I was listening to the song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from the musical South Pacific. The song asserts that children are not born racist, they must learn to be racist. I think that same truth applies to ableism. Children are not born believing that some differences make a person inferior; they have to be taught. It's easy to see how Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, inaccessible buildings, overt discrimination, or the common use of words such as "retard" or "cripple" teach ableism. It is more challenging to realize that even well-intentioned people, themselves products of the culture we live in, can inadvertently foster the ableist paradigm in children.
My mom remembers a telling story that took place on an ordinary day many years ago. My two sisters and I were about 4 years old at the time (we’re triplets) and were playing in our backyard sandbox. It was a warm, sunny summer afternoon. My sisters were running back and forth between the sandbox and the hose to get water for our sandcastles. I was lying on my stomach, as I often did, playing in the sand with my hands, my shovel, and my truck. We were laughing and having fun.
Unbeknownst to my sisters and me, a six year old boy who was visiting our next door neighbors was intently watching us through the chain link fence.
At some point, one of my sisters went near the fence, and the boy asked her, “Does he walk?”
My mom says she held her breath, ready to jump into the conversation and stand up for me. Ever the advocate, she would've said something sappy like, “He can’t walk, but he's really good at playing in the sand.”
Had my protective grandparents been around, one of them might have scolded the boy, “Hey! That’s a rude question!”
An educator or social worker, seeing a potential peer socialization experience for me, might have answered with a heavy, deliberate sigh, “No… he's not able to walk.” Then with forced enthusiasm, “Why don't you go play with him? It doesn't have to be very long, just a few minutes. You'll feel good helping the boy."
A healthcare provider, intending to minimize the importance of physical differences, might have lectured the boy on my condition of cerebral palsy, "The motor area of his brain was damaged because he was born too early. This damage causes him not to have good control of his arms and legs. Even though his body is different from our bodies, he's really just like us.”
The boy's dad, not wanting his son to be offensive or rude, might have pulled his son away from the fence, “Shhh…. Don't stare! Don't make him feel bad."
On the surface, these responses to the boy's question may seem appropriate. But imagine, if you will, the boy at the fence asking my sister a different question. Suppose he asked, "does he have red hair?"
"No, he doesn't, but he's really good at playing in the sand."
"Hey! That's a rude question!"
Heavy sigh, “No… he doesn't have red hair.” Forced enthusiasm, “Why don't you go play with him? It doesn't have to be very long, just a few minutes. You'll feel good helping the boy."
"He’s genetically heterozygous for the brown haired trait. Even though his body is different from our bodies, he's really just like us.”
“Shhh…. Don't stare! Don't make him feel bad."
So, how did the four year old's and six year old’s interaction play out that sunny summer day?
Not assuming any hidden meaning to the boy’s “Does he walk?", my sister simply said, "no."
The boy accepted her simple answer to his simple question. Then he moved on to his more important question, "Can I play? We could use my yellow dump truck to move the sand.”
The boy, and soon the neighbor kids, came over. The sand castles got bigger, the laughter louder. We all had a great time.
Be sure to check out the many other posts for Blogging Against Disablism Day. Thanks, Goldfish for organizing this event.
Monday, April 30, 2007
“We are, without a shadow of a doubt, the most diverse minority group on the planet. We are everywhere you look, and yet you do not see us."I'll have a post for tomorrow, and I hope you'll check out Diary of a Goldfish tomorrow for all the links.
(A few facts - In the U.K., Lady Bracknell says one in seven people had a disability; in the U.S., it's one in five. And, in the U.K., they use the term, "disablism”; in the US we use the term "ableism".)
Saturday, April 28, 2007
"The theme is "Firsts" and I want that to be interpreted as widely and variedly as possible. I want to encourage nondisabled bloggers and those that feel they don't qualify to be part of the disability community to participate asallies. I'll answer any questions about the theme, but it's just a jumping offpoint. Oh, and if you find a great post of someone else's that should be in thecarnival nominate it too."
I enjoy the carnivals, and I hope lots more bloggers will contribute. It's fun to read each other's ideas.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Yesterday, I found out that I was chosen as an alternate for MIUSA’s Costa Rican Exchange. If a spot opens up, they'll call me. I’m disappointed. I would have loved to have gone. It sounds like a wonderful experience.
