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October 6, 2015

The Disability Double Standard

The other day a rant about able-bodied people appeared on Facebook posted by a young very capable woman who uses a wheelchair. About twenty other people with disabilities (PWDs) chimed in, with their complaints about able-bodied people trying to help them.

twits-ii-jpgWhen I told them that I was giving a presentation to help educate people about people with disabilities and asked for their help in coming up with a quiz about disability, guess how many answers I received–zero. It bothers me when people just want to complain about the situation, and as someone who has worked with PWDs I have my own set of complaints about their behavior. So what it would it sound like if it were politically correct for able-bodied people to rant about people with disabilities, the way PWDs rant about them?

twits-iiTolerance and understanding is a two-way street. So I have a few things that I would like to say and point out to the young PWDs that participated in this rant.

After reading it and having my comments ignored, because you all just wanted to whine. I was probably as annoyed as you are when an able-bodied person says something dumb to you. I’m not sure how long you’ve been disabled, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve been disabled longer than you’ve been alive. So yes, this is going to be a, I rolled two miles to the school bus uphill both ways in the snow letter. I was injured in 1988, at that time people with disabilities didn’t have civil rights, the ADA passed in 1990. I was on the hill lobbying for it. It was an interesting experience the other congressional interns kept their distance, so I didn’t really make friends with any of them, instead I hung out with the Congressman’s daughter who was dealing with an eating disorder and the son of one of my Mom’s good friends who lived in Virginia. Also back in 1988, there weren’t college scholarships for people with disabilities; the only University handing out athletic scholarships for PWDs was UTA. I ended up pursuing wheelchair basketball on an academic scholarship and later as a teaching assistant. Being a graduate student and training for a college sport is very difficult; all I did was study and train. I made the 1992 USA Team, but back then you had to raise money to pay for your travel, you don’t have to do that now, it’s all paid for. It’s also difficult to train and raise money at the same time.

Also back in those days, things were less accessible. I didn’t want to learn to use the escalator in my wheelchair. I had too, because one day when I was out and about, there was no elevator. The reason that you have busses with lifts is because people with disabilities held protests and crawled into the luggage compartments, that was back in 1989 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/29/us/25-disabled-people-held-in-atlanta-bus-protest.html. I noticed that one of you just got approved for MetroLift, we didn’t have that either.

The reason schools like UTA and University of Illinois are so accessible is because of one of those annoying able-bodied people, Tim Nugent. Did you know University of Illinois had the first independent living center so that students who needed help with the daily activities of living could still get a college education?

In rehabilitation I had to learn how to jump a curb that was because curb cuts weren’t as prevalent as they are today. Curb cuts were mandated by the ADA, what you probably don’t know is that the blind lobby (the strongest disability lobby in Washington D.C., because it’s the most terrifying disability) was against curb cuts. As late as 1992 people with disabilities were still fighting for curb cuts. As a matter of fact the reason you have parking places, curb cuts, access to education, access to accessible apartments, sports and college scholarships is because of people like Judith Heumann, now Special Advisor on International Disability Rights, Wade Blank and Ed Roberts. These people fought hard for the accessibility you enjoy today and I bet you don’t even know their names. They protested buses, crawled up the steps of capital buildings, chained themselves to doors and dealt with everything you were whining about in your Facebook rant, except on a much larger level. Dr. Brad Hedrick, Sharon Hedrick, Mike Frogley, Dave Kiley, Ann Cody and Jean Driscoll are just a few of the people who paved the way for people with disabilities to compete in elite athletics. Do you know who any of them are? Ann Cody now works for the U.S. Department of State on promoting sports for women and girls around the world.

Another thing that benefits you is the fact that your disability is no longer considered a pre-existing condition. What does that mean? For me it means I can finally work for myself, own my own business, but more importantly for a ton of people with disabilities they now have access to healthcare which means they don’t need to be on SSI to have access to Medicaid. And that just happened a couple of years ago.

Oh and you think you have it bad in the U.S. did you know in developing countries accessibility is non-existent. I mean even in the houses in Iraq they have these little lips between the rooms, zero accessible parking and limited educational opportunities. When I was in Sudan there was a man who crawled several miles to see me hoping I could help him get a wheelchair. And you probably weren’t aware that there is this organization in the U.S. called the Free Wheelchair Mission. They attach wheels to lawn chairs and send them overseas to “help” people with disabilities. Help them get a pressure sore. Can you imagine having to use that wheelchair? I trashed 50 of them in Iraq. I also worked with Willie Hernandez to bring the first basketball wheelchairs to Iraq.

So I don’t find you inspiring, I don’t think anything you do is courageous and, as a matter of fact, since the only interaction I’ve had with you is your rant on Facebook, I find you whiny and a bit entitled. I have the same expectations of you that I have of everyone else. I expect you to get a job, have a life and contribute to your community and our society to the best of your abilities. And preferably, a job where you are integrated into society, where every day you can change attitudes just by being part of the world, in other words a job that isn’t focused around disability.

One of the reasons that able-bodied people are so solicitous is because there is an entire group of people with disabilities who go around beating people over the head with their disability. They want to be treated equally at the same time they demand special treatment. Twice in my life I’ve taken over a job from another person with a disability and she hadn’t really done her job, as a matter of fact, one of my colleagues finally admitted to me that they had, had such a bad experience working with a person with a disability that none of them wanted me to be hired. So in addition, you are fighting the stigma that other people with disabilities create in their interactions with the able-bodied population. I accepted a man with a disability into an employment event, to meet twenty employers. He didn’t show up.  No phone call, no explanation, nothing until I contacted him. And when I called him on it, he had so many excuses, it wasn’t his fault, I didn’t understand his disability, I couldn’t possibly understand and he abdicated all responsibility for not showing up and his life. I really wish I could share that e-mail with you, but it doesn’t fit into this post.

I was riding the bus the other day, sitting in the disabled seats, and this woman, with a walker, got on and she looked at everyone in the disabled seats and demanded, “I’m gonna need one of those seats.” My response, “Well then you better preface it with a please and end with a thank you.” You could just feel all the able-bodied people on the bus squirm, because I had demanded manners from a poor disabled woman. And you know what really annoys me on the bus is when those people with disabilities, the ones with carts get on, and they suck at maneuvering their wheelchairs, but on top of it, their scooter or electric chair is so loaded down with bags and they have some stupid dog in their lap and they take up twice as much space as they should and everyone has crawl over and around them. It’s something that PWDs do that just annoys the hell out of me.

See the annoyance goes both ways, there are things that you do, that annoy the hell out of able-bodied people, but it’s politically incorrect to tell you. Imagine if the above stories that I’ve just told you are the only interactions you’ve had with people with disabilities. Oh and I have million stories about people with disabilities like this. Just like I have a million stories about able-bodied people.

Yes, there is a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way too. I know dealing with the platitudes of well-intentioned able-bodied people is tiring; I’ve been doing it for 27 years. But you should do as your betters have done before you, be polite, and then get to work making this world even more accessible for the next generation and ensuring they have even more opportunities. I invite you to be part of the disability rights movement, not by ranting on Facebook, which isn’t activism, it’s just annoying. Activism is educating people about your disability, it’s contacting your Congressperson about important issues, it’s about being gracious even when people are being stupid, to open minds to everything that people with disabilities are capable of.

Who am I to tell you this? Someone who has fought hard to change and challenge perceptions about people with disabilities, and for the accessibility you enjoy today. But mostly I’m just someone who is tired of explaining people with disabilities to the able-bodied population and vice versa.

Sincerely,

Tiana Tozer

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