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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Streep Follow Up and Suggested Readings

My email box is filled with hate email. Trump supporters are decidedly unhappy with me. I expected some backlash because of my post yesterday but the level of hatred spewed was nastier than expected. I was deemed an "elitist scum bag", a "whiner who balks when treated like everybody else", a "liberal know nothing", a "crippled loser that should run home to mommy", and my favorite an "Ivy League pig who wallows in his own filth". Deleted were a ton of F bombs. What a world we live in. Bullying behavior is rapidly becoming the norm with the President elect leading the way via twitter and 140 character out bursts of petulant anger.

As I look outside, I see a steel gray sky and a mix of rain, ice, snow and sleet. Since this is Syracuse, much of what I see falling from the sky is moving sideways. On a day like this it would be easy to grow depressed. I have chosen to focus on the positive--specifically the many fine essays that have been written in the last 24 hours that address Meryl Streep's speech and criticism of the President elect. We people with a disability and our non disabled supporters have risen to the occasion. First and foremost, I am not alone. Streep's words have been deemed ableist by others. By itself, this is heartening. Second, like others, I hope we can move past the repeated and shallow discussion of Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski and have a detailed discussion about the barriers people with a disability encounter in the post ADA era. Foremost in my mind is the deadly troika--unemployment, lack of adequate housing, and long standing trouble using mass transportation.  These structural flaws lead people with a disability to live in poverty. Worse, our tattered and depleted social safety net demands that people with a disability live on the very edge of social and economic oblivion.

What people with a disability do have in abundance is the ability to adapt and be wildly creative. We are not the meek miserable beings typical others imagine. In the last 24 hours we have had much to say about Streep's speech and the President elect. Here then is a random sampling of essays that resonated for me:

Girlwiththecane, "Meryl Streep We Don't Need Your Outrage", link: The line "no power to fight back" is objectionable and disempowering.

Kim Saunder, aka Crippled Scholar, series of tweets, link: and a previous post about Trump, link:

A Washington Post article that covered the basics, link:

David Perry at CNN, link:  Perry, whose son has Down Syndrome and writes frequently about disability rights, suggests Trump's bullying ways need to be replaced by empathy. I share this sentiment but have no expectation this will ever come to pass.

Emily Ladau, "Im a Disabled Woman Who's Not Celebrating Meryl Streep", link: Like me, Ladau tries to maintain a polite tone with regard to Streep's speech but is deeply troubled by just how mild her words were and how they lacked nuance.

Last and by far my favorite essay at Star in Her Eye, "Tumbling in America", link:  As many people with a disability can attest, social rejection is rampant. In this post, Heather Kirn Lanier writes about how her daughter was social rejected by another child--the first such post election rejection. Placed in the larger social context she wrote it:

is the grade-school playground mockery of a person with disabilities. It is, as Ann Coulter unfortunately worded, “The Standard Retard.” “He was just doing the standard retard,” she argued, and if she is right, it makes matters worse. When our president-elect imitates someone he wants to mock, he sometimes uses his body to call them “retarded.” His limbs become the epithet. He makes his body odd-seeming, out of the norm, less-than-functional. This is ableism at the heart. The fact that he uses a much lighter version of this gesture on non-disabled people doesn’t make him any less ableist, any less offensive, any less cruel. I cannot, will not forget. And I’m grateful that Meryl Streep said the same at the Golden Globes two nights ago
Ableism at heart. Yes! Trump gives every bigot in America free reign to be cruel. Here Streep was spot on. "Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence." People with a disability know a lot about disrespect and violence. We are routinely disrespected. Indeed, disrespect is the norm. Violence too is the norm. Like it or not, we people with a disability are vulnerable. Abuse is rampant and takes many different forms. A month ago it was a cab driver who refused to pick up my colleague Steve Kuusisto with his service dog and was aggressively nasty about it. The same month I was mocked by some teenagers in downtown Syracuse who laughed and called me retarded. Bullies take many forms. Months ago unwanted help was thrust upon me not once or twice but three times by an employee at Liehs and Steigerwald Downtown and this veneer of good will turned instantly nasty and confrontational when such "help" was politely rejected. Instantly, I became a problem. Examples abound and I want to be clear I am lucky. I have not been physically assaulted. I have not been raped. I have not been assaulted by the police. And yes I fear the police. I cannot comply with their orders. I can not exit my vehicle as they would expect and demand. That alone makes me a threat. Kirn Lanier noted we have a lot of work to do. No kidding. What can we do? I honestly don't know. Trump is a serial abuser and bully. He has been elected President of the United States. He is the most visible man in the nation. Frankly, I am afraid. I am afraid of the hate and ignorance Trump generates and how that will play out on the streets, schools, and institutions that dot the cultural landscape. The is a first for me and I fear we will plunge into a Dark Age from which we may not emerge.  While this is a grim assessment, I know there is a vibrant resistance movement among my people. That fact alone is enough to keep my faith in people alive.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Meryl Streep, Ableism and Help

Social media as related to disability rights has been abuzz the last 24 hours. Meryl Streep's speech after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globe ceremonies is being lauded by many. Mainstream news outlets maintain she "brought down the house". Words such as amazing, inspirational, phenomenal etc are being used to describe her speech. It was without question a good speech. In a pithy 6 1/2 minutes, Streep took the president elect to task without mentioning him by name and did so with grace, dignity, and humor. Link to transcript: Streep stated:

