Monthly Archives: April 2007

Will you take me home with you?

I volunteered at a youth correctional institute in the Midwest for a year before I chose my career. I also worked at a hospital. I hated working at the hospital and I loved working with the kids.

But it wasn’t that simple. As a matter of fact at times it was heartbreaking. I would drive into the facility, leave my personal belongings in a bin, grab a name tag and then head over to the classroom wing where I (tried to) teach a math class for 14 year old boys. I taught the class twice a week and every time there were different faces. Kids were constantly transferring in and out, although there were a few “long termers”. They were the kids who had committed violent crimes – arson, robbery, or assault.

But there were a few other kids there who committed much lesser offenses – such as truancy and running away from (sometimes an abusive) home. And there was one boy there whose status defied definition.

The other kids called him slow. His IQ tested in the borderline range according to his records – lower than average but above what might be considered a cognitive disability. He had red hair, freckles and a great smile – the few times I saw it.

But he didn’t belong there. He knew it, the other kids knew it and I knew it. He didn’t want to be there and the other kids didn’t want him there. They didn’t know what to do with him. There was a pecking order there. The weaker boys were ruled by the stronger ones but even those who were the biggest bullies didn’t want to pick on this kid. Their code didn’t allow it.

So why was he there? I went to the office and asked after I spent three classes having him beg me to take him home with me. I was told that several foster homes couldn’t handle him and he wouldn’t go to school so he was a truant but in reality they were warehousing him there because they couldn’t find a placement for him. I was also told to keep my nose out of it.

Which, try as I might, I couldn’t do. It came to a head one day when I got in my car, started to drive home and he popped up in my back seat and announced he was coming home with me and how wonderful it was! I turned the car around to take him back and in the short ride between Point A and Point B to drop him off, I decided this situation couldn’t be ignored.

I called a couple I knew from the office phone and begged them to take this kid. They were registered as foster parents and such loving people that I knew this kid would get what he needed there. They agreed to take him for a month or so. Papers were drawn up and he was sent to them. As I suspected things worked out and he stayed there long term.

Of course back in my math class chaos reigned. My glasses were stolen at times in hopes that I wouldn’t be able to teach or see the lesson. The math textbooks were turned into paper airplanes. I was introduced to slang I never dreamed of. I did manage to teach a few kids fractions and multiplication. And I found one kid a home.

Institutionalization of people with disabilities. It’s been going on for years.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan


Filed under essay

Where do you think you’re going?

When I lived in Detroit back in the 80’s, I used to walk home from work past a street corner where a group of African American and white teens hung out every day. To my chagrin, the first few times I walked past they called out “Where do you think you’re going?” as I headed toward my apartment in an integrated neighborhood.

I would just reply “I’m going home” and hurry by. Usually they laughed and joked among themselves about me being afraid of them and being on their turf.

There was some truth to that. The neighborhood rang out with gun shots intermittently. Steel hulls remained of cars that used to run on lots and burnt out houses were scattered around with homeless people, some of them addicts, living inside. My car battery was stolen so many times I first put a lock on the hood, then just sold the car and walked. This was not the world I grew up in as a middle class white college kid. And the truth was I moved there because I could afford the rent while paying tuition.

One of my four part time jobs at the time was working in a legal aid clinic affiliated with the school I was attending. One day when I went into the waiting room to get the next client, it turned out to be an elderly woman. With her was one of the kids from the corner, who was her grandson. I took them into a room and assisted her with some paperwork while he eyed me warily. Maybe he wanted to know if I recognized him. Maybe he thought I was mad at him for their teasing. I just did my job .

When we were done, his grandmother went down the hall to get her coat, but the teen stayed behind. “That was very cool of you not to say anything in front of my grandma about us giving you a hard time,” he said, nodding at me. “And if anyone gives you trouble any more on the streets, you let me know, okay?”

After that, I not only didn’t have any “trouble”, one of the teens always helped me carry home my books and other things. I learned safety tips from them all about living there. The word on the street was that I was “okay”.

