Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Power, Disability,Sexuality: The Courage of 14 Million People

In an article on Gay Star News, one of three sites I go to for news about LGBT issues, Shannon Power wrote an article on Churches in India writing an open letter calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. She wrote that: "The National Council of Churches in India represents about 14 million people." I know it's odd to hear of support from Churches for the inclusion and welcome of LGBT people. However, in their letter they said something that applies directly to people with intellectual disabilities who live in service systems. The beauty and power of the words had a profound effect on me.

Here's what they said: "This repressive legal code further reduces human body and sexuality into 'colonies' that can be invaded, tamed, and redeemed with the display of abusive power."

KAPOW! Doesn't that hit the mark?

This is such a description of the experience of so many people with disabilities. The tyranny and colonization of the body and sexuality, the utter control sought over the heart, mind, soul, and sexuality is clearly an abuse of power and abuse at the highest level. And this abuse is often built right into policy. The 'system' has the ability to criminalize and punish health sexual expression.

I remember a man with a disability who had been 'caught' with his boyfriend and was punished so severely that he never, ever, recovered. He thought himself dirty. He thought his desires sinful. He thought that his desire to touch was evidence of Satan in his life. No matter how much work was done, nothing could shift those views. He lives a desperately sad and lonely life.

I remember a woman with a disability who, when she was discovered in a relationship with a fellow that she'd met at the sheltered industry (as they existed back then) she was attacked and called the names expressly used against women with sexual agency, and now sees that, and this is a direct quote: Love is wrong, people hurt you for it."

I remember the guy whose mother burned his fingers on the stove to punish him for masturbation. His fear is deep and his fear is legitimate.

I know that this article was about the decriminalization of homosexuality, something that a gay man really matters to me (and it should you too if you believe in freedom and equality) but it also gives a language to what was done with our power. What was done to people with intellectual disabilities. It reminds us when we believe that service systems, or parents, or guardians, or any other person believes that they have the right of ownership over another persons body, another persons heart and another persons choices.

"This repressive legal code further reduces human body and sexuality into 'colonies' that can be invaded, tamed, and redeemed with the display of abusive power."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Demonstrate Deserving

When I first saw it I felt a twinge on sadness approaching despair. It is impossible as a Canadian not to be overwhelmed by the news flowing north of the border, it is impossible not to be shaken by what we hear and see. The most recent comments by the President of the United States of America regarding 'shithole' countries was more than appalling, it was disturbing. It also resulted in a wave of responses from those who, and it shocks me that it's not all of us, that kind of racism expressed by someone in high office, though not, as many Americans think, the leader of the free world.

One of those responses was a video wherein people from those 'shithole' countries talk about them and their accomplishments and their and their families contribution to American society. They speak with passion and with pride and with a clear message of 'we belong.' They list the successes they've had, the contributions they made and it's, in its way, moving.

But as a gay, disabled, person I worried about the message behind the message, "We're good ones!" I found that myself first as a gay man, when I would list the accomplishments of the LGBT communities and would freely list people like James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Oscar Wilde, Christine Jorgenson and Sally Ride. There are many many more. My message, "See these famous LGBT people? See the contributions?" Then I'd list some of my own contributions." It never worked, all I was doing was saying that we LGBT people don't naturally belong we have to demonstrate deserving to belong. We aren't just Canadians, we are people who need to prove worth.

Of course, the lesson didn't stick, when I became disabled, I began, very quickly to do the same thing. I could list all sorts of famous people with disabilities. I researched to find them and would use them in arguments with people whose 'death before disability' ideas frightened me. To that, I began to list my achievements after disability. See, I still contribute, see, I still earn a living, see, I'm still worthy.

Again I was struggling to demonstrate deserving.

Again I felt that my citizenship wasn't a given.

Again I built a ramp so I could push myself up to equality.

But I am Canadian.

Recent immigrants to Canada are Canadians, they don't need to go on television and prove themselves worthy of their citizenship.

American immigrants don't need to display accomplishments before a leader who will never see them as mattering.

What matters is that you are American.

What matters is that you are Canadian.

What matters is that bigotry is always a wrong.

And that your existence is always a right.

I am who I am and I am fully and proudly different. Bigots may lash out. The prejudiced may get in my way. But I am, with all of my difference, defiantly flying the flag of my citizenship.

I belong.

