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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Media Fails to Notice ADAPT

With the stock market plunging and the economy falling apart before our eyes, perhaps this is not the best time to critique the news media. Or at least this was what I was thinking before I read Divine Ms. Jimmi's blog The Life of Pinky Bear. In her September 17 post, What Pisses Me off About Media Coverage For Disabled People, she wrote:

Things like the special Olympics, Variety Club events, The Cure-A-Crip Telethon or some other fluffy piece about someone trying to overcome their disability (has it worked, are ya not disabled anymore?) gets big press. When people with disabilities take to the streets and say that the system is broken, we don't want to live in your shitty institutions because the sight of us bothers you or that we want our rights along with choices that the mainstream public takes advantage of everyday--suddenly, we're not so cute and inspirational.
People with disabilities want to live in the real world with everyone else. We want our chances to live and work and have families. We hate your institutions, your "special schools" your 'special olympics" and your crappy segregated institutional housing choices.

The above clearly echoes what I have written in previous entries. To say I am frustrated this week would be an understatement. This week hundreds of ADAPT activists have been protesting in Washington DC and the national press has utterly ignored what has transpired. Regardless of what one may think of ADAPT methods, the fact is they are trying to help the most disenfranchised disabled people--those in or potentially forced into nursing homes. This is a story that needs and should be put on the front page of every major newspaper in the country. This is a human rights issue that is broad and shocking in scope. Yet, this story does not make it into the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or other major papers. Likewise, no national TV network has mentioned ADAPT nor have the presidential candidates discussed the Community Choice Act. This is why I have been so pessimistic about the future. Disability rights are simply not valued and the lack of ethics among those running the nations largest corporations nothing short of criminal. These sentiments led my son to ask me the following while we were watching the network news on TV: "Dad, I'm confused. If we got a credit card and spent a ton of money we could never pay back we would lose our house and be bankrupt. But if a rich guy that gets paid millions of dollars a year runs a giant company into the ground and falls apart the government will jump in and save them. This doesn't seem right or am I missing something". Yikes, my boy is smart. I only wish he asked a question I could answer.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where the News Goes Wrong

After I completed my entry today I thought more deeply about why the media consistently misses the point about disability related issues. The failure of the media, newspapers, TV, movies, etc. to discuss disability with a modicum of skill is a never ending mystery to me. I understand newspapers must sell adds, TV is reliant on commercials, and movies sell tickets. Yet most news reports and stories about disability rely on well worn out stereotypes. These stereotypes invariably involve the story of some remarkable person who "overcomes" their disability. The greater the success, the greater the story. An obvious and visible disability only makes the archetypical story better.

Tabloids and even the venerable New York Times fall into the above trap. For instance, on September 14 a story appeared by Peter Applebome entitled "Rabbi With the Compelling Back Story is Not to be Rued Out". The story in question is about "a blind rabbi" trying to get elected to Congress who knows "he has gotten more attention than most challengers facing entrenched incumbents because of his unusual personal story". Dennis Shulman, a psychologist and rabbi, is running for New Jersey's Fifth Congressional District against Scott Garrett. Obviously Shulman is blind and has been since he was a child. Shulman is clearly a smart man as are most people that graduate of Harvard. But what I want to know is why does the story about Schulman focus on the fact he is blind and characterize his life as a "remarkable tale to tell"? Why is it remarkable that a blind man graduated from Harvard became a psychologist and is running for Congress? Is it "remarkable" because the social expectations for a blind person or someone with an obvious disability are nil? These stories perpetuate the myth that anyone with a disability that is successful must be a "remarkable person". This conveniently ignores the fact that the most pressing problem disabled people encounter are social not physical. Newspapers love catchy headlines and stories such as the one about Schulman that make those unfamiliar with disability feel good about the world. This requires virtually no thought and can be social fodder for chit chat at the local coffee shop.