One day I walked by crying. I’d just found out that my father had passed away. Six sets of eyes turned toward me wanting to know what was wrong. Sobbing I told them. All six teens followed me to my apartment and stood there awkwardly in front of the building.

“You gonna be alright?” one asked.

I nodded. “I have to go east for the funeral,” I said.

“Are you coming back?” he asked. “I mean, we send people for help to you.”

It was true. Sometimes there were clients there asking for me by name and my supervisor wanted to know whether I was out drumming up business. It was usually a friend of a friend of these kids who was in bad trouble and needed help.

“Don’t worry,” I told them. “I’m coming home.”

As I said the words, I realized I meant them. My home now was right there, not where I’d come from. I’ve learned that my home is sometimes where I’m wanted or needed, sometimes where I’m doing work that is useful to others.

Years later as an advocate I still think of home as a place defined through the people I meet as I discover where I’m going.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

1 Comment

Filed under essay

Safety on college campuses: Let’s not form a lynch mob yet

It was supposed to be a social occasion, just having a meal together.

But my able bodied acquaintance decided that the main topic of conversation should be the shooting at Virginia Tech and whether there should be more laws about how to deal with students with mental illnesses. Laws that exclude such students, laws that take away the privacy rights of such students, laws that cut away at the hard fought for provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and laws that increase the stigma such students already have faced.

After listening to my companion’s argument, I took another sip of coffee. I swallowed. I thought about how I just wanted to eat my breakfast. But as a person with a disability I know that many others are thinking and saying these same things.

So I brought up the danger of knee jerk reactions to fixing problems, the tendency to point the finger at the entire group of students with mental illnesses for the behavior of one and the folks who chained themselves to court houses and other places to get those of us with disabilities the rights we have that still are not being enforced.

“As a group, we have legal rights but not social or cultural ones in many cases,” I said quietly.

I was cut off. She was too angry to listen to me. “I knew you would say something like that, something vague,” she said triumphantly, sitting back.

“And,” I continued, “this is why many of us are forced to resort to the court system to handle situations which adds to a backlash against our rights. Then the stereotype of the angry and bitter and unreasonable disabled litigant crops up. Suddenly everyone else becomes the ‘victim’. Even though we are the ones who cannot get access to buildings, churches, schools and other institutions, the finger is pointed at us when we try to enforce our rights.”

“I’m not talking about your rights,” she said. “I’m talking about everybody else’s rights.”

Ahh, the us versus them argument. I refused to take the bait. I did have more coffee. “So you think we need to cut away the rights of students with mental illnesses because of the behavior of one student,” I repeated. She nodded. “So let’s follow through with this. If one college football player rapes another student, should we test all college football players to see if they are sexual predators?”

“No, of course not. That would be a violation of their rights. We’d be punishing them for who they are, not what they’ve done.”

“Maybe test all college athletes or students who weigh over a certain amount? Maybe we should do it on the basis of other attributes?”

She shook her head vehemently. “Absolutely not.”

“Then I don’t follow your reasoning. What you’re saying is that only students diagnosed with mental illnesses shoot other students, right?”

“No, I didn’t say that.”

“And you’re not saying other students should have their rights taken away?”

“Definitely not.”

“Then how is that different than the college football player argument?” I asked.

“We all know that college football players aren’t crazy.”

“But some football players have commmitted crimes,” I point out. “There have been several trials for rape by Naval academy cadets this year and three of those students were football players. But I heard no outcry about treating college football players differently.”

“Well it’s not right to pick on student athletes as a group. Look at how they picked on those Duke lacrosse players,” she said hotly. “They were innocent and people made assumptions.”

“And those assumptions hurt those players,” I said quietly. “Our country was all indignant at the assumptions that were made against the Duke students just a few days before this shooting. We were all talking about the need not to rush to judgment, weren’t we?”

Neither of us said anything for a few minutes. “There is that side of things too,” she agreed.

I’m reminded of the mob scene in Frankenstein, where the villagers run out of their houses to get the monster. Torches alit, they go through the streets, looking for him, determined to make themselves “safe”. Except in this instance the “monster” has been defined as students with mental illnesses.

