Growing up, all of my siblings and I spent time with my parents at race tracks such as Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga in New York, Gulf Stream and Calder in Florida. My parents love of the horses never fully rubbed off on me because I have never been able to look past the social and economic inequities at the track. For those unfamiliar with horse racing, going to the track is like stepping back in time. The "Sport of Kings" has been and remains a sport for very wealthy people. It is a rich man's game, one I find fascinating because the rich and poor mingle side by side. The social interaction that takes place at the track is unique in American society that often relegates the poor to places well out of sight of the middle and upper classes.

Since I was a kid I have enjoyed going to Saratoga race track. Thoroughbred race horses are majestic animals and the way they can run at such high speeds (about 45 mph) on spindle like legs is nothing short of awe inspiring. The crowds at Saratoga are large and festive. The track itself is an architectural beauty--I love the wooden floors that creek underfoot and fans hanging from the ceiling that circulate the air. The real attraction, the people and the horses, are amazingly diverse. The richest people in the thoroughbred business go to Saratoga every year. They not only run their horses at the track but attend horse sales that routinely set record prices for thoroughbreds. The amount of money spent at the horse sales is nothing short of staggering. The horses that run every August are among the best and the track holds special memories for me. My fondest memories of my father are associated with the horses he owned and raced at Saratoga. It is the one place I continue to feel a close connection with my father since his death. Every time I go to the track In Saratoga I have a beer with a frothy head in his honor and retrace the steps we once took together.

In the last two years my memories of Saratoga have been replaced with very different emotions--shock, horror, and the grossest violation of my civil rights that I have experienced in more than 25 years. Let me explain. When a person owns a horse the most exciting part of race day is meeting the horse trainer and jockey before the race in the paddock area. This is where the horses are saddled and last minute details ironed out. It is the place to be seen, all the movers and shakers in the business are present when their horses run. Symbolically, when one enters the paddock it is public recognition of the money, time and energy spent getting a given horse to this point. The paddock is thus much more than simply where one saddles a horse, it is the heart of the track.

I have been in the paddock area of many tracks and have never had a problem entering until last summer at Saratoga. After almost thirty years of entering and exiting the paddock without a hitch when my parents had a horse running I was told by a track security guard that "wheelchairs are not permitted in the paddock". The first time this happened to me last year I ignored the guard and entered the paddock. I dismissed this as the independent action of an individual who did not know what they were doing. Afterall, I was well dressed, I had a suit and tie on which is customary, and, most importantly, had the right to enter the paddock. I did not even mention this incident to my mother as I knew it would upset her as she is a powerful woman and no one messes with her baby (I am the youngest of six). A week later I was shocked to discover that my mother who became an above the knee amputee two years ago and uses a wheelchair was prevented from entering the paddock. Like me, she was told "wheelchairs are not permitted in the paddock". She not only owned a horse that was running but she had entered this paddock without ever being questioned before. The man that trained my mother's horse was just as shocked she was. A flurry of phone calls were made and after a delay my mother was able to enter the paddock.

Why I wondered were my mother and I suddenly prevented from entering the paddock? As a careful observer of horses and people, like many others at the track I always watch the paddock area. Who enters the paddock? Any person with connections to a horse running. By "any person" I truly mean any person with direct connections to the horses running. Young children and toddlers enter as do the very elderly. I have seen people with canes, walkers and crutches enter the paddock. The only people that are now deemed objectionable, barred from entering even if they own a horse, are those that use a wheelchair.

Why are people that use a wheelchair being discriminated against? Why is the track explicitly breaking the law? I was told that "wheelchairs" represented a risk to the horses and humans that use a wheelchair. In reply I asked three questions: first, what was the factual basis for this statement? I questioned why was my "wheelchair" suddenly a risk after entering and exiting a paddock without incident for 25 years. Second, what other humans entitled to enter the paddock banned? Third, were trainers that used a wheelchair such as Dan Hendricks banned from saddling a horse they trained? I was told wheelchairs were a safety risk because people using them could not get out of the way of a horse that might get lose. The ban was meant for the protection of people using a wheelchair. I was also told no one aside from people using a wheelchair were banned from entering the paddock. The person I spoke to could not provide any factual basis for why wheelchairs were suddenly deemed dangerous.

In short, Saratoga has banned one group of people from the paddock--those that use wheelchairs. This is not perceived to be a violation of one's rights but an issue of safety. This is the exact same logic that schools, universities, airlines, bus companies, and a myriad of other businesses used to prohibit the presence of people that use a wheelchair for decades. This type of explicit discrimination is why the American with Disabilities Act was made law, one that has been in place for almost twenty years. The Americans with Disability Act is very clear that any ban on the presence of "wheelchairs" is against the law. Businesses, stadiums, and, yes, race tracks, cannot target a particular group of people such as wheelchair users. The track is not being discrete, they are being aggressively discriminatory. You do not need to be a lawyer or disability rights activist to know this. When I was stopped from entering the paddock by track employees those that observed this were supportive. More than a few people looked shocked when I showed a horse owners license and yet was still told I could not enter. One man told me he had never seen this happen.

Many businesses, particularly sports arenas, learned that they cannot exclude people that use a wheelchair the hard way--they have been sued and all have lost. Banning people that use wheelchair from a stadium or race track, paddock included, is simply against the law. In spite of the fact my civil rights have been violated I do have some sympathy for the racing secretary at Saratoga and other tracks. Thoroughbred race horses are high strung unpredictable animals. Far too many people enter the paddock without reason and over crowding is a real problem. I for one think only the trainer and people with a horse owner license and as well as one guest should be permitted to enter the paddock before a race. As is the current custom, too many people are present in the paddock.

While I acknowledge too many people enter the paddock, this observation has nothing to do with preventing people such as myself and mother from entering the paddock. Every horse owner has the right to enter and exit the paddock when they have a horse running. This cannot at any level be questioned. Entering the paddock is of central importance to owning a race horse. It is part of the racing day and important from a business perspective. The paddock is not just a place to be seen but where connections in an exclusive business are sometimes formed.

In the last week I have called more than a dozen race tracks across the country and not a single one bans an owner that uses a wheelchair from entering the paddock area. I also did an extended internet search and could not find a single incident in which a person using a wheelchair was hurt by a thoroughbred horse. I could not find a single incident where a horse was injured by a wheelchair either. Why then has Saratoga instituted such an obviously discriminatory ban? I cannot help but conclude this ban is based on ignorance, fear, and appearance. Unlike all other minority groups, one can suddenly become disabled. Thus some people fear disability and disabled people. The easiest way for society to cope with this fear is to segregate disabled people. This segregation can take many forms--"special" buses, institutionalization, resource rooms in schools, group homes, etc. I think ignorance and fear play a part in banning people who use a wheelchair from entering the paddock. However, economics and symbolism play a part as well. One does not associate wealth and power with wheelchair use. Those that own horses are wealthy and powerful. Who does the track want to enter and be observed in the paddock? Powerful, rich and well connected people. This description fit my father--he was these things and more--member of the Jockey Club and the New York Race Track Association, and owner of graded stakes winers. This leads me to wonder if my mother and I would have had any trouble entering the paddock if my father was still alive. Somehow I sincerely doubt it. This makes me ashamed for those that work at the track who are forced to support a ban that is blatantly against the law. It also makes me furious with the ignorant bigots that have enacted such a ban. The big question is what should I do? Of course I am going to fight this but how is the real issue and one I have yet to figure out.