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Friday, September 28, 2012

Your Typical Deli Experience

For the last few days I have had my good friend Stephen Kuusisto staying at my home. If you have not read Kuusisto's memoir Planet of the Blind and his blog under the same name you are missing great writing on disability. Steve is more than just a great writer. He is one of the few academics I have met that is not only exceptionally smart but hysterically funny. He also has a penchant for dropping F bombs multiple times a day. Thanks to him I have had the opportunity to hang out at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown, New York.  While he does his research toward his next book I have been working on a review essay regarding the divide between bioethics and disability studies scholars and disability activists. Writing this essay has been a struggle.

The Guiding Eyes for the Blind facility and the property it is situated on is spectacular. It is without question the most beautiful disability related institution I have ever been to. I have found being around Kuusisto and the staff I have met at the Guiding Eyes for the Blind energizing--far different from my usual solitary existence. It makes me yearn for a collegial academic environment. It has also boosted my ego, a dangerous thing for any male academic. Thankfully being disabled is the perfect cure for a big ego. Yesterday Kuusisto and I went out to a local deli to pick up lunch. Let me tell you a paralyzed guy using a wheelchair and a blind man with a seeing eye dog attracts attention. And yes this sounds like the start of a bad joke. At the deli I parked and Kuusisto got out first and we were chatting as I put my wheelchair back together. Kuusisto was leaning against a car when the owner showed up. The first words out of the female car owner was "I have a disability too. You are inspiring". I looked at Kuusisto and we instantly knew we were about to be verbally assaulted. This was a woman that was not aging well. She was on the north side of 40, had a severe blonde hair job designed to make her and others think she was still 20 something. The look was not working and there had been some hard miles put on her body and face. I suspect in her life time she had consumed too much alcohol and drugs. We obviously were public property and like many people far too willing to share her views despite the fact they were unwanted. We did not ask to be abused. We did not have a sign on our shirts stating abuse me. In the estimation of this woman, we were inspiring because we were out there in the world. We overcame our disability and the pain and misery we experienced. She of course knew what a mighty struggle this was. She told us she overcame her disability, bitterness and abject misery. She was not bitter. No sir. She conquered her disability.

I instantly knew her type. Any sort of engagement would be futile. I became mute. Kuusisto stated a few benign words to appease her. This was not a teaching moment. In her mind we were the archetype of disability, a belief etched in stone. It is experiences such as these that provide fodder for much laughter. This woman had no clue. We have joked a lot about this woman. She created a good story. But today I am not laughing. Today I am wondering when exactly will such ignorance disappear. When will people such as myself and Kuusisto, each of us highly educated authors, be treated with respect people without a disability enjoy. When will I cease to become public property. When will my life be ordinary. When can I be an anonymous middle aged white male. When will I not be subjected to baseless ignorance the woman in question was all too eager to share.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Headlines Are Important

Houston Police Shoot Wheelchair Bound Amputee Threatening People with Pen
Houston Police Kill Wheelchair Bound Man
HPD Officer Fatally Shoots Man in Wheelchair
Police Kill Mentally Troubled Double Amputee
Cop Shoots and Kills Man in Wheelchair 
Police Officer Kills One Armed One Legged Man
Sissy Cops Murder Wheelchair Bound Innocent

I could have provided many more headlines but they are all variations on the same theme. What immediately struck me was the fact not a single headline included the name of the wheelchair bound double amputee who was shot by a Houston police officer--heavy on the sarcasm here. The human being killed was Brian Claunch. Brian Claunch was shot dead. I know nothing about Brian Claunch’s life. Based on news reports Brian Claunch lost his limbs in a train crash. Why this is important I do not know.  CNN reported he had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. All reports state he was shot in a group home—a home specifically set up for mentally ill patients who are placed there for 24 hours after being released from the hospital. No reports state why he had been hospitalized or whether he had been hospitalized at all. All reports state Brian Claunch created a disturbance and the police were called at 1:30AM. Police state Brian Claunch cornered a police officer in his wheelchair and threatened him. According to the police Brian Claunch was holding a shiny object and that one of the police officers feared for his safety as well as the safety of others. Brian Claunch was shot once and died at the scene. The object he was wielding turned out to be a pen.

Some reports state the quarters inside the group home were cramped and that this was a variable in the shooting.  Juan Garcia described as the group home manager and in other reports as the owner of Healing Hands Home stated that he knew Brian Claunch for 18 months.  Mr. Garcia stated Brian Claunch was in his mid 40s and liked to doodle.  Garcia had given him a black felt pen to draw with two days prior to the shooting. Garcia stated Brian Claunch “had a temper. He could fly off once in a while. I don’t want to say he did anything or they did anything”. The night he was shot Brian Claunch was upset because he was not allowed to smoke nor given a soda.  Brian Claunch was so irate a staff member called 911. Unconfirmed reports state Brian Claunch was capable of making people in the group home feel threatened despite the fact he used a wheelchair.

Obviously I have used Brian Claunch’s name multiple times—far more than necessary. I have done this to establish the simple fact Brian Claunch was a human being. Brian Claunch's humanity was denied in all headlines. He was used to sell newspapers via catchy headlines designed to prompt outrage. How can a police officer kill an unarmed double amputee wheelchair bound man? The hysterical headlines all accept as a given a wheelchair bound double amputee could hardly represent a threat--one headline even calling the police sissies. We all know people with a disability are not a threat to the general public's safety. Afterall, there are steps to get into most homes and they serve as an effective barrier. Who wants a double amputee wheelchair bound person in their home?   All the stories I read ignored what I consider to be the important issues of the case. For instancce, I wondered are Houston police offers trained to deal with people such as Brian Claunch who was apparently mentally ill? If so did they send a trained officer or simply the nearest person on patrol? Exactly why was Brian Claunch living in a group home that was supposedly designed to observe people with mental illnesses released from the hospital for 24 hours? What were the conditions in the group home? If the rooms of the home were cluttered why was this the case? What sort of staffing did the group home have between midnight and 7AM?  More generally, what was Brian Claunch like? Was he homeless? Had he been in and out of group homes? Had he caused disturbances in the past as was suggested? These questions are worthy of our attention. Instead the mainstream press chose to dehumanize Brian Claunch--reduce his life to "wheelchair bound double amputee".  Now that is a tragedy built upon a tragedy.