I had some good news yesterday, too. I won the Markeeta award, an award presented to an Illinois youth for social justice and disability advocacy. Thanks to Tara Dunning from the Statewide Independent Living Council and Meredith Hill for nominating me. My interest in advocacy took off when I attended the Illinois Youth with Disabilities Leadership Summit in 2003. I’ve since gone each summer as a participant and as a peer mentor. The Summit is a great way for young people with disabilities to meet each other, meet interesting adults, and learn about advocacy and leadership. If you know an Illinois youth who might be interested, applications for this year’s summit are due May 18.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
We humans like to label, to stereotype, to box-in others to simplify our own lives, allowing us to avoid dealing with the complexity of each person. We delude ourselves into thinking that we know another person, when all we really know is the box that we created. Those of us with disabilities are boxed all the time - with labels such as “inspirational”, “tragic”, “brave”, “retard”, “cripple”, or "special". The labels, even the seemingly kind ones, serve to diminish who we are, limit our potential and our contributions, and take away our humanity.
Here’s a story of how someone put me in one box, then another box, and finally got rid of his box perspective.
Several years ago, we got a new choir director at my church. Tony was about the age that I am now, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in choral music at a nearby university. I had been singing in choirs at my church for about 8 years with the previous choir director. When Tony first came, he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the job. He had his hands full juggling his college demands and the full-time job of music director at a church where music plays a central role in liturgy. I imagine it was not easy seeing my wheelchair and cerebral palsy among the musicians. At first, Tony appeared very cold and distant to me, and I really didn’t feel like a part of the group any more. I didn’t feel wanted or respected. I knew Tony did not see me as a choir member, but instead saw me as a person who was in the way, a burden to the demands of his job.
I continued to sing, moving from the teen choir to the adult choir. Tony gradually became more comfortable with his role as music director and also with my place in the choir. We had many enjoyable conversations, and he got to know me as a person. He valued my contributions as a tenor in the choir, and little by little dismantled the box that he had put me in.
One Easter Sunday, it became apparent that Tony now had me in a new box. In the middle of mass, he spontaneously decided that the choir would sing in a different part of the church, a part that was not easily accessible to my wheelchair. Tony quickly directed the choir to follow him, and everyone but me, did. I stayed put, as I could see that the new location couldn't work for me. Tony started to conduct the choir for the song and saw that I was not there. His face registered “uh-oh!,” shock, and embarrassment. The choir sang the song, and everyone returned to their places.
Tony was intensely, humbly apologetic. He had forgotten that I use a wheelchair; he had seen me only as a singer. I had gone from one box to another box. I had gone from "disability" to "no disability", from "cerebral palsy" to "tenor". Different boxes, yes, but still boxes; boxes that simplified me as being only one thing and did a disservice to me.
A few years have passed since that Easter Sunday, and Tony and I have a great working relationship and friendship. He now seeks to understand all of me, asking me questions and getting to know me. Recently, he heard a guest speaker at our church naively stereotype people who use wheelchairs. He graciously offered to drive her back to the airport, with a mission to catch her ear on the subject of stereotyping people with disabilities. When he told me that story, I couldn’t help but smile. I have a lot of respect for Tony; it is not easy to stop putting people in boxes. I hope I can follow his example and unabashedly drop the boxes that I have that so limit the people I stereotype.
Description of picture: boxes stacked upon each other
Monday, April 23, 2007
Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christie Gilson. I met Christie at her office in the Education Building at the University of Illinois. Christie is a warm, friendly person with an easy laugh, and was very open in sharing her thoughts and goals. She has a “go for it” outlook on life, teaching by example to follow one's dreams. This is the first of several entries about my interview with Christie.
Christie is a blind Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois. She has an interest in the educational experiences of students with disabilities around the world, particularly in Asia. She said that Asian college students with disabilities are underrepresented in education research. Two years ago, Christie applied for a Fulbright scholarship to do her dissertation research with students at the University of Hong Kong. Her alternative plan was to interview international students with disabilities currently living in the U.S. about their schooling experiences.
Christie was thrilled to learn, several months later, that Fulbright had accepted her, and she began to plan the many details that would make for a successful Fulbright experience. She needed to set up all the necessary requirements for her dissertation research, and because she is blind, she had additional planning to do. Christie had previously lived in Germany with her ex-husband, but this would be her first time traveling alone for an extended period of time. She called Mobility International USA and the American Consulate to ask for travel and living advice. One of her hardest decisions was deciding whether to bring her elderly German Shepherd guide dog. In Hong Kong, dogs are uncommon, and guide dogs are never used. Also, because her dog is elderly, Christie wondered whether her dog would be anxious in such an unfamiliar place. In the end, Christie decided it would be best to leave her dog home and bring her white cane.
Excited to share her big news, Christie told family, friends, and coworkers about her Fulbright award. Most were excited and supportive, happy that Christie would be following her dream of going to Asia and respectful of Christie's ability to do the work to make this experience successful.
However, there was one person who doubted. A special education faculty member. The only place that Christie encountered questioning of her ability to function as a blind Fulbright scholar in Asia was from a special education faculty member.
