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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jesus Christ, We're Screwed

The title of this blog entry is a direct quote from Josie Byzek, writer for New Mobility. This is what Ms. Byzek thought after watching the 22 minute clip from CSPAN when Obama spoke about the 19th Anniversary of the ADA. Sadly I think Ms. Byzek is correct. Obama's speech was a bitter disappointment. This speech was never going to make the national news and was uttered at the end of what USA Today characterized as a "tough day" for the president. Regardless, I expected Obama to realize who he was speaking to--the men and women that crafted the ADA and contemporary disability rights activists--and express a deep understanding of this legislation and its checkered history. What Obama delivered was boiler plate, utter and total crap that would go over great with people that knew nothing about disability. However, Obama's audience knew all about disability, a fact he was aware of as he pointed out the presence of Tammy Duckworth, David Paterson and other prominent people with a disability. How these people reacted to Obama's speech I do not know. I sure wish I was present. But like Byzek, I am angry and cannot help but conclude we are indeed screwed.

People with a disability are screwed because Obama relied on antiquated stereotypes and penchant to use his father-in-law as proof he knows all about disability. If Obama had any real insight, he would not portray his father-in-law as a super cripple, a dehumanizing characterization I reject as do others with a modicum of common sense. Worse yet, most of the speech was devoted to a time "long ago" when discrimination was rampant. "Long ago" was pre 1990 when the ADA was signed and the problem of disability rights was taken care of. Gee, this is news me as I have not nor have I ever felt equal to my peers that are bipedal. In fact I feel decidedly repressed every time I leave my home and try to find something as exotic as an accessible bathroom where I can take a piss.

Obama did not mention the ADA Restoration Act. I guess this would have been hard to explain and is further evidence he misjudged his audience. One aspect of his speech was clearly not well received. He spoke about stem cell research, signing the Reeve Act and health care. Laudable goals but anyone with a modicum of knowledge should know better than to bring up Reeve among a group of disability rights activists. Reeve is despised by many disability rights activists and in my estimation set back disability rights by a decade or more. Reeve message was simple, he wanted to be cured. Good for him but this desire ignored the hard battles won by disability rights activists and belittled those that had no interest in cure and instead sought to live their life free of bigotry and ignorance.

Perhaps I am being too critical of Obama. When trying to get elected he said and did all the right things as they pertained to disability. Since elected, another man has emerged, one I am learning how to dislike. What did I get out of Obama's speech?Obama wants to cure crippled people, hence he talks about Reeve and better medical care. At no point is any mention made that most people with a disability are uninsured and cannot afford health care. When obstacles are encountered in the post ADA land of nirvana the super cripple will overcome and persevere. How does he know this? Obama's father-in-law woke up early and made sure he had time to button his shirt and still get to work on time. He even struggled to walk up the steps of his home with two canes. Some how I think this was the least of his problems. Obama's words were not inspiring stuff but damaging stereotype. As Obama spoke I wondered what happened to his support for the Community Choice Act? This surely would have helped his father-in-law. No mention of this legislation was made, legislation he now supports in theory but it is off the table when talking about health care reform. Obama did not say a word, not one, about the current rate of unemployment among people with a disability. When the ADA was passed 19 years ago the unemployment rate was 70%, today it is 66% Surely we can do better in almost two decades.

Since Sunday I have been very cranky. I miss my son who is in China as part of the People to People program. It is getting hot (I detest the heat) and cannot afford to replace my central air conditioner that broke at the end of last summer. I am angry about the lack of interest in the anniversary of the ADA. Sorry, but 22 minutes on CSPAN does not constitute a major investment of the President's time. I am worried Obama is listening and enamored with people like Peter Singer who want to get the maximum "bang for their buck" when it comes to health care reform. Having a disability is not cheap and this cannot help but have a negative impact on the lives of people such as myself and others who may be perceived as an expensive burden not worth investing in. Most of all I am angry almost 20 years after the ADA was passed I still cannot leave my home without thinking about whether I can get into a bathroom, find a spot to park my car, navigate the aisle of the supermarket or a restaurant, encounter someone that thinks "its so good to see you out", or others who assume I have nothing better to do than answer silly questions about my disability because they are curious. This was what the ADA was supposed to ameliorate. It is why I am angry, hot, and unhappy. Today is a day I do not respect my fellow humans.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Happy Anniversary: Who Cares?

