Monthly Archives: July 2007

ADA celebrates its 17th anniversary

Seven years ago I remember getting a sticker from a disability agency that celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I put it on my wheelchair and had a few people stop me when I was out and about and ask “What is the ADA?”

Those were teachable moments, times when I could explain to people what the ADA was and its purposes.

Seven years later, if I was asked that question, I’d be surprised. Most people know what the ADA is now. At least they know what the words stand for – or that it’s “about people with disabilities”. What I’m not sure some people understand is the purpose behind the ADA – which can be mistaken for a law that guarantees entitlement and sometimes engenders resentment. Sadly this biased view of the ADA has been touted in media coverage at times, one that ignores the legislation’s purpose.

I think of the car dealer who admitted he gave a disabled customer a higher price and told me that he had to put a ramp in so someone had to make up the difference. Or the veterinarian who complained to me that she was sued by a wheelchair user like me when there was no access and, no , she didn’t want to treat my pet. Countless people who have told me as an advocate how much they resent making accommodations for the disabled. Or, shockingly, my experiences with being told at times that churches are exempt from the ADA – and don’t ‘have to’ do anything “for disabled people”.

On some days as I advocate I encounter so much backlash from the progress we’ve made that I find myself reeling.How sad that none of these folks understand the true purpose behind the ADA. Inclusion. Having a society where everyone can participate, where people can freely come and go, socialize, work, drive, and enjoy a full and productive life. And, yes, worship freely and be included socially at the table too as a full member of a congregation.

Churches may be exempt from the ADA legally, but are not exempt from inclusion morally. I could write volumes about how sad it is when inclusion is ignored in a church setting or spiritual community and pushed to the back burner as if it can just wait. How sad. For them. Because in their denial that work toward inclusion needs to be done, they not only continue to miss out on true community where everyone can fully participate, but fail to adhere to the tenets of the very faith they gather to celebrate.

I’m mindful that, in all of these situations, what some people don’t see is the full picture. Yes, they know seven years later that the ADA is a law for disabled people.

Maybe, given more time, more people will learn what its true purpose is.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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D is for Discomfort

Yesterday I was reading something David (over at Growing Up with a Disability) was writing about – how his aide noticed during his recent trip that David “put a lot of energy out making other people feel comfortable” around him and his disability. I can relate.

People express their discomfort in various ways. There are a range of reactions. Some people say they’re afraid of saying/doing the wrong thing and refuse to take responsibility to learn how to be around people with disabilities. This places the burden on the person with a disability to ‘handle’ their discomfort. Others ask a lot of uninvited – even intrusive questions. Then there’s the opposite extreme – a few who don’t acknowledge disabled people when they speak, as if they are invisible. This can cause quite a few problems as well.

It does take energy to deal with these reactions. I’ve spoken to a number of people in the disability community who feel that it’s not the responsibility of the disabled person to educate others. People with disabilities want to concentrate on living their lives, not being seen as a spokesperson. I’d also add that behavior which makes a disabled person feel as if he/she is a problem to have around is inappropriate. I see this far too often when I’m out, where a situation is exaggerated due to a slight inconvenience.

Because of the amount of discomfort some people show, I always encourage people to educate themselves about disability – learn about various disabilities. There are many resources available (I even have a tag which I’ll include below) – books, videos, etc. In addition to learning about disabilities, it’s important to educate oneself about disability etiquette. This includes how to act around those with various disabilities. Part of the learning process is being around people with disabilities, interacting with them and learning.

It’s also important to examine your attitudes toward disability – both positive and negative ones. What were you taught as a child about disability? How do you perceive disabled people in general? Any fears or anger you have may be displaced onto disabled people you meet if those feelings remain unconscious, for example. If you’ve had a number of positive relationships with disabled people, this will impact your attitude.

Remaining teachable, using common sense, and keeping a sense of humor goes a long way toward resolving being uncomfortable around people with disabilities .

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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Sorry we don’t serve your kind here

Recently I posted a story about a woman who was refused service at a few drive through McDonald’s because of her disability. I received a few emails from folks who felt that the press this story received was overdone and that it was an isolated incident.

I suggest you scan the contents of any disability news reader. (Check out Disapedia’s news.) You’ll see stories about people with disabilities being refused service almost daily. Some involve refusal of service due to a service dog, such as a recent case where a bus company would not sell a ticket to a blind couple who had service dogs. This is still happening and I’ve personally witnessed it on a number of occasions when I’ve been out with blind friends, even at nationally known restaurants.

My other experience with this has been when I’ve traveled with other disabled people and more than one of us tries to get service at a restaurant. This has happened enough times that I see a pattern in it. On one occasion, another friend who uses a wheelchair and I went to a local diner where we were told they were “crowded” and asked us to use take out. We told them we wanted a table and we were put at a six foot long table, my friend at one end and me at the other, making conversation impossible. When I refused this arrangement, I was told we would be in the way if we sat anywhere else. I explained that we wished to be seated like other customers. The owner came over and once again asked us to get take out as the other patrons did not want to look at us because we were ‘too disabled and it upset them’. I mentioned the ADA and he said he was not going to deal with such things and he did not vote for that. So I called the police.

Touching story, eh?

It’s interesting on these occasions how calling the police can straighten out a restaurant owner’s attitude. There’s nothing like enforcing the ADA (if you have a stomach for it) in such a direct manner. It is illegal for them to refuse you service due to your disability – period. Basically, the police arrive, they talk to the manager/owner and explain the law (which you’ve already done) and you are seated and served. In my experience, the police, who have better things to do with their time, often say to the person breaking the law that this better not happen again.

