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Friday, October 14, 2011

Come On, How Bad is it?

When the issue of disability rights comes up I am often asked, "Come on, how bad it it?" Some people have a hazy idea there was a law passed a long time ago that they are convinced solved all the problems of disability based discrimination. Others are simply oblivious. Disability discrimination in their estimation is a myth. The reasoning here is two fold: first, no one would or ever has discriminated against crippled people. Society looks after the less fortunate. Second, since discrimination has never taken place there is no need to protect the civil rights of people with a disability. Any connection between disability rights and civil rights is accordingly wrong and way off base. It is hard for me to fathom the way the general public thinks. But then I think of course, people are not exposed to disability until the end of life if they live long enough. Disability is not taught in secondary schools nor is it part of university curriculums. Hence, ignorance abounds.

So to return to the question, "Come on, just how bad is it?" Pretty damn bad. Horrifying in fact. A series of grim statistics have been released that indicate things are very bad. First I read a report in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, "Sexual Victimization Against Men with Disabilities" that not only are women with disabilities at great risk of sexual abuse but so too are men. This report found that men with cognitive disabilities were four times more likely to experience abuse than men without cognitive deficits. I tend to think the risk might be even greater because the study was specifically about cognitively disabled men who were not institutionalized. The researchers glumly concluded "Men with disabilities are at a heightened risk for lifetime and current sexual violence victimization. The most notable finding is that the prevalence of lifetime sexual violence, completed rape and attempted rape against men with disabilities was comparable to that against women without disabilities".

In keeping with the sexual violence and victimization, this week the Department of Justice released a report entitled "Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities, 200802010-Statistical Tables". And yes you guessed it things are pretty bad. In 2010, 567,000 people with a disability aged 12 and older were the victims of nonfatal crimes. No statistics were included about fatal crime victims. Again, these figures do not include people with disabilities in institutions. Nonfatal cries are rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault. Amazing this represents progress. In 2009, 753,000 people with disabilities were the victim of a nonfatal crime.

Again, I return to the question, "Come on, how bad is it?" Bad, very bad. And it gets worse. The violence experienced by Americans is minimal when compared to people with disabilities living in Third World countries. The odds of a person with a disability in a Third World country living to the age of 21 is about 20% Am I lucky to live in America? I suppose so but I certainly do not feel safe after reading the two reports discussed. I have never felt equal. I fear crowds. I am exceedingly aware of my surroundings. I secure my wallet carefully. I do not attend any event that could remotely turn violent. This excludes me from protesting, something I would very much like to do. I would not consider going to a football game here or abroad. I know in the event of a natural disaster shelters are most likely not accessible. Forget mass transportation. In the event of a plane crash my dim odds of survival are worse than every person that walked onto the plane. Need I go on? Equal I am not. In short, yes things are bad. But this does not bother me nearly as much as the fact no one seems to care. Not my neighbors, certainly not the local school board. The town government maybe? Not a chance. The only people who care are those whose life has been touched in a tangible way by disability. Some of my friends and family care. Some of my former students care. I know the people that read this blog care very much. I just wish I could reach the average person on Main Street as politicians like to invoke. Those people matter. Those people are the one that pose the question "come on, how bad is it"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Keep Quiet: A Clear Message

Certain social environments are hostile to people with a disability. There is no universal source of agreement on this. Much depends upon one's age, disability, gender, sexual orientation, social status, geographic location etc. For me, your average paralyzed, middle aged white male I do my best to avoid Catholic Churches, health food stores, and gyms to mention but three places that are hostile to inclusion. I know if I venture into anyone of these places I am going to be demeaned, insulted and treated as a second class citizen. My attitude is why bother? Cut my loses and read the Bible, order vitamins on line, and work out at home. I would also put one more social setting on the list as hostile to disabilities--and this is by no means universal--but would include university campuses. Given this, I was not surprised to read about a student at a New Jersey community college who was subjected to gross bigotry. The student in question stuttered. His teacher, an adjunct, suggested he not take up important class time and ask a question but rather submit questions in writing. The teacher also refused to call on this student in class. Much moral outrage has been expressed and the story has spread well beyond the confines of the New York City area. As usual when it comes to disability, the mainstream press has failed to grasp the larger importance of this incident. Instead news stories are stuck in the lurid details: how bad is the stutter? Adjuncts are under paid and incompetent! Is stuttering a disability? Is the teacher request for written questions a reasonable accommodation? All this misses the point--badly. What is at issue is a larger and growing animosity to students with disabilities on university campuses.

