Monthly Archives: January 2008

A Lingering Promise

Last night I had a rare opportunity to be heard in a different forum, although I didn’t realize exactly who would hear me when I opted to go. Transportation arrangements were made and I went to a Hillary Clinton campaign appearance. We arrived late and I was in an overflow room with about 200 other folks and was the only visibly disabled person in the room. After the speeches were done, Hillary Clinton walked past the room. I couldn’t glimpse her because everyone was standing up.

Afterwards, the police asked everyone to leave by the back stairs. I had to wait since the motorcade was outside near the ramped entrance. A few moments later, a woman in a wheelchair came by the door and was asked to wait in the overflow room with me while they got the motorcade ready for Clinton’s group. We began a dialogue about mobility issues and found many common grounds. The other woman owned a broken power chair that she bought herself on ebay due to insurance denials. She was in a manual chair that she said she “hated” because she had to be pushed. And her insurer wouldn’t get her a scooter or, it seemed, any other mobility device.

Suddenly the curtain near the door of the room opened. Hillary Clinton looked inside the room, standing there for a moment not saying anything as she looked at both of us. We greeted her and she said she promised she would work hard in Washington to improve things.

There was a silence. I looked at the other woman in the wheelchair and she looked at me. Hillary Clinton nodded at both of us again and said “I promise” and moved on.

The other woman in the wheelchair pulled out her cell phone, showing me pictures she had taken. She said “If she gets elected and fixes these things, I’ll tatoo a picture of her on my arm.”

In the meantime, I gave her some ideas about how to get her broken ebay power chair fixed. She thanked me and we parted ways.

Only the promise lingers.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Harrigan

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Finger Pointing 101

This NY Times article asks the question “If everyone is finger pointing, who’s to blame?” And sometimes that’s a really good question to ask, especially when dealing with advocacy issues.

Are things as bleak as they are portrayed sometimes when someone with a disability needs to resolve an access issue? On the other hand, are business owners the victims of people with disabilities who have huge senses of “entitlement” as some business owners claim?

Neither of these polarized views represents the truth of most situations. And finger pointing at each other in such situations only serves to widen the gap, rather than narrow it through possible conflict resolution. Negotiations aren’t likely to happen when people act as if they’re at war with each other and feel hopeless about reaching any kind of middle ground.

So how do we eliminate finger pointing? Isn’t it true, you may ask, that people with disabilities are rightfully angry that they can’t get inside a business? On the other hand, business owners might ask with equal anger, shouldn’t they be exempt from such requirements if they can’t afford them?

Both parties have to learn to be realistic about certain facts. Some businesses can’t afford certain accommodations and the reasonable requirement of the ADA protects that. Exaggerating the ADA’s requirements is – well- self serving to those who can afford them.

And although one may have a right under the ADA to access, approaching a business owner with anger doesn’t usually lead to negotiations – or a resolution. So although the lack of access makes us angry, we sometimes have to remember that the approach we take to the problem may dictate whether we wind up getting a fast resolution – or having to file a complaint.

It may be true that finger pointing is an understandable reaction sometimes, but I suspect that the main reason it happens is that it feels good. After all, we all want to be one hundred per cent right. The rest of the world certainly seems to conduct its affairs with this outlook, based on this article.

But when working toward change that involves cooperation that you just can’t legislate, such an approach is not only unworkable, but often counterproductive.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Harrigan

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Casting Things Asunder

Lately I’ve had a lot of practice in casting things asunder.

First I had to cast asunder my manual wheelchair, the love of my life, the piece of equipment I most relied upon – an ultralightweight titanium piece of machinery that allowed me mobility by ground and car.

This meant that I cast asunder quite a bit of my mobility. Some would say temporarily, but it hasn’t felt that way over the past months (years*). Things I took for granted, like getting in the car and going somewhere (anywhere) no longer happened without someone else’s help because the mobility devices I needed no longer fit in a (nonaccessible) car. This left me dependent on others to load a manual chair and push me (costing money if I paid) OR adding to the list of things I need help with. Doesn’t happen much.

This meant that I cast asunder most of my social life and plenty of opportunities to participate in organizations, causes, events, etc. Even getting to Mass. Not a small thing for this Catholic.

At some point I cast asunder my willingness to even talk about the entire subject. I wearied of listening to people making suggestions that I already knew I’d tried and wouldn’t work and , although well intentioned, this did not increase my mobility one iota.

What did increase my mobility was buying (financing) a very expensive power chair. What did increase my mobility was paying people to take me places or having friends who cared enough to get me out. What did increase my mobility, although not on an earthly level, was spending more time reading. I’ve made time for that because I need some way to travel.