My thought process when reading about such "remarkable" stories is very different. The first thing I thought of when I read about Schulman was a press release I read two days before from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. The press release was about the US District Court for the Northern District of California that granted class action certification in a disability action in which plaintiffs argue that the Social Security Administration fails to provide its communications in alternative formats that would enable people with visual impairments to have equal access to programs as required by federal disability civil rights laws. In the digital era and more than 30 years after it was mandated by law I find it hard to fathom how the Social Security Administration can ignore the rights of blind people. To me, this is what is "remarkable" about our society. We pay nothing more than lip service to the rights of disabled people. Sure, laws exist, laws that are ignored or broken every day. This does not ever make its way into the news. Instead, readers of the New York Times are exposed to the "remarkable" disabled person who overcomes their disability. The reality is that what disabled people must overcome is a disinterested government, conservative Supreme Court, and social system that is oppressive, one that still stigmatizes those that cannot walk, see, hear, or think as others can. This is worth reporting about but it is not what people want to know for it is much easier to be assured that "remarkable people" overcome a physical deficit. I just wish more people, those who are not disabled, thought the same way.

ADAPT, Advocacy and Politics of Disability

ADAPT has taken it latest action to Washington DC and the offices of John McCain and HUD. ADAPT has established "DUH City"--a city of activists and tents intent on non violent civil disobedience. The disability rights movement is abuzz with stories of arrests, photos, and I am sure videos to come on YouTube. ADAPT is posting a continuous stream of information on its Twitter site: To date, ADAPT is reporting that 11 protesters were arrested at the McCain campaign headquarters in Virginia.

There has been much talk about disability since Palin was selected by McCain. Very little of what I have read goes beyond empty rhetoric. Lost in the talk about disability and Palin's decision to give birth to her son Trig are key issues that ADAPT has championed for 25 years. I have written about the Community Choice Act before, a piece of legislation McCain, and I presume, Palin are against. Palin may think of herself as an advocate of disabled children in general and those with Down Syndrome in particular, but I for one fear what will happen if McCain and Palin win the election. What McCain and Palin have not acknowledged is that disabled children grow up and become disabled adults. The grim reality is that there is a crisis among disabled adults--there is not enough affordable, accessible and integrated homes in this country. The majority of disabled adults in this country earn far less than the national median income and rely on inadequate fixed benefits. For instance the federal SSI benefit was $603 a month and the average cost of renting a studio apartment in the nation was $633.

Palin no doubt loves her son Trig but what I keep thinking about is this: What sort of life would Trig lead if his mother was not in the national spot light? What obstacles does the average parent face when raising a child with a disability? And, what will happen to Trig and other disabled people when they are adults? Those without significant financial resources will struggle to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and pay needed medical expenses. Financial hardship in this country and disability go hand in hand. Palin considers herself a friend and advocate of children with special needs but I have yet to hear her utter one word about the Community Choice Act, health reform, employment, or the civil rights of disabled people. This is not entirely her fault--her appearances are carefully scripted events and the news media is obsessed with her personal life.

What can people do beyond complain about the social situation of disabled people in this country? For some, that would mean involvement and support of groups such as ADAPT that take direct action. For others, and here is where I think disabled people
and their allies can make a major impact, vote according to candidate's positions on disability issues. In short, cater to every politicians overwhelming desire to get re-elected. The learning curve for politicians seeking to get re-elected is steep. If they think disability is a hot button issue it will receive a great deal of attention and support.

The above leads me to an outstanding member of the disability rights community that I admire--Paul K. Longmore. At Patricia Baur's website (www, she has posted a guest commentary by Longmore. This essay, "What Kind of Advocacy Do Americans with Disabilities Really Need? An Open Letter to the Disability Rights Constituency" Longmore details the views of McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden. This is a must read for all those interested in disability related issues. Longmore is not advocating either ticket though I think most readers will conclude the Democrats track record in terms of disability is much stronger than the Republicans. Most importantly, Longmore can be trusted--he is a serious scholar and the facts he writes about are surely correct. I encourage all readers to look at Longmore's Open Letter. Below is the link:

One final point: there are about 36 million potential voters with disabilities. This number will only increase as the Baby Boomers rapidly age. Disabled people are a potentially powerful voting block and political constituency. I think it would be wise to pay attention to disability related topics if I were a politician. Progress has been made since the ADA was passed in spite of a deeply conservative Supreme Court that seems intent on gutting this legislation. If I were a politician I would begin courting disability groups today. This is something Obama is more attuned to and why I will vote for him. In doing so I feel the power of my disabled peers who are thinking along the same lines.