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Friday, June 8, 2012

Cant' You Walk a Little Bit?

I flew from New York JFK Airport to San Jose recently. As usual, the experience was trying at best. Flying in the post 9/11 era is miserable. Security is designed to humiliate passengers into being subservient. Airlines nickel and dime passengers at every opportunity and there is a fee for everything.  None of this is news to anyone who has flown in the last few years. I am not your typical passenger and my experience is well out of the norm. I would love to have an ordinary experience—that is to be subject to routine degradation. But my degradation surpasses what bipedal people will ever experience.  If one uses a wheelchair you are sure to have a negative experience flying—it is the norm.

The hardest part of flying for me is the most basic—getting on and off the plane. Flying home to New York from San Jose on the Red Eye led to the following encounter.  In terms of problems one can encounter this was minor.  It made me yearn to be bipedal.

We have landed and the door to the plane is open. People begin to stream out of the plane and the stewardess states to the ground crew “We have one straight back, he has his own wheelchair in the belly of the plane”. A declarative statement. No problem you may think. Ten minutes later I hear the ground crew ask the stewardess “How many wheelchairs do you need?” The reply, “One straightback and he has his own wheelchair.” The flow of exiting passengers is now a trickle—parents with kids and seasoned travelers who just woke up. The ground crew looks into the plane and asks “How many wheelchairs?” Again, the reply, “One straightback, he has his own chair.” Another ten minutes go by.  At least twenty minutes have passed since the stewardess requested a straightback. Every passenger has exited the plane. The pilot and co-pilot have exited as well. Three women, ground personnel, look in at me. They stare, say nothing and exit. They return moments later with an airline wheelchair wide enough to sit two people. Without preamble I am told, commanded really, “Get in this chair”. The stewardess again states “He needs a straighback and he has his own chair”. Ground personnel look perplexed, do not reply and exit the plane again. Minutes later they return. They have my wheelchair now. Again, the ground personnel state “Get in the wheelchair”. Yet again the stewardess states “He needs a straighback. That is his wheelchair outside.” I look at her, she looks at me we both say “JFK sucks”.  The ground personnel look hopelessly bewildered. I am loudly told “Just walk a little bit to the wheelchair.” Maybe they think in addition to being paralyzed I am perhaps deaf. I state that I need a straightback. Ground personnel are taken aback. I am asked “You can’t walk a little bit?” No, I reply. The stewardess says “He needs a straightback”.  Yes, I say “I need a straightback”. Utter confusion reigns supreme.  Ground personnel are befuddled and one person asks the stewardess, not me,  “You mean he cannot walk at all? What do we do? How do we get him out of the seat?” Stunned silence ensues. I take a deep breath and remain calm. I state yet again I need a straightback. A look of confusion mixed with fear comes across the ground personnel and they ask me “Are you certain you cannot walk a little bit?” The stewardess and I just look at one another. In unison we say “we need a straightback”. Completely perplexed ground personnel leave the plane.  A few minutes go by. Not only have all the passengers left but the cleaning crew is on board the plane and they are looking at me and wondering why the hell is this guy still on the plane. Ground personnel return and they have the straightback. This tiny wheelchair is placed next to my aisle seat. I transfer into the straightback, position straps against my legs. The straightback is pushed all of the six or eight feet and then I transfer into my wheelchair. Time elapsed since landing: 45 minutes.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Casey Martin Qualifies for the US Open

I have been relatively silent in the past two weeks. The reasons are pretty simple. I have been away from home for much of the time. Yesterday I was stuck in the car for the entire day. Classifying myself as "stuck in the car" is misleading--I love long drives. The longer the better in fact. Being in the car enables me to listen to the radio for hours. I have eclectic tastes--I listen to horrible local AM stations, especially talk radio. I listen to much music, mostly pre corporate rock. I listen to NPR outlets. Yesterday much of my time was spent listening to sports talk.  I find this sort of dialog mind numbing. However, yesterday was different. Casey Martin is back in the news. Casey Martin is unknown outside of golfing and his few minutes of fame took place when he sued the PGA Golf Tour in the late 1990s. Martin has a physical disability that makes walking inherently difficult and he believed he had the right to use a golf cart under the ADA on the PGA Tour. The use of a gold cart was in his opinion a "reasonable accommodation". The PGA and many well-know golfers vehemently disagreed. Martin won his case that was decided by the Supreme Court. In 2001 Martin was national news.  What was and was not a "reasonable accommodation" was widely discussed in the popular press. Sport fans were not happy. The PGA was predictably stuffy. What I remember most circa 2001 was friends asking me what I thought. I felt Martin was correct--using a golf cart was very much within the realm of the ADA. Using a golf cart was indeed a "reasonable accommodation". This was not a popular position to take. As I recall, people that engaged me wanted to know where do we draw the line? Was walking not an integral part of the game of golf? I believed then as I do now that Martin's use of a cart did not give him an unfair advantage nor did it change the character of the sport. In Martin's case, it simply empowered him to play the game at the elite level he had achieved.

