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Thursday, July 30, 2015

I am Not the Only Cranky Cripple

I am pleased to see many people with a disability and those familial with disability rights are writing about the short comings of the ADA. I am weary of adding the proviso "Yes, the ADA has been a central reason the physical and social environment is more accessible but..." Screw the but. We people with a disability are subjected to unacceptable abuse. If you doubt this assessment I suggest you read about an experience Liz Henry just had on a San Francisco bus. Link: Oh have I heard this before: You should't even be on the bus". It reminds me of the bad days when New York City MTA buses were first equipped with wheelchair lifts. The lifts, thanks in part to the mayor and rags such as the NY Post, people were staunchly opposed to them. I was a bus buddy for the EPVA and vividly recall waiting for a bus on a hot summer day and hearing people on the bus encourage the driver not to deploy the lift. I could hear most passengers chanting "Go, go, go, go...". Fast forward 25 years and the bus drivers in NYC treat me as poorly as any other passenger. Rarely does a bus driver refuse to deploy the lift. I am just a another body getting on and off. 

The above memory was prompted by reading post at Musings of an Angry Black Womyn. She wrote about the very white appearance of the disability rights celebrations. I am the symbolic representation of the movement: white, typical body in many ways, middle aged and using a manual wheelchair. My presence is expected. I am struck by this and the severely limited number of black people present at ADA celebrations. With delight I read the following: 

The face of the ADA, like the face of the disability community and the disability rights movement is White. Of course, those who authored the ADA, as well as the politicians who pushed it forward, along with the disability rights leaders and the one who signed it into law were all White. Fine. I have nothing but the deepest respect for you all. Still, the way the story is told, you'd think Black folks just sat on our duffs and sucked up the benefits of the ADA while White folks and a few Latinos did all the work.

I'm going to tell my version of the narrative, which is every bit as true as the mainstream version. Black folks helped get the ADA passed, too. We didn't write the law, but we put our bodies and lives on the line to get it passed. Even before the first word of the legislation was written, before the first hearing, before anything, 

Black folks were out there fighting for accessible public transportation and accessible public spaces. Black folks fought for the ADA just as hard as White folks. We chained and handcuffed ourselves to buses. We helped shut down buildings and stayed overnight in freezing cold weather. We climbed those 83 steps of the Capitol. We were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda, too, but no one seems to know or remember that. Even today, Black folks continue to put our bodies and lives on the line, but 99% of what you hear and see are White folks.

Am I angry? Jealous? Jaded? You bet! I see all these White folks being lauded and praised, but only a couple of token Blacks appear anywhere. Young White folks who weren't even born when we Black folks were being dragged from our wheelchairs or beat up by cops are being seen as the face of the movement, while Black folks aren't really spoken of unless you're considered respectable. To date, I've only seen three Black folks put forward as leaders in the disability rights movement and one of them has passed away.

Why is it that the face of the ADA, the disability community and the disability rights movement is White? Is it racism? Is it the system of White supremacy? Is it because White is the default condition or experience? I maintain that it's all of the above.

Bravo! Love the mixture of astute observations and anger. Ah, anger. A friend of mine jokes that "Anger gets shit done". All too true. Yet anger directed inward is incredibly destructive. Balancing two types of anger can be very difficult. I for one embrace anger that is directed outward in a painfully polite manner. I do my best to avoid directing anger inward as depression can be lethal. So on this dreary rainy day in Central New York I share the outward anger and musings Of An Angry Black Woman.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Transportation Inequality

I love to travel. It is among the best ways to learn about the diversity in the broadest sense of the term.  For instance without driving across states such as Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska one truly understands the term "America's bread basket". Our cities are also remarkably diverse. We have the fast paced energy of New York City and the cool chill of Seattle and Portland. We have dense urban areas and stunningly isolated ranges like the Wind River Valley in Wyoming. Our national parks are impressive and it is beyond my ability to describe their beauty. Not even Ken Burns multi part documentary adequately showed off the national parks.

