Monthly Archives: August 2007

A is for Advocacy

One of the facts of living with a disability is having to make choices about when to assert your rights when you run into lack of acess. Once you make that decision, you then have to choose whether to enforce your rights under the ADA or through other means.

For years one of my friends relied on his sense of humor to handle things when a restaurant or business wasn’t accessible. I recall him charming waitresses into making room for his wheelchair and spending a half hour after his dinner explaining to managers why an accessible bathroom would help their business grow. And then he began to start filing lawsuits. Somewhere over the years he concluded that it was necessary to enforce rights, not just convince people to follow the ADA in certain instances.

Through his efforts, no matter which approach he took, a number of businesses are now accessible. Others are benefitting from ramps, accessible bathrooms and other facilities. It’s not as if someone hangs a sign on a curbcut one fights for with your name on it – but I’m sure anyone reading this who has been able to get an accessible accommodation made knows the feeling of satisfaction you get when you pass by it. I spent years quietly advocating for new curbcuts where I live. Not only were the curbcuts put in, but research was done to make sure that the safest and most up to date ones were installed as the project went on. This was all accomplished without having to resort to litigation.

It can be a tough choice as to which approach to take once you’ve decided you’re going to assert your rights. I prefer communicating with a business first before filing an ADA complaint to see if a reasonable accommodation can be worked out. Why? Because I’ve been able to negotiate much better results without litigating in many instances.

If you choose this approach, remember to set forth your side of the situation in a direct but respectful way. Try to be clear about what you’re asking for. If the situation becomes emotional, be careful to avoid becoming too reactive. After all, your goal is to get access, not aggravated. If you feel baited, simply point out that your alternative is to file an ADA complaint Knowing this can help you negotiate more effectively.

But what do you do when you run into a tough cookie who won’t negotiate with you? If any of the following occur, then you’re probably not going to be able to settle things without filing an ADA complaint:

-You receive the ‘brushoff’ – this can range from a denial that the ADA even exists to the business denying that any other customers in wheelchairs (who are deaf, blind, etc.) had any problem
– Your attempts to communicate are ignored or you receive a runaround
-You’re met with an unreasonable level of hostility (Don’t expect any business/individual to be happy about having to make accommodations; however, civility is a reasonable expectation.)

I’ve met far too many disabled people who leave it up to others to remedy lack of access. Perhaps they think they lack the skills to handle it. But often, with the right approach, simply letting a business owner know what you need results in a solution. And nothing feels more empowering than self advocacy.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan


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Back to school: teaching children about disabilities

As the school year approaches, I keep getting emails from my nephew. At the bottom of each email is a P.S. – I can’t wait to start middle school!

I couldn’t ask for a greater gift because my nephew, who has CP, didn’t always feel that way about school. In fact, at a young age, he’s faced inclusion issues. Fortunately he’s in a wonderful school district that attends to his needs and promotes inclusion.

One of the needs the school recognized is that children with disabilities need friends, not just helpers. This concept is basic but crucial. There is a vast difference between using the proximity of mainstreaming to create helpers or encourage friendships.

Helpers are created when teachers or staff ask kids to assist a disabled classmate. This creates a relationship in which the child who is disabled is seen in a very different way than as one of a group of kids who may be a potential friend. In fact, it can prevent friendships from forming if the role of helper is pushed too much by staff or teachers. Turning classmates into helpers can, in certain instances, objectify the student with a disability. It can also reinforce negative myths about disabled people, teaching children that their relationships with disabled people are unidimensional and consist of “helping” them.

This robs everyone of full inclusion. In an inclusive setting, staff anticipates practical issues related to access and other needs of all students and promotes relationships between the children so that the disabled student has opportunities to make friendships on a more equal basis.

This will often include education about disability or awareness classes for able bodied students as well as providing for the accommodations needed for disabled students. Staff can do follow through with students by attending to questions, issues and concerns as they arise during the course of the school year.

By providing the tools all students need, the groundwork is laid for friendships to form, rather than mere helping relationships, between students. In my experience with my nephew, one friend is worth dozens of helpers.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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On distancing from the disabled

“When we see people who are disadvantaged in comparison to us, we distance ourselves, both to protect ourselves from empathetic feelings and also to avoid the guilt of not helping them.” via on Empathy vs. Objectification

We see it in our social spaces, when special areas are set aside for the disabled. Our history as disabled people consists of being educated separately, institutionalized or hidden away and “housed” separately and excluded socially. Exclusion itself and the need to work toward inclusion is a result of the distancing that has taken place.

So what is this distancing about? Some say it’s about an aversion, about the disabled looking different. But as our world grows smaller and media allows us all to educate ourselves about disability – hear about it, look at it, etc., these arguments begin to lose ground. Perhaps years ago, when people didn’t get out much or travel or have online access, that would be a more viable argument. You were less likely to meet a number of disabled people, I suppose. But, again, this has changed a great deal.

Then there’s the quote above which basically states that distancing can be about avoiding the guilt of not helping those we see as disadvantaged. Well, thanks to all the myths over the years (the poster child, the telethon melodrama), many do see the disabled as disadvantaged. You may even be wondering as I write this – aren’t they? Isn’t being around the disabled always about helping them, giving to them and then we all go home?

No and that’s exactly where it’s all a self fulfilling prophecy. When people limit their interaction and relationships to disabled people in those ways, they never learn that being disabled doesn’t consist of being in these unidimensional roles.

The reality is that disabled people, depending on their disability, do things differently. I’m amazed at the range of reactions I received in email about the videos of the quad cooking a pizza. Some people were horrified and said he would burn himself alive while others said he was inspirational doing this daily task. I like Dirty butter’s comment that a cooking mitt is a good idea next time. Certainly using a quad reacher to lift a hot pizza pan out of the oven has its dangerous moments (although not as dangerous perhaps as using one for other things, I can attest to that!) But it’s an example of how a quad does things differently. The comments I really liked were the ones who ‘got’ that he found a way to make a pizza in the oven.

Seeing disability as a disadvantage does a disservice to all of us. It denigrates the creative, resourceful solutions that people find while living in a world that is not universallly designed. Such a view , unfortunately, grows things like shame, fear and despair in its garden rather than nurturing the human spirit and embracing the individuality of each of us.

Have I ever cringed watching a disabled person do something? Sure I have. I’ve seen blind people ski for the first time and fall down over and over again. But they get up and eventually they ski. I think it’s how we interpret the falling down and the different methods and equipment we use to do things that is key here. I’ve also cringed watching my nephews learn to walk and struggle to read. I’ve even cringed watching boyfriends try to cook, much less quads.

The starts and stops of the learning process at times may be somewhat of an analogy here, I suppose, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about either. I think to fully understand what I mean one has to be around disabled people, listen to them, eat with them, and have fellowship with them. This can’t happen when distancing continues.

If you don’t see the beauty of a child in a wheelchair visiting a park or being surrounded by his friends in a class, you won’t ever get that there’s no reason to exclude him – and plenty of reasons not to. Nor will you understand his need to do things differently and have the right equipment and access.

And it’s sad because we all miss out. When I meet a person who argues that distancing from the disabled is a normal reaction, I respond by saying that disability is natural and I ask if he/she turns away from nature in all its various forms. I ask if he only looks at blue butterflies or orange birds, if he dislikes thunder but wants the lightning. I question if he’s ever seen beauty in the struggle of a bird to fly or in the last moments of a summer day as evening falls and dusk descends.

“Of course not – I know it all exists!” is the reply.

And so it is with us humans.

Distancing from disabled people denies them their humanity and personhood. It objectifies people – who are not unidimensional. And it hurts – everybody.


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