Today is the 19th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act. Unlike previous years when I had friends over to my home to celebrate the day I began to share the same civil rights as other Americans, today I have no such plans. I don't feel like celebrating in part because the ADA is the only civil rights legislation that has utterly failed to resonate with the general public. You average American does not care about the ADA and if they put any thought into the legislation at all they would be worried about how much it will cost them as a business owner or tax payer. How do I know this? I watched all three major network news programs (ABC, CBS, and NBC), local and national, and the ADA anniversary was filler on two programs for less than 15 seconds. This is deeply depressing and indicative of why 19 years after the law was passed equality for people with a disability has not changed substantially. Consider the following:

When the ADA was passed the unemployment rate among people with a disability was 70% Today the unemployment rate is 66%

The poverty rate among people with a disability is three times higher than those who do not have a disability. This has not changed one iota in 19 years.

It is estimated one in six Americans has a disability. When was the last time you saw a person with a visible disability at work or when shopping at a myriad of stores?

When was the last time you saw a blind person and their seeing eye dog at work, school, theatre, on a bus, at an airport, or in the community?

Does the college you went to or the school you attended teach American Sign Language as part of its language program?

Name three leaders in the history of the disability rights movement (FDR and Christopher Reeve do not count)?

What is the purpose of the ADA Restoration Act and when was it passed into law?

What does ADAPT stand for and advocate?

The above facts and questions are not or shouldn't be considered obscure. However, I estimate no more than a tiny fraction of people could answer the questions I posed. This is a problem and people are suffering because of it. People with a disability remain stigmatized, unemployed, and invisible. Progress, glacial at best, is an indictment of the American people. We as a country have failed. The ADA has failed. You my dear reader have failed. I have failed. We have all failed to follow and in some cases even acknowledge the law. This failure is not complicated. Indeed, is simple. The point of the ADA is that people with a disability cannot be discriminated against. In spite of this discrimination is common place. I know each and every day I leave my home I will encounter social and architectural barriers. Cab drivers in New York City will not stop to pick me up. The building where I teach has no ramp that conforms to the ADA and I cannot enter the bathroom. When I fly I routinely am treated poorly by airline personnel and significantly delayed getting off a plane. The public school my son attends in the affluent suburbs of New York has one accessible "short bus". The auditorium at my son's school is grossly inaccessible despite the fact it was just renovated.

The failure of the ADA is proof positive that one cannot legislate equality and civil rights for a disenfranchised group of people without the public support. And let me assure you there is no public support for the ADA and the civil rights of people with a disability. Let me also assure you that in spite of what the Supreme Court thinks people with a disability are a distinct and insular minority group. Economically, socially and politically people with a disability are oppressed. We people with a disability are not in positions of power. We are not elected to office, appointed as judges, hired as teachers, employed or visible in our community. The consequences of this are profound and its historic roots unknown. Disability in the broadest sense of the term is a bogey man--something people fear but rarely acknowledge. In the "olden days" institutions dotted the landscape where we warehoused people with a disability. The conditions at these institutions were horrific (think Willowbrook). The doors to these institutions may be closed and little blue wheelchair signs abound but people with a disability remain isolated at multiple levels. I know all about isolation because I am always the only person that uses a wheelchair where ever I go. I am the only person that uses a wheelchair at work. I am the only regular shopper at a number of stores I frequent that uses a wheelchair. I am always the only wheelchair user on a plane, train or bus. I am the only dinner at a restaurant that uses a wheelchair. I am the only person that attends a local parade, town or school board meeting that uses a wheelchair. I am the only professor my students have had that uses a wheelchair. You get the point but has the question why popped into your head? Why am I so singularly unusual? I am unusual because bigotry is the norm. Architectural and social barriers exist because we Americans permit them. We vote against inclusion and all those expensive elevators, wheelchair lifts, interpreters for the deaf, aides and special education teachers in our schools. We build multi million dollar athletic fields in our communities but fight like rabid dogs to prevent a group home from opening.

The average American does not argue for inclusion, that is left to people like me and as a result I am considered to be a narcissist, interested in my own welfare. For change to happen we crippled people must get angry and stay that way. We must become uppity cripples just as blacks were once called "uppity niggers". We must piss on charity, think Jerry Lewis, and assert our civil rights. That means get on the bus, plane, train and airplane and go to school or work. In return we must reach out and get other disenfranchised groups and the general public to support us. When people complain about our presence and the cost of access we must react--civil disobedience of the sort practiced by ADAPT works. We must spread this word and find a charismatic leader who has the chance to become a media darling. We need a go to guy or gal the media can count on when disability rights makes the news. The message must be clear: equality is not solely about architectural barriers but equal access in our communities, the ability to get to and from school or work, representation in government and private business. We have rights, equal rights, and they must be respected. It is the law. Break this law and you go to jail. Like I said the message is simple and the laws are already in place. We just need people to comply.