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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hard to Believe: Sports Illustrated, Teddy Kremer and Feel Good Stories

Last week I saw your typical feel good story on the news. Teddy Kremer, a 30 year old man with Down Syndrome served as honorary bat boy for the Cincinnatti Reds. The game was a blow out. the Reds won 11-1. What was of interest, the "heart warming" story, was Teddy Kremer's request. He asked Todd Frazier to hit a home run. In archetypical baseball lore dating back to Babe Ruth Frazier came through. He hit a bomb to deep center field. No big deal given the game was well out of hand. What took place when he crossed home plate became the story. Teddy Kremer was thrilled. I recall watching the highlights and am not afraid to admit I got teary eyed. Talk about joy and love for the game! Teddy Kremer expressed such raw emotion it brought back vivid memories from my own childhood when I lived and died with each and every NY Mets win or loss in 1969. Baseball with all its ups and downs, heart breaks and joy filled my life at a time when I was morbidly sick and hospitalized. Oh the look on the face of Kremer and Frazier. Even the prerequisite umpire's stony faced veneer cracked--he had a wide grin on his face as he watched Kramer. The crowd cheered louder for Teddy Kremer's reaction than it did for Frazier's home run. And this is exactly where I expected the story to end. A classic feel good moment in baseball. Numerous local television stations showed the video clip. See it for yourself:

I forgot about Teddy Kremer until yesterday when I read a great article by Paul Daugherty in Sports Illustrated entitled "Reds Batboy with Down Syndrome a Great Story, But it Shouldn't End". Link: Daugherty acknowledges feel good stories are easy to write and an integral part of baseball lore. ESPN has taken interest in Kramer as has the Speaker of the House John Boehner. Kremer already had some familiarity with the Reds. He served as batboy in August 2012 (his parents won a silent auction at a fund raiser and paid $300). According to Daugherty, Kremer has been batboy twice. The publicity has been uniformly positive. Again, this is where 99% of stories end--especially in sport reporting. But not this time. Daugherty argues that "its time to do better. Kremer's story can't end here. Worse, it can't continue the same as now, with Kremer the 30 year old man making cameos racking Reds bats, whenever the sentiment strikes. The mascoting of  Teddy has to end before it stops being wonderful and becomes something far less. These stories have to become more nuanced as our society has become more attuned with the lives of our citizens with disabilities. There is a subtle bend in the road, where good and right run head on into patronizing and exploitive. That curve hasn't been reached. But its just up there in the near distance. The next time Kremer is at Great American Ball Park it should be as an employee of the team". 

When I read the above I almost fell out out of my wheelchair. I read that passage again and again. Sports Illustrated bemoaning feel good stories? Sports Illustrated calling for a more nuanced understanding of disability? I am stunned. Reds chief operating officer  Phil Castellini is quoted as stating Kramer is "incredibly capable. He could do all kinds of stuff. I could put him in customer service any where in the building and he'd continue to put smiles on people's faces". Teddy Kremer's mother notes that her son has worked a few part time jobs and employment with the Reds would be a huge boost to his self esteem. She also soberly notes he would need to learn how to use the mass transit system.

The above is a radical departure from your typical story about disability. I have been energized by the fact this story appeared in a staid publication such as Sports Illustrated. This is about as mainstream as one can get. Buzzed on too much tea this morning I started dreaming big. The Reds could hire Kramer and many other capable men and women who have Down Syndrome. They could foster a relationship with the Down Syndrome community and become not just an employer but powerful advocate for people with Down Syndrome. I can dream bigger! Major League Baseball could become the spearhead for a work program for people with a host of disabilities. MLB could encourage (require) all teams to hire people with a disability. One could even make the case that every team employ a certain percentage of people with a disability. This could be marketed as the next great social revolution in baseball history. The effort could be tied to Jackie Robinson's legacy as the first black man to break the color line. Label this jobs program something catchy like "42's Legacy" and build the infrastructure for a jobs program. Just think of the exposure. Tens of millions of people who attend baseball games would encounter people with disabilities who are employed. This could truly revolutionize people's perception of disability. If Americans understand anything it is baseball and work. Wow, I am dreaming big today!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

ADAPT Protests: A Veritable Black Hole

I have always deeply admired ADAPT. I half jokingly refer to them as the Special Forces of the disability rights movement.  ADAPT was formed in 1978, the year I was paralyzed.  Those interested in the disability rights movement are familiar with the history of ADAPT (American Disabled  for Attendant Programs Today). Briefly, ADAPT was started by 19 disability rights activists in Denver. These men and women surrounded a Denver bus at the corner of Colfax and Broadway.  Like virtually every bus in the United States, Denver mass transit buses had no wheelchair lift. 19 proud and pissed off people surrounded an inaccessible bus, disrupted service and loudly proclaimed they were not going to leave. It was civil disobedience at its very best. The Denver demonstration had a domino affect. Comparable protests took place in other cities. Success however did not come quickly. It was not until 1982 that Denver ordered 89 accessible buses. Other cities quickly followed Denver's lead, including New York City. Today, bus service in NYC and most major cities is reliable and accessible.