We hope that special education teachers empower students with disabilities to believe in their capabilities and support them in finding the necessary resources to make their dreams happen. The irony is that many of us have consistently had the exact opposite experience. We've had special education teachers who cannot see beyond our disabilities. They box us in, seeing us as nothing more than a collection of "problems". Christie’s out to change special education. As a faculty member, teaching special education teachers, there will be no more boxes.
Description of picture: Christie and her German Shepherd guide dog, Jill
Thursday, April 19, 2007
You can get more information at Diary of a Goldfish, and also find all the details about participation there. Thanks, Goldfish for being such a great organizer.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
I had been searching for a news story about the United States and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and had found next to nothing. Thanks to Steve Kuusisto, for connecting me to this link. Like me, Steve is outraged that the United States has thus far failed to sign this important convention. The US did not even send a representative to the UN signing ceremony!
John Lancaster, Executive Director of the National Council on Independent Living and President of the United States International Council on Disabilily, attended the treaty signing ceremon. Here's what he had to say:
"As I sat in the observers' area on the floor of the UN's General Assembly Hall, delegates from 80 nations and the European Community took their turn at the official signing table to commit their country to the human and civil rights of people with disabilities. At several points, my eyes welled with tears. They should have been tears of joy and pride as an American, as a citizen in the country that had created this world-wide movement for the rights and empowerment of people with disabilities. Instead, they were tears of shame and embarrassment..."Andrew Imparto, President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, summarizes the importance of this UN Disability Convention:
"The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides the opportunity for tides of change across the globe. Because we've had 17 years to begin to see what a society can look like when people with disabilities enjoy broad civil rights protections, we must stay involved, sign, and continue to lead. If the U.S. is to remain a visionary leader on the rights of people with disabilities, it cannot stand by idly. Rather, with the same bipartisan enthusiasm as was seen in the signing of the ADA, the U.S. must sign and ratify the treaty and take a lead role in translating broad commitments into national action - to live up to our status as a world leader in the global fight for disability rights."
Over 80 countries, including Canada and Mexico, have signed this treaty supporting basic human rights for people with disabilities. The U.S. has not. Please sign this petition urging President Bush to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Description of pictures: one shows a sad eye, overflowing with a tear and the other one shows the UN flag
Sunday, April 15, 2007
“. . . there’s boxes we’re expected to fit into and conform to as disabled people. You could write about the box, you could write about not knowing there was a box, you could write about what happens when you step outside the box (if anyone even notices), just in general the theme is anything having to do with the box (the limited amount of stereotyped traits and experiences we’re “supposed to” have in a lot of people’s eyes) in its varying manifestations (including some that are impairment-specific, and some that are more general).”
Submissions are due by Monday, April 23, and can be sent here.
Friday, April 13, 2007
I enjoy reading BBC Ouch's Top 10 lists, so I've made one of my own. (I'm also thinking that this might be a fun theme for a Blog Carnival.)
Top 10 Tips For Service Providers
1. Keep in mind that I am your client. Treat me and my needs with respect and care.
2. Show up on time; call if you’re going to be late. Respect the value of my time.
3. Look me in the eye. Talk to me, not to my parent or assistant.
4. Listen. Listen. Listen. Assumptions are the enemy. Let me explain my individual needs to you. Ask questions to clarify.
5. Offer your professional expertise.
6. Together, let's come up with possible solutions for my needs.
7. I don't expect you to know everything. When you don't know something, check with your colleagues, do some research and get back to me. Arrogance will not help us problem solve.
8. Stay focused on your job. Simple friendly pleasantries are fine; however, you were not hired to be my minister, my parent, or my buddy.
9. Follow through in a timely manner on any commitments you make. It's your job, and I'm counting on you.
10. Know that I am grateful for your services, expertise and a job well done.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Monday, April 09, 2007
Andrea, from Andrea’s Buzzing About, writes a right-on and entertaining post on the silliness of our society’s attitudes. She notes the irony in how the same technology can viewed as “cool” for one person while at the same time distinctly uncool for another person. In our conspicuous consumption but disability-adverse culture, we want the world to see our brightly colored Bluetooth ear piece but not our sickly beige hearing aid earpiece.
Description of pictures: one picture shows a fancy bronze colored Nokia Bluetooth earpiece with an engraved design and the other picture shows five bland beige Siemens Phoenix hearing aids.
With my cerebral palsy, I have to be very conscious of setting priorities for my time and energy. I must plan my time very carefully because I have very limited stamina and activity causes painful spasms in my neck, shoulders, back, and legs. Last week, I sang with my choir for the Holy Week services. It was a wonderful, exhilarating experience that took all my physical energy. My blog got pushed down my priority list.
Also last week, I got called for an interview by Mobility International USA. I'll find out if I get accepted for the Costa Rica Disability Exchange Program on April 20. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, I hope I get accepted.
Description of picture: Five colored juggling balls in the air.