There is one constant for me when I travel. Access to mass transportation for a person such as myself that uses a wheelchair is routinely difficult in the extreme. Buses, trains, subways, taxis, planes all needlessly create chaos that undermine the ability of people with a disability  to travel. Airlines routinely destroy wheelchairs. Wheelchair lifts on buses are somehow broken or the drivers refuse to use the lift often claiming ignorance. Accessible taxis are as rare as diamonds in many cities. Subways in the vast majority of cities are grossly inaccessible. Rental car companies often do not have the car with hand controls rented weeks or days in advance. Shuttle buses at airports are not always accessible. Hotel shuttle buses are also typically not accessible. Profound and difficult problems abound. Discount travel is pure folly. Airbnd and Uber have been hostile to people with a disability and been sued multiple times. Hotels usually have a severely limited number of accessible rooms all too often located next to the ice machine, across from the elevator or another undesirable location. Restaurants have what I call "cripple tables", like hotel rooms, the location is terrible.

Clearly the presence of people with a disability when traveling is a problem--an individual problem for which others are ever so sorry exists. I do not want an "I am sorry" I want to be equal to the bipedal hordes that the country is designed for. The lack of access has been on my mind since I left Boston. Unlike the NYC subway system, the Boston T is remarkably accessible. About 80% of the stops are accessible. In NYC I would guess at most 20% of MTA stops are accessible. Essentially the NYC subway system is useless if you use a wheelchair. I do not even bother to consider it as an option. This graphic more than my words highlight just how bad the NYC subway is in terms of access.

First, the MTA map for bipeds:

Now a map for the MTA accessible stops. This does not take into consideration all the broken elevators which is a sizable percentage.

I have looked at the maps above for over a month. I shake my head in wonder and concern. How is a poor or middle class person using a wheelchair going to get to work on a timely and inexpensive way? In NYC it is not the subway system. If you use a wheelchair and want to use the mass transit system in NYC the bus is the best option. MTA bus drivers may not be friendly but they rarely complain about operating the wheelchair lift. No mass transportation system is ideal.  My only complaint with the Boston T was the elevators. They are filthy and the stench can be overwhelming. Worse, they are used by some as a toilet or a place to smoke pot and crack. What I felt in Boston using the subway was freedom. I had the freedom to get from point A to point B quickly inexpensively and efficiently. The only other city I could say the same about is San Francisco and BART. The fact severely limited mass transportation options exist helps explain in part why so many people with a disability are unemployed--a number that has not changed since the ADA was signed into law. So pardon me if I remain cranky about all the ADA parties, marches, and heaps of praise the law has received the last few weeks.

My good friend and colleague Stephen Kuusiso is like me in that we are both weary of ADA celebrations. Life for we people with a disability is hard. This is not a woe is me observation. It is simply a fact. In Kuusito's blog Planet of the Blind he recently wrote he is a "sour puss".

I feel as if the celebrations are taking place while Rome is burning. What a sour puss! 
As of today, only 25% of college students with disabilities actually graduate.
As of today, 70% of the disabled remain unemployed.
As of today, airlines destroy wheelchairs in transit at alarming rates.
As of today, public transportation remains marginally accessible in most cities.
As of today, I could go on and on…
Sour puss indeed.
“But Kuusisto,” you say, “haven’t we made significant progress since 1990? Can’t you see that?”
I’m not sure.  Most businesses and universities think of the ADA as “an unfunded mandate” and treat it with disrespect.
Progress. How we Americans love progress. Progress and the ADA do not do much good for the person with a  disability that wants to travel. If I fly to Chicago, Denver, Seattle, San Jose, New Orleans and dozens of other cities and ask a myriad of people how can I get from the airport to downtown the most common reply is "I have no idea". I find this unacceptable. So please let's stop talking about how great the ADA is. The ADA was a start, nothing more than a start that has not been supported by the general population of the United States. What I hear again and again is the ADA is an unfunded social mandate. This disturbs me. The ADA is Civil Rights legislation designed to protect the rights of people with a disability. Frankly, the law is weak, poorly written, and ignored. I am not happy and will continue to express my displeasure. Screw the ADA parties. Go form a protest, practice civil disobedience and make the nation accessible to all. The ADA sure has not been all its cracked up to me.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Being dissed at Wegmans

While I despise the summer heat I love the produce available during the summer. Corn season has just begun and I can say with confidence that I eat corn on a daily basis in July through September.  I truly love the local farm stands in Central New York. It is not just the corn but the local produce that is truly remarkable. When I was in downtown Boston for a week I ate too much prepackaged food and went out to eat far more than I wanted. Hence, I have been eager to cook and today, despite a full belly, I went wild in Wegmans produce section. Peaches, nectarines, watermelon, multiple varieties of berries, mangos, plums etc. abounded. The peppers, onions, carrots and beets looked wonderful. I was ridiculously happy shopping. The store was not crowded a big deal for me as the produce section is very difficult to navigate when crowded. Better yet, the automated check out line was a very short. I sharply prefer self check out. I bag things in a particular order so that I can get to my car and unpack items more quickly.