I have been thinking about the humble origins of ADAPT. ADAPT still exists and remains on the front lines of the battle for disability rights. In fact ADAPT has been in Washington DC protesting. Arrests have been made. 41 in fact. I would think this is a news worthy event. I recall last year ADAPT made the mainstream news in part thanks to the arrest of the actor Noah Wyle. Since ADAPT arrived in Washington DC a few days ago I have scoured various news outlets for stories. I found a grand total of none. Not one. Google the web: "ADAPT protests Washington DC" and one will find references to last year's arrest of Wyle. Not a word has been written about the actions of ADPT this year. Not one article in the Washington newspapers, Huffington Post, New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, etc. It is as though ADAPT is protesting in a black hole. I find this deeply disturbing. The visuals ADAPT presents are striking. Hundreds of people with every sort of disability one can imagine protesting. Long lines of wheelchairs going down the street. Juxtapose protestors with disabilities against the iconic buildings of Washington DC and one would think this would sell a lot of newspapers and get television viewers to tune in. Um, no. And thus I wonder why. Why is ADAPT being ignored by every major news outlet? I think the complete lack of attention is based on the deeply internalized belief that disability is first and foremost a medical issue. Disability is not about a disenfranchised population of people but rather a highly individualized physical deficit. I have railed against this line of thinking consistently as has ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund, and many other disability rights groups too numerous to mention.

As I see it, ADPAT actions in Washington primary aim is to galvanize the disability rights movement. I wish this were not the case. In fact I wish the media would give ADAPT the attention they deserve. Disability is a social problem--a point the vast majority of people do not understand. I find it fascinating how disability based bias is acted out. As Mary Johnson, long time editor of the Ragged Edge, pointed out  it is not as though people are taught to be biased against people with a disability. People are taught disability is different--again we people with a disability are "special". When we fly on a plane we need to special serves. We get a special education. We have special buses. We have special entrances to buildings. We have special schools. We have special lifts and elevators. None of this is taught. People suck up this idea of special like a sponge. I was think of this when I saw the video below:

As noted on the video the police completely ignored protestors that used a wheelchair. Instead the police go after a bipedal protestor and take him down with force. The police took down this bipedal man who could not hear because it is an ordinary event. The visuals are mundane. The outcome is clear: the man will be arrested and released. Why did the police utterly ignore protestors that used a wheelchair? I am willing to bet they dismissed the protestors that used a wheelchair without thought. This is how deeply ingrained disability bias runs. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the police knew all their accessible paddy wagons were in use.  Maybe they were instructed wheelchair dumping was not permitted. Wheelchair dumping is a police procedure in which the police come up behind a person using a wheelchair and lift the back of the wheelchair up and dump the person on the ground. This is exactly the sort of imagery that makes the police look bad. You do not dump people out of their wheelchairs. This is socially unacceptable.

The only way to follow ADAPT is via their website and social media. See Many people associated with ADAPT have been  posting photographs on Facebook. The images are striking and uplifting--note I avoided the word inspiring. ADAPT is uplifting in the sense I am encouraged that so many people are willing to devote their time and energy to a civil rights cause.  Many people are willing to travel to Washington and brave the streets where they could be subject to arrest. These people have my utmost respect. In the post 9/11 era I am not willing to take such a risk. While I admire people willing to to dissent and protest, I fear retaliation and arrest given the Patriot Act can be used and abused. I was shaken by the actions of the government in Boston. Martial Law was declared. Tanks and hummers were deployed. Black hawk helicopters flew over people's homes. The excessive show of force was a shock to me. The suspension of civil liberties, such as walking outside your door step, stunning. All this in the name of national security. All this to apprehend a 19 year old man. So yes I fear the national security state and am delighted to know some of my peers are willing to protest.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