And I don't need to prove to anyone why that's true.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Gravity my PA

When we got to the center Joe parked as close to the door as possible. I got out and began to push myself up the slight hill to get to the door. I have done this for a long time and it's now a fairly easy push for me but this time I was pushing uphill, on a surface covered in slush and a ridiculous amount of salt. It was hard,  I went slowly but I made it into the building. I hadn't been bothered by offers of help because I was lucky enough to come in when there was no on else around.

A couple hours later, when we were preparing to leave, I went over to the doors to watch for Joe who was bringing the car to come get me. The parking lot was busy and there were lots of cars dropping people off so I knew that it would take some time so I sat back in my wheelchair relaxing while I was waiting.

"Excuse me, are you waiting for a ride?" came the voice of, as it turned out, a young man in his early 30s.

"Yes, I am," I said.

"Would you like me to wait with you and help you get to your car?"

"Thanks, but no, I'm good."

"I don't mind," he said a bit earnestly.

"No really, it's okay, I don't need help."

"It's no bother," he said.

I sighed, bored by a conversation I've hand thousands of time, "Look outside, it's downhill, I'm on wheels."

"But ..." he said.

I interrupted, "It's down hill, I'm on wheels, I've got gravity on my side, really, seriously, I don't need help."

He looked so disappointed, but he acknowledged my 'no.'

But I think he went away wondering why I would let gravity help me but not him.

Joe pulled up and I went through the door and rolled downhill barely needing to touch my wheels except where the salt lay in big bunches on the pavement.

Wheels.

Downhill.

Seriously.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Intersection

In my work to develop Disability Informed Therapy, I've been looking at disability as a social phenomena. We need to understand that my physical experience of the world is different from those without disabilities, but that my social experience is equally different. These are not small differences, these are huge. Non disabled people, even those who 'had to use a wheelchair when I broke my leg' don't have even the slightest idea. Understanding that disability is more than a physical manifestation of difference is only the beginning. It's much, much, more than that.

So, I keep my eye out for studies that look at disability and the experience of disability that go far beyond ramps, accessible language and wider doors. So I came upon a study that stumbled upon the criminalization of disability. In this study they found that 43% of people with disabilities are likely to be arrested before they hit their thirties as compared to 30% of non disabled people. The rate jumps to 55% for black men with disabilities, the group most likely to face arrest, as compared with 28% of white men without disabilities.

I am not at all surprised by these numbers.

People with disabilities live in a different social world and face different dangers than do non disabled people. That's one of the first things I realized when I became disabled. I found that I felt vulnerable all the damn time. That took some getting used to and it took time to develop the skills I needed in order to reduce the feeling of being a target. Further, I found that my voice no longer mattered in the same way it did before.

In my two experiences with police and security agents, one with a security guard at an airport and one with a police officer in Toronto, I realized that I couldn't get my voice out of their perception of me as a person without significance. In both instances I feared for myself and my safety. My complaints were 'dealt' with but had no consequence.

Our challenge as adults with disabilities is to teach ourselves what we need to know, develop the skills we need to have, because no one is going to do it for us. Parents of children with disabilities need to drop the 'just like everyone else' mantra and recognize that their children have disabilities and therefore different social realities. Parents need to teach their kids about the community that they will face as disabled people, not the bright shiny welcoming community that we all want to believe in. There are dangers unique to disability, just like there are dangers unique to race, and gender, and religion. It's neglect not to teach the skills that children with disabilities need.

There is a need for overwhelming social change.

Yes.

The police who are called to the intersection of disability, race, gender, clearly see what they expect to see and hear what they expect to hear. Voices are dismissed or translated by expectation, visual perceptions of difference are coded into a combination of stereotype and prejudice. To quote from the abstract for this article: Police officers should understand how disabilities may affect compliance and other behaviors, and likewise how implicit bias and structural racism may affect reactions and actions of officers and the systems they work within in ways that create inequities.

It matters to meet that the author said 'create inequities' as it seems she is clear that when it comes to disabilities, even though we are all treated as if we are not quite really fully human, that that message is aimed at creating an inequity that doesn't exist.

So if you can create inequity it stands to reason that you can create equity.

That's our job.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Compassion Doesn't Have a Circle

Growing up, I remember an incident on the playground that involved a pratfall and, of course, the inevitable teasing. When we got back into the classroom, many were still giggling. The teacher, whose name I don't recall, directed us to silence. Then we heard a passionate speech, from the teacher, about compassion and concern for others. "Others," we were told, "included but was not limited to friends and family. Others meant everyone. EVERYONE. Compassion is without bias."