As I was nearing the end of scanning all my items I noticed an agitated woman began getting closer and closer to me. I was not sure why she was getting so close. I am pretty fast at self check out. I know the system and perhaps the only difference it is that I bag in an order that might not make sense to bipedal people. Nothing I thought can bother me today. Oh my was I wrong. The agitated woman in question talks loudly over my head and states to an employee standing in the area "Help him. He is going too slow". The employee replied "I asked him if he needed help already and he always says no".  The woman in questions heavily sighs and says "You know some of us have jobs and are in a rush to get things done. The nerve of some people". The employee responds "He is pretty quick but gets stuck on non bar coded produce and has a weird way of packing that takes a while". Okay, I have had it at this point. I stop back up, turn and tell the employee: "Your engagement with the other customer and entire conversation is point blank rude. Please do not talk as if I am not present. I am a human being". The employee is stunned. I turn to the agitated woman and tell her "You are rude and disrespectful. To talk to the employee as if I did not exist is as shocking as it is grossly inappropriate. You are a bigot". The woman's face flushes red in anger as she mutters something under her breath and now rapidly starts tapping her foot on the floor. In classic passive aggressive behavior I instantly slow down. I am precise with my bagging. I consider and rearrange every item that goes into my three bag system. I do not double tie each bag but triple tie them in an effort to slow down even further. This is not a good character trait but it does prevent me from cursing and really losing my temper. All know what I am doing. The Wegmans employee is smirking. She knows exactly what I am doing as does the agitated customer.

I thought about this innocuous encounter on my drive home. The assumptions made by the agitated woman were as basic as they were wrong. She assumed I was unemployed and had nowhere to go. My life was unimportant. She was in every way possible superior economically and socially. I was slowing down a mover and shaker. Think Tom Wolf and Bonfire of the Vanities. She was the female version of Sherman McCoy or Oliver Stone's Wall Street protagonist Gordon Gekko. Somehow I doubt we were thinking along the same lines. Silently I wondered if I engaged her could I make her see the light? Had she ever read Tom Wolf's Bonfire of the Vanities? Did she know the phrase Wolf used to title his book referred to the burning of objects that were condemned by the powerful as representations of sin? Did she know the phrase itself typically refers to a specific bonfire that took place on February 7, 1497? Did she know who Girolamo Savonarola was and that he burned books, paintings and other objects? A sin took place at Wegmans; the woman in question did not consider that my life had value. Bioethicists would write my personhood or autonomy was violated. For me, this interaction was Goffmanesque. This was not just about disability. I would venture to guess that others have had similar encounters with this woman. Certainly the elderly struggling with arthritic fingers and perhaps other minority groups. The entitlement was the shock for me. It reminded me of one of the most quoted sentences in Wolf's book:

There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening—and he was among the victors! He lived on Park Avenue, the street of dreams! He worked on Wall Street, fifty floors up, for the legendary Pierce & Pierce, overlooking the world! He was at the wheel of a $48,000 roadster with one of the most beautiful women in New York—no Comp. Lit. scholar, perhaps, but gorgeous—beside him! A frisky young animal! He was of that breed whose natural destiny it was…to have what they wanted.

A breed apart. Destiny that is preordained. Utter crap in my estimation. Give me the person with a unique body. Give me the person that has led an interesting life one with hardships that forged character. Give me FDR! The man in my opinion would not have been president had it not been for polio. Indeed, our nation would be quite different had FDR not had polio and become president. Polio forged his identity and by extension his presidency. FDR did not hide his disability nor concoct an "elaborate deception" as Hugh Gallagher maintained. One and all knew FDR was crippled. The nation needed him and the electorate chose to ignore the existence of his physical disability. They saw what the man could do and the nation was desperate for a leader. Americans were riveted by FDR's inaugural address when he famously stated; This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. No doubt these are two great sentences. But many forget the sentence that followed shortly there after: Our collective difficulties, thank God, concern only material things. I love this line as well. For me, it makes me aware I am not alone. I am not the only cripple that has endured social injustice.  I am not the only person this woman has thoughtlessly demeaned. I am not an inferior human being but rather one of many. The many have power. The many will endure. I will endure. To reaffirm the power of endurance  listen to not only FDR original broadcasts but those by his wife Eleanor and the following American Radio works program. Link: 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The ADA 25th Anniversary: I am Not Happy nor in a Celebratory Mood

The Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, is 25 years old today. For the last week I have been reading article after article about how successful the ADA has been. I have read articles by professors of disability studies that are self aggrandizing or devoid of insight into the real lives of people with a disability. I have read articles by journalists that are hopelessly naive. I have read multiple "feel good stories" that annoyed me to no end. I read far too many articles that concluded the United States is a world leader in disability rights and that any current complaints by people with a disability are likely made by malcontents. What was missing in  all the articles I read was any semblance of nuance. A person unfamiliar with disability, 80 % of the non disabled population, could and would rapidly conclude the ADA solved all problems people with a disability might encounter. They likely moved on to the next story secure in thinking if I or a loved one ever becomes disabled all is well and support services are at worst adequate and at best superb. Any person with a disability knows this is a fantasy. The social support net safety net is in fact designed to keep people on the edge of financial and personal disaster.  

Given the above, I have been especially cranky the last week or two. I have not articulated my unhappiness to others. Well, I have been vocal with my Boston based friends, especially leading up to the big ADA celebration in the Boston Common that I attended with others.  About two thousand people attended the celebration. Multiple stories appeared in the news and an NPR station interviewed me. Link: I found this article and its audio report particularly bad. I did not provide the feel good sound bite required for the celebration and supposed equality the ADA created. No one wants to discuss the weaknesses of the ADA and the fact there is no social demand the law be enforced. The spin in all news stories has been positive in the extreme. For exampled State Attorney General Maura Healey stated Because of the ADA, businesses and employers cannot deny people employment based on a disability.” People with disabilities are no longer isolated and segregated by states. Because of the ADA, transportation and public facilities must address the needs of people with physical and mental disabilities.”

 Healy is correct--the ADA states this. No one however wants to discuss why the unemployment rate among people with a disability has not changed in twenty five years. No one wants to discuss why access to mass transportation is inherently difficult. No one is interested in years long waiting lists for accessible housing. In Syracuse where I work the waiting list for accessible housing is four to five years long and only 5% of housing is accessible. The incapable conclusion is that the ADA from a sociocultural viewpoint is an utter failure. The law is on our side but from my experience no one cares and when it comes to money; "reasonable accommodations" are the first line items cut. All will cluck about how important wheelchair access is or providing ASL interpreters for the deaf but inevitably a long silence occurs and the "reasonable accommodations" are cut from the budget. One person might state we can address the issue if a person with a disability complains or a deaf person appears and asks about an interpreter. To me this is even worse--it individualizes disability and by itself is grossly misleading. The ADA is a civil rights law on par with widely accepted and respected civil rights. To get this idea across I often tell others I have been told when I try to enter an establishment I am often told "Sorry, wheelchairs are not allowed" or "Wheelchairs must be seated in the back corner". I suggest substitute "wheelchair" with "black person", or "woman" and people would be out raged. When it comes to disability based discrimination there is no outrage.  Somehow disability remains different. Support for the civil rights of people with a disability is passive. It is a choice. 

The only article I read this week that was insightful was limited in scope (though important) and directly affects many of those I teach. In "Where's the Outrage When Colleges Discriminate Against Students with Disabilities" by Leonard Davis in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Link: Davis writes: 