In the midst of casting asunder all of these things, I suppose the good news is that, underneath, I’ve found myself again. As often happens when our lives change, I find myself feeling like a different person, with different needs, wants and even a different philosophy.

But I’ve cast asunder my need to minimize what this has all done to my life and what I’ve learned it does to the lives of others. I’d appreciate it so much if others would cast aside their need to do that too. I can understand it makes people uncomfortable to listen or to wrap their brains around the idea that the lack of mobility can be one equipment change away.

As I watch the candidates debate, I don’t hear anyone talking about solutions to this issue. I sit here staring at my ballot, trying to discern who should get my vote. And I must say it’s difficult right now to believe that any of those candidates know one iota of what I do on this issue. They may “feel my pain” at a town hall meeting or say they will work toward change (so the signs say), but do they? Will they?

Perhaps in order to vote I have to cast asunder these doubts. I have to remember that such things like lack of mobility are not solved in four years or maybe even eight years. Right now these issues are solved on a person to person basis, through grants and fund raising, hard work, extra hours, and exhaustion. It has little if anything to do with politics or government from what I can see, and more to do with trying to wrest a miracle out of it all, a miracle of grace and happenstance.

One thing I have not cast asunder is my faith. I still believe there is a solution for me and for many others. Where that will come from remains up in the air. I can only pray that someone will listen. One thing I won’t cast asunder is hope.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Harrigan

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Questions Kids Would Ask of Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve seen a number of articles written about how history and time have oversimplified – and even misrepresented – the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Some note that King’s fight to end war and poverty in his latter days – and how that caused him to have detractors- has been left out of the equation. Others say that what is taught to kids is only his “I have a dream” speech, which doesn’t do justice to his writings, teachings and – yes – actions.

But you know kids have an innate wisdom. So when they asked one little girl what questions she would ask of Dr. King, the first question she wrote was “Did you think you were a good person?” I sat and stared at that for a bit and found myself stymied.

Would Dr. King, if asked that when alive, say “I’ve tried to be a good person”? Would he think of his words and how they have given hope to so many – or would he, without the benefit of history, think about his detractors?

None of us have the benefit of history and hindsight to judge our own actions. We can exercise discernment about choices we make and actions we take. Yet sometimes it isn’t easy to think of ourselves as being a good person, particularly when we work toward change. It can be discouraging to have detractors, for example, or to feel like a lightning rod. If you stand up for what you believe, there will inevitably be someone who disagrees with the position you take. Many times it’s just easier to remain quiet and not utter the words that draw attention.

Not all of us will devote our lives to causes like Martin Luther King Jr. I dare say it’s not necessary that we do so. But the world would probably be a better place if more people got off their duffs and went out and did things to change the way things are. In fact, the world would be a better place if more people spoke up from their heart, not worrying as much about detractors.

Perhaps facing the question “Do you think you were a good person?” isn’t an easy thing for anyone. No doubt it begins with the process of even defining what goodness and truth is. I don’t doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good person. I can’t even imagine the many sacrifices he and his family made over the years, the ultimate one being his life. His legacy will in the light of history be defined and redefined over and over again.

Perhaps those of us who are still alive can best honor him by looking to our own lives and the opportunities we have to be agents of change in the daunting issues that still prevent our society from being fully inclusive, from breaking down the walls and barriers that stand in the way of embracing our brothers and sisters.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Harrigan


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The Helpseeker

I was just watching a clip from a new Veggie Tales movie. The characters get in a pickle and they decide they will call on the help of an instrument called The Helpseeker. (If you’d like to see what it looks like, here’s the clip but for those visually impaired readers, I’d say it looked rather like a giant butternut squash!)

It reminded me of times when I’ve received calls from people who are in a pickle due to the way they’re being treated regarding their disability. They contact me and aren’t sure what to expect. Maybe they’ve tried to self advocate and that hasn’t worked. Or they aren’t sure where to turn even though they know that they’re being discriminated against.

It’s important to recognize the difference between the need to educate others and the need to advocate. Sometimes all that has to happen is to educate people about what you as a person with a disability may need, but there are times when a different approach is necessary. That’s when advocating – for yourself or for another person – can make a difference in quality of life.

As an advocate, I’ve seen situations where it can make a life and death difference. This can happen when someone needs medical equipment or care or is in danger of becoming homeless. There are situations that some can’t even imagine that occur due to discriminatory practices – and educating the other person by explaining what disability is about or like can fall far short of what’s needed. That’s why we have laws and that’s why, no matter how much we may want to debate the right approach to take, we need the protection laws provide at times.

I can understand the lure of thinking a magical instrument is going to save the day but I believe that advocating is a skill people can – and should – learn. I also believe in the magic that happens when people open their minds up and learn about each other. That’s called inclusion.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Harrigan

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