I have not thought about Martin for ten years. He glided into obscurity after he failed to qualify for the PGA Tour. Apparently he has forged a new career as a golf coach in Oregon where he grew up and went to college. Against all odds, Martin qualified for the US Open this week. This has rekindled a debate about whether the use of a golf cart is indeed a "reasonable accommodation." In 2001 the attacks on Martin by professional golfers was vicious. Some classified his use of a golf cart as outrageous. Walking is part of the game! If you doubt this, many said, try walking 18 holes of golf. Fast forward eleven years and such inflammatory comments are hard to find in the mainstream press. Perhaps the last decade that has witnessed a veritable revolution in adaptive sports has made the general public open to reasonable accommodations of the sort used by Martin and other adaptive athletes. I am not sure this is the case. I would suggest discrimination is alive and well. I would also contend the fact Martin is a long shot at best to win is another variable. I have noticed that no one complains when a person with a disability participates against those without a disability--provided they lose badly--as in come in dead last. When a person with a disability actually wins is when other athletes and the general public complain. All of a sudden the athlete with a disability is not so "inspiring". Instead, the athlete that has a "reasonable accommodation" is perceived to have an unfair advantage. Oscar Pistorius is the best example of this line of reasoning. When he was winning in competitions against other amputees one and all were impressed. When he ran and lost against athletes with two legs no one complained. When he started defeating athletes who had legs all of a sudden he was not inspiring in the least. Instead his prostheses amounted to cheating.

The mainstream press is not interested in Martin. His participation in the US Open is filler. Golfing magazines and other specialist publications remain hostile. For instance, I just read the opening to an article "US Open and the Casey Martin Question" that began: "As we ramp up towards the U.S. Open that will be played at the Olympic Club, I have to get something off my chest: Casey Martin should not be playing at The Open this year." The author notes that Martin is "afflicted" with a birth defect that makes walking 18 holes of golf too painful. Under the guise of the ADA, the Supreme Court decided walking was not an integral part of the game and that Martin could use a golf cart. Blasphemy!  "Anyone who has played 18 holes will tell you walking is certainly a portion of the four-day tournament". Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tiger Woods agree! Using a cart is akin to destroying the integrity of the game. Worse yet, why should Martin be allowed to have "special rules"? Why should Martin "ride easily in a cart for four days in the name of fairness".  The author of this opinion piece concludes: " the world is not fair.  I am sorry to spoil it for you.  As many times as we try to even the playing field we are doing it at another’s expense". 

The above line of reasoning is classic. We Americans are all born equal. We are rugged individualists. We pull ourselves up by our boot straps. Some people are not so fortunate. We have "special schools" and "special education" for them. We provide such accommodations out of the goodness of our hearts. We do not to consider individuals with a disability  to be equal to the all powerful bipeds for the author notes life is not fair. And my goodness what could be more unfair than a disability!  Thus Martin is not only a bad sport but hopelessly selfish. He is destroying the integrity of the game. He is ruining the sport for all. To me, this line of reasoning is twisted, hopelessly backwards. It is also common place. It makes me wonder exactly what has the ADA accomplished in the last 20 years. On bad days, I shake my head and conclude the ADA has done nothing. On good day, I think the exact opposite. The truth I suspect lies somewhere between these polar opposites. What remains my constant refrain is the underlying problem with not only the ADA but all legislation meant to empower people with a disability--the total lack of a social mandate. Culturally people object to the notion of any so called "reasonable accommodation". This runs counter to cultural ideals we learn and incorporate without thinking. We Americans are all equal. We must treat one and all equally. One succeeds through hard work and hard work alone. Special accommodations are bad--it  undermines our entire culture. Anyone with an ounce of common sense can read through this cultural ideal as utter fantasy--a fantasy we accept and propagate. The presence of people with a disability upsets the cultural balance. It is a reminder that "life is not fair".  Lost in this cultural quagmire is the simple fact that disability rights are civil rights.  Now that concept is worth thinking about and supporting.