Today, many colleges pride themselves on being accommodating to all students — but in fact, far from aiding the cause of Americans with disabilities, colleges have been instrumental in blocking those rights. July 26th marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As we celebrate the accomplishments of that law, let’s not forget that while colleges have embraced efforts to promote diversity and the rights of people of color, women, and LGBTQ students and faculty, they have fought a less noticed war against disability rights. In the past, a good deal of the march toward the Americans With Disabilities Act was driven by activism and lawsuits brought by college students against their administrations — even while administrators were lobbying to eviscerate such legislation. There was a time when there were virtually no students with disabilities on campuses. Blind and deaf people were sent to residential schools where they learned trades. People with mobility impairments couldn’t get out of the house to commute to colleges, and dorms were inaccessible. Learning-disabled people often didn’t make it to higher education.
I came of age in the pre ADA era. I fought to get on MTA buses in New York City. I despised the very low standard people with a disability were held to. Being accepted to a university and graduating  was considered a great accomplishment for a person with a disability. Going to graduate school, in my case an Ivy League institution, was perceived to be heroic. I rejected this line of logic at the time and today. What I did academically was ordinary for a man my age that wanted to be an academic. I did what my non disabled peers were doing--living an ordinary life. This is not what society expects. We people with a disability are denied the ordinary. If I graduate from Columbia and father a child I am an amazing person--damn near super human. If I utterly fail, it is understandable. My paralysis suddenly enters the equation and is used to justify my failure. 

Discrimination against people with a disability has changed. It is as rampant today as it was when I was in college and graduate school 25 years ago. What has changed is the sort of discrimination students encounter. What takes place today is superficial compliance with the ADA. Inane and heated discussions take place over trivial maters. The new "active" wheelchair logo is placed in parking lot spots designated for disabled people. This change is discussed in detail while the library under going renovation will remain inaccessible for several years while renovations are under way. No one wants to discus why blind people needlessly struggle to access scholarly writing on line. For instance Stephen Kuusisto recently wrote a post at Planet of the Blind entitled "My Everest: University of Michigan Press". The University of Michigan Press, known for producing many excellent texts concerning disability, is difficult to access in screen readable formats. Kuusisto, a distinguished scholar and poet, notes that anyone who thinks disability related barriers were solved by a law passed 25 years years ago is sorely mistaken. Disability remains a difficult social issue. The problem is not technology but the willing ignorance of others. He wrote anyone who thinks disability is easy is dishonest. 

Displacement narratives of stamina and disability which are designed to inspire the non-disabled trouble the bejeezus out of me. This is because ordinary blindness, the daily “living with it” blindness, is often dreadful. One way blindness remains grim concerns the ongoing and considerable difficulty of acquiring accessible books. As a blind scholar I must say this is my Mt. Everest. Getting ahold of books I can read is not only difficult, it’s often nearly impossible. When the “i” word enters into disability land, it means more often than not, that inaccessibility is essentially part of the built environment.
This is exactly why I consider the ADA a social failure. Inaccessibility is built into the socially and physically created environment. Inaccessibility regardless of the disability itself is part of the fabric of life. I am more than troubled. I am angry. I get angry every time I hear the ADA praised and how great life is for people with a disability. I am ready to spit nails of fury when I hear politicians that know nothing about disability state the United States is a world leader in disability rights; that we as a nation serve as a model for other countries to follow but have not signed the UN Treaty on disability rights. If this were the case Kuusisto and every other blind person in the United States would flawlessly access books on line. Every publisher would demand its books be readily accessible. ASL interpreters would be at every public lecture, political rally, protest and a myriad of other events. When wheelchair access is brought up it would be a top priority for let's say an architectural firm. Beautifully designed access would be the "brand" of the corporation. All this of course is a fantasy. Access in the broadest sense of the term remains an unwanted add on; the ramp is attached to the side of a building or placed in the rear out of sight. Architects do not want to mar their design with a federally mandated ramp. 

I will know the ADA is a grand success when on any night of the week I can go out with friends and not put access issues as the prime consideration. The mental gymnastics that take place for the ordinary are an ever present reminder the world is designed for bipedal people. As one and all were praising the ADA I was thinking about going out to dinner with friends. The logistics involved were daunting. How does a restaurant deal with a manual wheelchair user like me, a person that uses a scooter, and a person that uses a power wheelchair and has a service dog. Oh, and we had one biped coming with us.  Instantly Friday and Saturday night were eliminated. Too crowded for crippled people. Forget the local Asian restaurant. Too narrow to accommodate us. In the end I often eat at big box corporate restaurants. I do not want to do this. I prefer local establishments. But the corporate places offer more space and maybe even an accessible bathroom--an out of the norm "accommodation" that requires me to change what I drink. When all of the above does not take place on that day I will be equal. I do not expect to live long enough to experience that sort of equality.