Before we form a lynch mob, folks, let’s calm down and consider how the prejudices that society still holds against those with mental illnesses are affecting our judgment. And let’s take a look at the role stigma plays in how we treat this issue before we judge people on who we think they are rather than by what they have done.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

Leave a comment

Filed under essay

The value of pluralism in disability advocacy

Disability advocacy happens in many ways. Parents of children with disabilities become advocates although some may be reluctant to play that role. Others are professional advocates who are paid for their work. Some people with disabilities self-advocate in order to gain or maintain access. Some write about disability advocacy and educate others.

My view from the trenches often differs from others’ point of view. That’s not surprising because what I see is different than what many see. I bring with me certain information, experiences and knowledge that others may or may not have. Because of that I will sometimes advocate in different ways, depending on the situation.

I often engage the help of a group or organization in my advocacy efforts. Resources matter in the world of disability advocacy and should be respected and cultivated.

Sometimes I disagree with certain points of view held by such groups. That does not mean they are not valuable as a resource, nor does it mean that the members themselves, whether able bodied or disabled, are not people whom I respect. Quite the contrary. Even though we both are acting in the role of advocate, we may “agree to disagree” on certain issues because we may not be “like-minded” on certain points. Two people or groups can disagree on certain issues and neither is going to change position. What is good to recognize is that it doesn’t always mean someone is wrong.

I can tolerate this level of pluralism better than some, perhaps because I am used to dealing with conflict resolution on a daily basis. I can see the value of incorporating different points of view into my own worldview and do that quite frequently. I can also see and avoid when possible the temptation to conform to a lower expectation in a result that is achieved if issues get too “watered down” by some group processes. ( This is different than “preaching to the choir” because when people already “get it”, that approach is a waste of time and energy. ) But a group that cannot tolerate a pluralistic view and tries to impose conformity on the people who come in touch with it stymies its own growth and usefulness. In the end, this group behavior turns off people who could otherwise be valuable allies and partners.

In dealing with the myraid of issues involved in disability advocacy from the trenches, I simply cannot imagine how I could function as an effective advocate without realizing both the value of and the need for pluralism.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan


Filed under essay

Do you really want to hurt me – respecting the physical boundaries of people with disabilities

They say love hurts. Sometimes just going out and being among people who don’t understand my disability hurts.

Last night I went out in a group of people. None of them know me very well and a few had not met me before. As I sat there, I suddenly saw one of the women gesturing wildly in my direction and became aware that something was going on behind me. Apparently someone had been trying to get my attention by tapping on my back. Since I lack sensation in parts of my body, I didn’t feel it. So of course I failed to respond. And, according to someone whom I talked to later, the man “tapping” me became impatient and began to hit my back.

I began to have spasms which is how I register pain. So there I am spasming and suddenly without warning in pain. I looked around and the person had stopped. I suppose he became afraid when he saw my body spasm; however, he was “huffy” about why I had “ignored” him. Yet, I did not realize anything was happening until I had the visual clue from my friend.

At times it can be a bit frightening to realize that there is no way to let everyone know what my physical limits are. Many not only assume I’m a paraplegic – but they also don’t realize that lack of sensation is part of some peoples’ spinal cord injury. However, ignorance of that fact never excuses the fact that someone fails to respect my personal boundaries. That is ableism.

This situation reminded me of the times when I’ve had my wheelchair kicked or people have tried to climb over me to get ahead of me in a crowd. People can get pretty physical when they feel I’m holding them up and when they act in these ways can injure a person in a wheelchair.

In general I trust that the world is a fairly benevolent place. Quite frankly, if I didn’t , I wouldn’t go out alone at all being a quadriplegic. I know many with my level of injury who don’t go out alone and I respect their choice. There can be a very real danger that comes from the refusal of some people to respect our boundaries as people with disabilities.

It is one thing not to understand a person’s disability and quite another to disrespect her physical boundaries.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan


Filed under essay