NYC Taxi Service: Bloomberg as Bigot

New York City taxi service is unique and in many cases reflects the culture of the city itself. If you use a wheelchair NYC taxi service is on par with Third World countries. It is uniformly bad--bad as in biblically bad. Taxi drivers as a group are uniformly hostile to any person with a disability. A special disdain exists if you use a wheelchair or have a guide dog and exhibit the temerity to hail a cab. Lots of tricks are employed, required really, to get a taxi in NYC. My friend Steve Kuusisto who uses a guide dog gets hotel doormen to hail a cab for him. I too have used this ploy. I prefer to ask a well dressed man or woman to hail a cab for me. I wait in hiding between parked cars. When the taxi stops I emerge and grab the door so the taxis cannot pull away. I have been cursed at, screamed at, and been called a bastard in many different languages. Gee, I get the feeling I am not a valued customer.

NYC taxi driver hostility has not changed much in the last twenty years. On the rare instance I hail a taxi I assume the driver will be hostile. Taxi driver hostility directed at people with a disability is significantly worse in my opinion. The increased hostility stems from the Bloomberg administration public and baseless opposition to making the taxi fleet, the so called taxi of tomorrow, wheelchair accessible.  Bloomberg has made some outlandish statements that are devoid of reality. My favorite was Bloomberg's suggestion that hailing cab from the street was too dangerous for a person that used a wheelchair. I also heard Bloomberg state it was too costly to make the taxis accessible. Worse yet, taxis would be heavier and less fuel efficient. Bloomberg noted taxi drivers in accessible taxis would be very far away from the passenger and would lose out on tips. None of Bloomberg's statements made to date have a foundation in truth. If you doubt me I suggest you read pretty much anything Simi Linton has written. She has spear-headed the opposition to Bloomberg and earned my utmost respect. Go Simi go! 

This morning I was surfing the internet and came across the following: This site is fantasy land. It is so preposterous I do not even know where to begin. Accessible Dispatch is a slick little site. If you had never been to NYC or hailed a taxi in any city in the world one could think hey this is cool. Phrases such a "the city awaits you" and "its about inclusion" are highlighted on the welcome page. Under How it works is the following: "Once our service is requested, we will dispatch one of New York City's wheelchair accessible taxicabs directly to your pick up location in Manhattan. Accessible Dispatch is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and requires absolutely no advanced reservations, although you may place an advance service order if you so wish. There are currently 233 yellow wheelchair accessible taxicabs operating in the city of New York". A person that uses a wheelchair can send a text, phone call, use an app or order a taxi on line. Here is what the website and Bloomberg gloss over. There are over 23,000 taxis in New York City. 233 are accessible. The odds of finding an accessible taxi going by you are less than 2% In Bloomberg logic what is the best way to address this gross inequity? Create a dispatch service. Really? Somehow I do not feel ever so special. 

Imagine this: You need a cab. It is April. It is Friday at 6:30PM. A huge thunderstorm is approaching. It is windy and cold. You are near Madison Square Garden and the Knicks are playing. Taxi after taxi is blowing by you. And what does the Bloomberg administration suggest you do? Call or text for a taxi. How long will one wait? Um, till hell freezes over. Honestly, think about this scenario. Really think hard. Consider the ADA was passed into law 22 years ago. You use a wheelchair and according to the Federal Government have the same civil rights as all those bipedal people with their hands up hailing a taxi. Taxi after taxi stops for bipedal people. What are we people who use a wheelchair supposed to do? Call or text for a taxi? Use an app? Give me a break. Have you ever tried to use 311? Good luck with an endless chain of menus that go nowhere.  What gets me the most is the leap in logic made by the Bloomberg administration. Who uses a wheelchair? Meek jobless wenches such as myself happy for any handout the almighty bipedal humans will dole out. Our lives cannot compare to the honorable Mayor Bloomberg. And yes there I go again. The bitter cripple with a chip on my shoulder who wants to takeout all his anger out on others. What is not considered is where that anger is coming from. Could it be that I get the shaft every time I try to hail a taxi, get on a plane or a train? Could it be that my civil rights are violated virtually every time I go outside my home? This is where my anger stems from--commonplace and socially sanctioned bias. The word used to describe the sort of civil rights violations I experience is bigotry. Am I mad? You bet your ass I am. My anger has nothing to do with my paralysis or use of a wheelchair. My anger does not come from some pathological form of narcissism. It is never all about me. It is about the next person with a disability and the fervent wish that person does not encounter the same needless social and architectural barriers I had to dismantle. 

Addendum: Please see comments for correction from Taxis for All director.