It’s very sad that in 2007 we’re still dealing with this type of issue but burying our head in the sand about such things doesn’t help solve it. I hear stories from people who say they don’t go to certain places because they’re not welcome and my response is that I go where I want to go. Just like everyone else. Sometimes we all wind up having to be our own advocate.

I don’t enjoy such scenes nor do I seek them out but if I am refused service I enforce my rights.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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Not for Sunday night television

Based on the media coverage of people with disabilities, all the inspirational stories and successful overcoming, I guess it’s not surprising that people ask me why I even have to advocate for disabled people.

I’d like to spell out some of the issues we still face – and please remember there is overlap – these are general issues that result in day to day problems.

*Bullying-education, work, social setting (includes gossip, physical assault, harassment)

*Oppression against disabled in different cultures – institutionalization against their will or when less restrictive alternatives can be created; euthanasia of diasbled; lack of housing, jobs

*Image oppression – treating those with disabilities as less than for not looking the same as others; making jokes about their appearance; refusing to be in close proximity with them; refusing to interact with them because they look “different”; asking people to hide their disability (cover up a prosthetic, e.g.)

*Abuse and neglect -refusal of society to provide adequate care resulting in neglect of disabled; abuse and/or neglect by carers, family

* Isolation – lack of transportation , medical equipment, social exclusion, ostracism

*Inadequate social services/programs- gaps in system, pushing disabled into elderly programs

*Ridiculing that results from the status of being disabled – also seen in bullying behaviors but exists as separate phenomenon such as when a person with a disabilty is ridiculed for enforcing his/her rights in litigation, toward social inclusion (e.g. ridiculing or demeaning the person and/or her disability ). It is often a backlash when the disabled person is seen as “not knowing his/her place” or being uppity

and other actions and words which take away someone’s dignity.

This list isn’t intended as a summary of all the advocacy work I do. I’m way too tired doing the advocacy work to compose an A List. There are many areas, what I refer to as “power areas”, where progress made by people with disabilities has been very slow. These usually relate to economics in some way, such as job opportunities, housing or access to equipment.

Our media enjoys doing stories on the people who have succeeded, but avoids covering the ugly realities that exist behind closed doors. The suffering in a day to day life that results, for example, from inadequate care or unnecessary institutionalization doesn’t make good media. The isolation that results from being unable to leave one’s home due to a lack of transportation and equipment just doesn’t get coverage.

Yet these stories are just as valid – and more important- than those we see in which people with disabilities are called “inspirational” . Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to take away from anyone’s accomplishments.

But unbalanced media coverage that focuses on the “feel good” stories results in a pervasive denial of the extent of the issues still facing people with disabilities and their families.

It’s time for us to learn to be mindful of how the media portrays pwd. This includes being aware of opportunities to participate in realistic portrayals of living with a disability, like the new project [with]tv . It also includes speaking up when we see inaccurate and skewed portrayals in the media. Whether it includes a Sunday night TV movie that shows a sappy overcoming theme or a local article that covers a disabled person’s graduation from college but fails to follow through when he/she can’t get a job or transportation to a job six months later, this kind of media coverage needs to start being called on for what it is – skewed.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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Where is the disability community?

Many people define community as a group of people sharing (or who shared) a common locale, neighborhood or area. Some say community refers to people with the same beliefs and values. Under these definitions, I am a member of many communities, including my town, my church, an alumna, etc.

But I also belong to the disability community, a community that is growing as there is increased awareness of the commonality of many of our experiences. This community also consists of our allies, something I’ve learned from my online affiliations. The disability community, in my opinion, fits into some conventional definitions of community yet also stretches those definitions in ways that may at first not seem important, but are.

The disability community, in part, is one that arises from the common experiences of living with a disability as well as those who, by choice or affiliation, become allies through experience. For example, yesterday I went out on my scooter wearing my T shirt that I got at the Ski for Light* trip. It reads “Blind People Do It in The Dark”. As I went along at my top speed of 4mph, a few summer college students stopped me and asked where I got the T shirt, explaining that they were doing a project on disability. We got some coffee and talked about their project for about a half hour after I discovered from their questions that they really intended to do further research and just needed some context. (I must be a frustrated teacher because I do not like helping students when their research starts and ends with me.) I could sense that these students were potential allies.

We parted ways and I continued to scoot along. A woman with Down syndrome waiting for a bus stopped me and asked if my scooter was new because it was so red and shiny. I told her that it was brand new and she asked how it worked so I demonstrated that and she hugged me and wished me luck with it. I experienced that “click” I generally do when I’m around someone from the disability community and when a nearby person asked me “Do you know her?” I replied “yes.” I do now.

I stopped near a park bench for a few minutes. An older man driving a Caddy who was parked at a meter got out of his car, sat on the bench and talked to me while he waited for his wife to come out of a nearby store. He explained that his daughter had MS and was having difficulty accepting that she needed a mobility device. I spoke to him for about fifteen minutes about that situation.

The answer to the question I pose above is that the disability community is all around us, locally and globally. Some days I wish we could take an aerial photo of everyone’s town and chart the connectedness between people with disabilities, their allies, friends, families and loved ones. I think, even though some people still experience encountering someone with a disability as an uncomfortable and out of the ordinary experience, this would go a long way toward showing how that is more of a perception issue than a reality.

The truth is, however, that like any community, it often falls short to define it in geographic or spatial terms. In the case of the disability community I’ve found this to be particularly true and look forward to writing more about that.

*Ski for Light is an organization that offers adaptive skiing for both mobility and visually impaired participants.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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