Are some American universities truly inclusive and responsive to disability rights? Yes, and I can think of many with a long history of inclusion. But the opposite is true as well. Some universities are hostile to people with disabilities. For instance, Ivy League institutions I would consider among the worst. When I graduated from Columbia in 1992 a mere two years after the ADA was passed into law I was pissed. Academic administrators purposely made my life miserable at Columbia. Access was not a priority, it was an onerous expensive burden. Cost cutting was common and elevators and wheelchair lifts rarely worked--more than once I was told service contracts for repair were too costly. Entrances that were accessible were often locked, keys mysteriously disappeared. These problems are minor when one considers the social hostility. More than once I was questioned about my place as a graduate student. Did I not feel guilty that I was preventing another qualified student from getting a degree? You see it was assumed I could never work, publish, or be employed.

Throughout the 1990s and until the mid 2000s universities became more accommodating socially and physically. Few if any professors were hired but plenty of students with disabilities were accepted. The welcome wagon came to a screeching halt when the economy tanked and a critical mass of students were suddenly not only asking but demanding reasonable accommodations be made. More than once I have had my professorial peers confess the campus "was over run with students with disabilities demanding ridiculous accommodations like extra class time". When I replied I saw no difference between a ramp and extra time on an exam I was deemed "difficult" or told "that ramps were entirely different".

What then is the larger significance of the story about the student with a stutter? Universities may be more physically accessible but the same institutions that build ramps and install elevators without complaint are far from inclusive. We people with a disability are second class citizens. Lip service is paid to our civil rights. How dare we ask for more! And I have it easy. Physical access for wheelchair users is assumed to be required and as such it is provided--of course if such access is expensive it is the first line item cut from the budget. The real animosity is reserved for students with learning disabilities and what can be called disability studies. Inclusion is much more than ramps and extra time to take a test. Over at Planet of the Blind Kuusisto remarked:

"when higher education can't manage a simple accommodation it delivers that old name tag: “second rate”. By not solving the problem the hierarchical dynamics of ableism are a defacto position.
Doing better means achieving something more than assuring the professional and dignified delivery of accommodations for people with disabilities. It requires a vigorous affirmation of the term “nothing about us, without us” and it means demanding full equality and respect for people with disabilities from all the offices of higher education. Unfortunately, as Lennard J. Davis has remarked, there’s a lingering ableism within neo-liberal circles, one that progressive faculty and administrators don’t generally recognize. I agree with Lenny Davis that the failure of higher education to incorporate disability into a broader framework of campus diversity is a good part of the problem. When an institutilon can imagine that people with disabilities are to be accommodated by special segregated offices and that's the whole of the matter, you are simply reaffirming a victorian (small v) assumption that the cripples belong in a special place--certainly they don't belong in the agora."

This is all too true. In my career I have yet to feel welcomed and my views on disability rights respected at universities where I have worked. Access it was clear was my problem. If I ever broached the subject of disability studies being included in the core curriculum the idea was met with derision. If you want to delve into this in detail, I suggest you read Lenny Davis work. His book Bending Over Backwards is outstanding as is his most recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Why Is Disability Missing From Discourse on Diversity (September 25). The skeptic reading this post may be thinking come on, you are full of yourself. I think not. When my son applied to college I learned much about the business of higher education. Diversity, we parents about send in huge tuition payments, were told the campus is diverse. Big bold colorful pictures of young men and women throwing frisbees abounded. Every ethnic group was represented. Not once did I see a photograph of my people. Never did I see a paralyzed student or professor depicted in admissions brochures. In fact, more than one campus tour was entirely not accessible. It was suggested that I remain behind while my son take a tour with dozens of other students and their parents. Call me crazy but this felt and seemed a lot like segregation. Would they have suggested black people stay behind? Not a chance. The fact I had this experience on the grounds of supposedly institutions of higher education is deeply troubling. A sure sign that universities have long way to go in understanding and respecting people with a disability. A good start might be a class on disability rights.