This is one of the really memorable moments of my school years. I remember it making me think. I also think this was the first time the word 'bias' entered my head in a meaningful way. This teacher and those words must have been bubbling under my consciousness the last time we went shopping because they quickly sprang to mind. A woman was pushing a stroller through a small crowd of 5 or 6 other shoppers and they moved quickly and without comment for her creating a passageway.

I know much better than to attempt the same thing so I headed around. Another wheelchair user, a woman much younger than myself got herself caught between the small crowd and a shopper behind her wanting to get past. She pushed through and I heard her "Excuse me" several times and saw the request ignored. Finally she tapped one of the shoppers on the arm and they grumbled and complained as they made space for her.

Compassion for some but not others doesn't exist.

Honouring privilege and practicing discrimination does.

The incident on the playground involved one of the classroom misfits, a group to which I belonged, and there is no question in my mind that if it happened to one of the other popular kids there would have been an approach by the other kids that involved the words, "Are you okay?" I also bet that there would have been a helpful reaction devoid of the kind of teasing that had actually happened.

Maybe I'm wrong.

But my heart, after having been schooled in living with differences, tells me that I'm probably not.

Many people feel compassionate and caring because they are there for their friends and family and they are supporting of those in their circle.

Compassion doesn't have a circle.

I learned how to add and subtract in math. But I also learned how addition and subtraction worked in the world outside the classroom window. I learned that some people have added value that leads to the privilege of expecting the best of the world. Others have their value subtracted and minimized that leads to an understanding of the world as a place without compassion and welcome.

Compassion doesn't have a circle. I need to remember that. 

For as much as some can't see it, I'm human too.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Me Matters

The turn was sharp, the passageway narrow. I was just making the turn when an man, about my age, grunted in frustration behind me. I then heard him leave, hurry around the side and enter the back entrance. There were two tables left, he took the corner table, I aimed for the one next to it. I caught his eye when he looked up at me, with annoyance in his eyes, and I said, "I'm sorry, it took me a second to make the turn. I'm sorry that I slowed you down for a moment. I'm sorry that I exist in the world and take up space in the world and that I inconvenience important people like you." I said it loud enough for everyone in the coffee shop to hear but I didn't shout, I simply spoke firmly.

He was stunned. Then he started being overtly nice. "Would this table be better for you? I could switch tables? I really don't mind." He was desperate for me to accept his charity and make it all better. "I don't need your table," I said, "I need respect as an equal human being. Respect. Not charity."

I then moved the chairs around such that my back was to him, this wasn't easy, but I was done with him and the interchange. Joe then arrived with the tea and the first thing he said was, "Why is the guy at the next table so angry." Given he asked the question, I explained loudly enough for him to hear what happened and how it pisses me off when people treat me as a thing in the way rather than a person who needs and has a right to space and time.

The fellow behind drank his coffee quickly and left quickly.

Did he learn anything? I don't care.

I did.

And sometimes me matters.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Dangerous Thing

Joe and I are members of a 'walking club' at the mall. Our mall has two levels, and it's 1.4k to do the top and .6k to do the bottom. We joined in July of last year and have tried to get over and do the circuit a few times a month. We stopped by the customer service desk to find out what our totals were for last year. It was interesting as she went through the data, you could tell which months we traveled and which months we didn't. We were having a delightful chat with the woman at the desk when a young fellow came from outside and up to the desk to ask a quick question.

As he approached, he turned to me, and said, "You don't need to be in that wheelchair," he then shook his head and said, "you are just willing yourself to be disabled." He said it with a combination of hostility and disgust. The three women at the desk were flabbergasted. After he left I told them that this kind of thing happens every day, every time I go out in public. They were horrified.

We went back to discussing how far we'd gone. I'd done 22 kilometers and Joe 18. I know that's not a lot but there were months we traveled so much we'd only done one or two walks at the mall. But here's the thing, it isn't nothing and that's what matters. So when we were done Joe and I prepared to leave.

The woman said, "I'm sorry that happened to you."

And I swear on The Joy of Cooking I'd completely forgotten about it. It's such a commonplace experience, that I'd let it go. It wasn't even the first time that day that someone had done something to indicated that I was neither welcome or wanted in the mall. I looked at the others at the desk and they too were still horrified.

It was a good reminder.

What we get used to, what we end up putting up with, is unacceptable. It is NOT the cost of living in the community. It is NOT the natural state of being disabled, being different.

Loss of outrage is a dangerous thing.

A dangerous thing.