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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why Don't You Just Die

I had to do something inconsequential yesterday. I needed to go to the apartment building office where I live and put in a simple work request. I planned to do this at 9am shortly after the office opened. I went to the office in question at 4:30pm. I did not exit my apartment until late afternoon because I was overcome with anxiety. When one has a disability, going outside can be dangerous. I do not typically fear for my physical safety. I fear and dread what people will say to me. I feel as though I am a Martian living on the planet Earth and the Earthlings that surround me hate my existence. Worse, they have the means to easily destroy me. In New York, I was accustom to being on guard at all times. In Denver, I have become more relaxed--perhaps complacent. The routine hostility I encountered in gritty Syracuse is largely absent. The homeless have not harassed me in Denver.  No one has followed me. Not a single person has called me the anti-Christ. I have had some surly bus drivers and train conductors deploy lifts with obvious disdain. I have received the usual stares from strangers. I have had people inappropriately leap out of my way in fear. No one, however, has said anything truly rotten to me since I arrived in Denver. Last week that changed.

I was trying to get an RTD discount card available to people with a disability. To get such a card is exacting. Forms must be filled out perfectly. One must waive all rights to privacy in terms of medical records. The state of Colorado wants full access to any and all medical information. I am entitled to a discount but it comes at a cost that is not insignificant. A statement from a physician that I have a permanent disability is not adequate in this GOP dominated state. I must be examined by a physician. I am also required to go in person to an RTD office, be photographed, issued a discount card, and forgo my right to medical privacy. Despite the humiliation ritual involved, I remained in a good mood. I reminded myself that I live in the Denver suburbs and I am less than 30 minutes from downtown. Denver  is a major western city. I ride the train regularly and exit into Union Station. Cool cafes abound. The city is alive. I can walk to Coors Field and see a baseball game. Every type of food imaginable is readily available. Marijuana is legal. Bookstores abound. The city has a positive vibe and its diversity is wildly appealing to me.

Feeling good and waiting for the light to change so I can cross the street I feel eyes boring into my body. The hair on the back of my neck goes up. Oh no I think. I look to my right and see a well dressed business man in an expensive suit and tie. His highly polished black shoes and suit scream money. He is not flashy but rather exceptionally well dressed and looks like a master of the universe. About six feet tall he sneers at me in complete and utter disgust. Here it comes I think. He did not disappoint.

"Why don't you people just die? His head shakes: "What a waste of life". The light turns green and off he goes.

I have heard this sort of comment for the last forty years. Of course such a comment is not the norm. People only make this comment when I am alone and assumed to be an easy target. Such bigoted thoughts are not socially acceptable. However, alone at a corner, I am an easy target. Strangers feel empowered to be as cutting as humanly possible verbally and physically. There is no question in my mind this man and others wish I did not exist. My presence was an affront. This is a base form of ableism. I try to tell myself social progress has been made since I was paralyzed. I get on the bus and train without rancor. The physical environment is far more accessible than it once was. This line of thought feels delusional when a stranger tells me "Why Don't you just die". What is my recourse? I could call the police, the FBI or Department of Justice and report a hate crime. Hate crimes based on one's perceived or actual race, color, religion, national origin or gender are illegal. While hate crimes protections have existed since 1968 it was not until 2009 that the word disability was included. According to the FBI, of all the hate crimes reported in 2015 1.7% were disability based. If I tried to report this man I likely would be laughed at. The police have better things to do and I have no doubt any officer that would show up has no clue what ableism is. Given the current presidential administration, I know the DOJ will never act on a supposedly isolated incident.  As always, I know where I stand. Alone. My people, we crippled people, are about as disenfranchised as humanly possible. Report a hate a crime? Good luck with that.

More than 25 years post Americans with Disability Act and four decades of progressive legislation designed to empower people with a disability, disability based bigotry abounds. Disability based bigotry has taken a toll on me. Yesterday, it took me all day to work up the courage to walk outside my door, go down a hall way, use an elevator, and request a work order be created by the apartment building office. This most mundane chore required great deal of will power.

I for one will never succumb to disability based discrimination. I will continue to leave my home. I will get on trains, busses, and air planes. I will work, write, and teach. I will do the ordinary. I will live life to the fullest. None of this makes me special. I am certainly not inspiring. I am overcoming though. I am overcoming a hostile social environment in which a well dressed business man in a major American city feels it is perfectly acceptable to tell me I should "just die". A social tragedy took place in my estimation. The tragedy was not my existence or the fact I am a paralyzed man. The tragedy was crass bigotry freely expressed and free of any consequences.