There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can't get it out of my head because it wasn't in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose. 
Streep's word fall flat for me and I many who champion disability rights. In no way do I take exception to what Streep had to say. She was spot on and it was an excellent critique of the President elect. It is not a new critique nor is it nuanced--and this is where my frustration starts. Trump's mocking New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski is old news. It is widely regarded as the low point of the Trump campaign. Trump support took a steep drop in the polls after the video went viral.
In the months leading up to the election the Clinton campaign seized on the video and for the first time a mainstream candidate made disability rights a core issue of the campaign. Much more is involved here than the mocking of a single reporter with a disability. The mocking however is where the critique begins and ends. Think about Streep's words:

"out ranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back"

"it broke my heart"

"I still can't get it out of my head" 

In my estimation, Streep's words are ableist in the extreme. They reinforce deeply ingrained ableist beliefs woven into the fabric of society. Disability rights and civil rights are rarely considered to be one in the same. Forty years of progressive legislation designed to protect the rights of people with a disability has yielded no social demand to enforce laws such as the ADA. The inclusion of people with a disability remains a problem. Hence my existence is a never ending problem that must be managed by others--typically non disabled others. The ordinary, even 26 years post ADA, is illusive. Every time I leave my home I must navigate a hostile world. The hostility takes a myriad of forms. Here in gritty Syracuse, snow removal on sidewalks is non existent. I can no longer navigate my way to the bus stop. Syracuse University spent millions of dollars constructing a promenade and, as one person humorously stated, it has more steps than an Irish folk dancer. When I stated the promenade was a symbolic fuck you to every person on campus that uses a wheelchair all I heard in reply was silence (and that silence included the university ADA coordinator). Syracuse University also dedicated itself to OrangeSUcess knowing it was inaccessible to blind faculty and students. The lack of inclusion is not limited to Syracuse. Barriers abound nationwide. Indeed, I encounter barriers, social and physical, every time I leave my home. Those barriers peak when I travel. Good luck finding an accessible bathroom. Good luck finding an accessible hotel room that is actually accessible. Good luck finding a restaurant that has wide enough aisles to navigate using a wheelchair. Good luck finding airline personnel that are not point blank rude. Good luck purchasing tickets to a concert or sporting event that do not involve calling a special number and paying box office rates.

Again, I appreciate Streep's passion and support. I agree whole heartedly that Trump has emboldened bigots and racists nationwide. Trump's reliance on hatred and ignorance has indeed filtered down to the rest of society. With regard to disability what I find fascinating are public myths versus reality. Like Streep I am broken hearted but for different reasons. The mocking of a reporter with a disability was perceived to be in exceptionally bad taste. There is the public perception that one must be kind to the handicapped. There is a hazy idea a law was passed long time ago that solved all the problems people with a disability encounter. Some people with a disability have "overcome" their disability but remain vulnerable and somehow less. Given our lowly status, Streep is broken hearted and cannot get the way Trump mocked a reporter with a disability out of her head. The reporter in question does not have the power, prestige or privilege of Trump. This line of reasoning is as ableist as Trump mocking a reporter with a disability.

What we people with a disability need is political allies. I for one do not need protection from bullies like Trump. I need steady employment. I need reliable and easy access to mass transportation. I need affordable and plentiful choices in accessible housing. I need equal access to our health care system. I need to leave my accessible home and not encounter physical and social barriers. My needs, the needs of all people with a disability, are no different than what typical others take for granted.  I also know I will not live to see the day when my crippled body is equal. In short, I am sorry Streep's words ring hollow. A 6 1/2 minute speech at the Golden Globe awards delivered to a room of A list celebrities is not going to change my life or the life of others with a disability. I saw a room full of privileged people and a stage that required Streep to walk up steps to access.

Imagine a different scenario. What if Streep spent 6 1/2 minutes addressing the fact Hollywood producers consistently hire non disabled actors to play the part of disabled people. What if Streep talked about this sort of "cripping up". I know she would not be lauded for her words. She would not be described as amazing and inspiring. Simply put, I am weary of heart felt emotions and the lack of social progress in the real world. For me, Trump mocking a disabled reporter has become a game of dodge ball. All express outrage--Trump mocked a disabled reporter. That is the start, middle, and end of discussion.

What we people with a disability need is a revolution. Our power is in our ability to adapt and press forward. We are remarkably creative people routinely underestimated by others. Our lives are not bleak nor are they devoid of work, friendship, love and sex. We are humanity reduced to its most basic elements and as such we are feared. The resulting disempowerment via unemployment and the lack of accessible housing and transportation is a deadly mix that is a human rights crisis no one talks about (exceptions exist of course). What we people with a disability want to do is the work of science fiction novelists. We want to build a better world for all people. We don't need nor desire pity or charitable efforts. We have no special needs nor do we need special education. What we need is the imagination to think and dream of a society that is inclusive and values our existence.

I just cannot bring myself to feel the warm glow of Streep's words.  I know I am not alone. Many people with a disability have acknowledged Streep's speech was excellent but that it failed to resonate. Link: I look forward to reading what other activists and scholars will write in the coming days. What I fear is ingrained ableism. I have done my level best to maintain a respectful tone in this post. For I know one must not bite the hand that feeds you. That old phrase often gets trotted out when a person with a disability such as myself has the audacity to comment on the efforts of non disabled others who want to help. Sadly, I have learned not to trust those that want to help. For example, non profits abound that are designed to help people with a disability. The vast majority of them have no employees with a disability nor is a person with a disability on the board of directors. That sort of socio-economic structure is objectionable to me. What I need help doing is inciting a wildly creative revolution. I know for sure what I want to do cannot be done alone. I am not turning my back on Streep and others who support disability rights. Our freedom and civil rights are intertwined. What I ask is simple. Do not ask me when will I be satisfied about the status of disability rights. I doubt I will ever live to see the day I am satisfied. My words here put me in the company of the great Martin Luther King whose famously noted in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.