Sunday, March 05, 2006

Disability is not an us-them issue

Last week I had the interesting opportunity to speak on a local radio show at noon. Our PBS affiliate station runs a talk show from noon to one every day, with Fridays being reserved for an "ask the doctor" call in show. A local physician usually interviews one or more guests speaking on a particular health topic, and then they take phone calls from listeners.

Last week, the topic was living with a physical disability in our community. The featured interview was with a Paralympian from Virginia. The other speakers were a young man and a middle aged woman with spinal cord injuries who have various degrees of paralysis, and me-the token "health professional". They were stuck with me because they couldn't get one of our doctors at such short notice.

Several uncomfortable moments ensued, amusing or irritating depending on where the gauge is on your personal radical advocacy meter.

First, the host physician was noticeably uncomfortable discussing disability with disabled people. For example, she made the mistake of asking the paralympian if he played hockey before becoming a wheelchair athlete. Well, he said, he started out with some street hockey that his brother used to play with him and the neighbors, etc. Then she asked about his "accident" and how he got used to playing in a chair. OH, he said. Well, I have spina bifida, I've always used a chair.

Finally, at the end of the show she wanted to know from the two adults in wheelchairs what the "politically correct" term was to call them these should we refer to them?

Which the young man in the wheelchair, representing our local Center for Independent Living, answered in a calm and dignified---if puzzled---manner. Personally, I was glad she didn't ask me. I could not have been dignified.

This show pointed out to me, once again, that we are still talking about "us" and "them". Now, this is helpful (or, it seems to be helpful from the outside looking in-I can't speak for the disability community) for disabled activists who want to claim being part of a distinctive subculture. For people who have been marginalized by mainstream society, this is surely the way to claim a distinctive voice based on unique viewpoints and common experience of being defined by their disability. Plus, the chance to create artistic and literary expressions from this viewpoint, and be proud of their unique perspective.

But it is not very helpful from the point of view of building accessible communities. To continue to talk as though there should be two different kinds of people-abled and disabled-negates the continuum that defines human function. We are all abled or disabled; we differ only in degree and kind.

Disability is simply a part of life. When we build communities in which everyone can get around, in which getting on a bus with a wheelchair is no big deal, in which all stores have adequate access and doorways which admit power chairs, then we will have communities which will be ready for us when we have to have access.

We don't grant people favors by making things accessible. We are not the beneficent almsgivers handing out tokens of "politically correct" curb cuts and Handi-rides. That is just illusion. There is nothing separating "us" and "them" but one split second in a car, or one tiny germ, one abnormal connective tissue gene or one cancer cell.

It is way past time to start seeing that creating us-them societies harms everyone.



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