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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Reminders That People With Disabilities Still Fighting for Respect, Equality


A couple stories in the news lately have really stood out to me as a person with a disability, though they have garnered little if any national attention. In case you missed it a blind elementary student had his cane taken from him by his school and had it replaced by a pool noodle because he was thought to have hit someone with the cane. A more recent news item revealed that an anchor for CNN replied to criticism on Twitter by suggesting the individual go pick on a cripple for something better to do.

Didn’t hear about it? Actually, if you’re reading my article, you probably did. You may have also heard about the high school security guard who punched and threw a student out of his wheelchair last spring. That story has stayed with me, perhaps because like most wheelchair users I’ve experienced the part of that story which was all but missed even within the coverage it received.

The physical violence against the student was the focus of the story, and rightly so. And no, I have never experienced such abuse. But wheelchair users caught something in the video of the incident that many people missed.

The security guard was seen pushing the student down the hall just before the incident occurred—at least that’s how many people saw it. In fact, some people focused on the student’s effort to stop the guard from pushing him down the hall as the beginning of the altercation. Yet, assuming the student typically gets to class independently, which seems clear from the circumstances, the guard had no business pushing the wheelchair.

Grabbing the handles of a person’s wheelchair and pushing the individual seems intuitive, almost natural, to many people. After all, that’s precisely what the handles on the back of a chair are for—to allow someone to push the wheelchair, and the person in it, from behind. It happens every day when family, friends, caretakers, and others in the lives of wheelchair users offer their assistance.

In fact, it seems so commonplace that strangers often feel comfortable grabbing the handles of a person’s wheelchair without even asking whether or not it’s ok to do so. They seem to view themselves as performing some random act of kindness when they help someone get where they’re going or see someone who is, in their estimation, struggling. Those on the other end of this “help” that is thrust upon us often feel quite differently about these do-gooders. I once had a guy push me, despite my obvious efforts to stop him, over to his wife to dance with her at a mutual friend’s wedding. This was a woman who refused to shake my hand when we first met simply because she was dumbfounded to meet a person with a disability. I once had a maitre d’ walking passed my table grab the handles of my wheelchair and move me a few inches to my left as I situated myself before he continued on his way. I was actually buying dinner for my mom and a friend celebrating a new job, and I chose not to deal with it on the spot. My letters of complaint were ignored by the restaurant.

Had I reacted angrily in the moment, no doubt my behavior would have been the focus of attention for people at the restaurant. The confrontational nature of the incident at the Oakland high school, and the fact that it involved a student whose initial act of lingering in the halls was wrong, led many to focus on the student’s response of trying to get the guard to stop pushing him as opposed to the guard’s actions. (See the comments section of the article.)

The common thread throughout all of these news stories—and many more that people with disabilities will find through social media or personal experience that never amounts to news—is the continued lack of respect for people with disabilities.

The fact that someone would even consider taking away a blind person’s cane is hard to even fathom for me. Thinking it’s ok to physically move someone in a wheelchair against their will is just as unimaginable. Yet, even within the disability community, I read comments on social media from people focusing on the fact that people with disabilities need to be punished just like anyone else when we do something wrong.

No kidding. If the blind student hit someone, he should have received detention or whatever the school typically hands out as punishment to any other student for such an offense. That punishment certainly wouldn’t include taking away their ability to physically move around independently. Taking away an assistive device is unacceptable.

If the high school student purposely didn’t get to class, he also should have been punished like any other student would be for the same act. Obviously—to most people anyway—grabbing the handles of his wheelchair (which anyone using a wheelchair will tell you is equivalent to grabbing him) and forcing him down the hall isn’t an appropriate response. An able-bodied student wouldn’t have been grabbed from behind and shoved down the hall. If that had occurred, people wouldn’t have been criticizing the student for trying to stop him.

I doubt I even need to explain how fast the CNN anchor’s comments would have made national news if he had tweeted the same thing about a black person. Yet, it was barely a blip on the radar—if that—for news organizations.

Some people will point to the legal ramifications in these type of situations as the answer. The security guard was reportedly fired and faced charges. I don’t know what, if anything, happened in the case of the blind student, though at least one person on my Facebook page referred to it as a disability biased crime. The news anchor left the network, though apparently the controversy that forced him out surrounded what some called the anti-Israel portion of his tweet.

My concern is more about what incidents like these say about the relationship between people with disabilities and the rest of society. The disability community commemorates the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act every summer. I respect and honor what true advocates of the disability community went through to make the ADA a reality, and understand that I’ve benefited from what those individuals accomplished.

Yet, as the headlines about race relations have shown in the past year, laws don’t necessarily change the way people treat each other. If a child with a disability can have his independence taken away as punishment for something kids do all the time, or a high school student who uses a wheelchair can be shoved down a hallway because he was late to class, it might be time to start wondering what we’re commemorating. If we’re still being used as a punchline, apologies and resignations after the fact aside, we may be further from being seen as equals to able-bodied people than we think.

If no one is even noticing these types of incidents, maybe the fight hasn’t even begun.





This article was also published on the Huffington Post Impact section.

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