A Job That is Never Done !

As 2017 unfolded, it forced me to think about our history as Americans. Sure, in school I learned a few things about women’s suffrage, slavery, and Martin Luther King Jr, but if we stepped back and took a closer look at America’s history, civil rights was not the popular idea as is seen today.

Black men were allowed to vote in the United States in 1870, before women of any color, but barriers like literacy tests, grandfather causes, and the poll taxes prevented most black men from voting. The voting rights act was not passed until 1965, 95 years after black men were allowed to vote. This new law made sure that every person (women, people of religious minorities, Latinos, People Living with Disabilties, LGBTQ identifying, and whites) are allowed to vote in the United States.

When you’re born into a generation when these rights already exist, it seems so strange to imagine that at one time, we voluntarily chose to let only Christian white men vote. Somehow it makes you think these rights were acquired overnight but they were not! When we look at where we are today and we see the discrimination due to religion, race, gender, sexual preference/identity, and ability, we should not be surprised.

Civil rights was something that we accomplished as a country on paper; however, we did not really continue fighting for it as a whole society. Instead, discrimination was shrouded in silence. We have laws in place to prevent these discriminations but a woman may still not get a job because of her gender or if she reveals that she is interested in having a family with children. Another person may not get a job because of the color of their skin. This is all due to the personal or corporate secret discriminations. Employment is merely one area where we see discrimination in modern times.

Let’s look at voting. How much different is the discrimination that exists between then and now? Representatives gerrymander their districts, effectively choosing their constituents rather than having the people choose who they want to represent them. This suppresses the votes of the very people to whom we have given the rights. This is done in a much more covert way than having things like literacy tests or poll taxes which was obviously meant to keep black or poor men from voting. So when we turn to our modern “It’s not my fault” mentality, we somehow feel that these rights are things we born with, not something people had to fight for and fight hard. When immediate justice is not served, we want to look to others for blame: the poor, the uneducated, the Russians. But when we step back and truly look at the history of discrimination in the United States, we can see that not only has it existed, but we can also see the people that have been discriminated against who continuously fought for their rights  whether their actions quite often failed more than succeeded. Yet despite the failures, these people still got up and spoke their minds. They essentially became the thorns poking continuously in the sides of the people who were suppressing their rights. And all this was done in a world where getting a another person to listen about civil rights seemed anything short of being a miracle. So when we see discrimination and do nothing except complain about its existence on our social media while 20 of our friends hit the “like” button, are we really moving forward? Or will we need actual human action to express how important our rights are to us?

It is true that we have been tested this year as to what our beliefs are as Americans. To spite this, we must not forget the generations before us fought and fought hard to make sure we have the rights we all deserve. When you are feeling overwhelmed by the injustice you see, step away from the news, social media, and opinion blogs and look to your right and then to your left. Look at the people around you and remember no matter who see — a woman, a queer, a Latino family, a family of mixed race, or a person with a walker — just remember there were so many people before whom not only fought but gave their lives for these the rights we enjoy so far. Discrimination will never be completely extinguished. When any person is being marginalized, we are accountable to make our voices heard, to stand up for them, and to forever continue this fight that was so bravely started for us a very long time ago.

Roll a Mile in My Shoes

Living in a society that does not truly welcome you can be disheartening. I certainly don’t except everything I talk about here to change overnight but I do hope there can be more awareness at how our actions or inactions can affect those around us. After becoming paralyzed, I knew the landscape of my life would be changed forever. Learning to maneuver physically in an able-centric world has obviously been but achievable. Although difficult, this was to be expected. What really surprised and frustrated me was how my physical disability isolated me socially, how I am regarded or disregarded when I am out in the world would affect me on a much more fundamental, emotional level. Of course, it’s hard for others to imagine each and every way a person can come to feel isolated by a single act on their part and I understand that not all of the ways I am treated are purposeful or done with knowledge or malice. These observations are about some of the ways people’s awareness can be raised to comprehend what living with a disability is like from a first-hand perspective.

The lack of independence and spontaneous transportation for PLD creates the phenomenon of forced intimacy. We are forced to reach out to our community so we are not isolated but reaching out is not always easy. It changes the dynamic of your relationships with your family and friends. It forces you to reveal things about yourself that you don’t really feel comfortable sharing and turns the dynamic of that relationship to one of sympathy and dependence, rather than helping and assisting. Let’s look at some of the ways this manifests.

Transportation, either public or private, is important for everyone to have access to so they can go to work or socialize. For the most part, transportation is ability centric. Let’s consider public transportation as private transportation tends not only to be cost-prohibitive but, when a specialized vehicle is needed, you can’t just hail any old taxi going down the street. In larger urban areas like New York City, if you are able bodied, you have access to any train or bus available and can go anywhere you need to at almost any time. But what happens when you need an elevator to get on a train? Instead of there being one at every station, you only have access at select stations and those may not be anywhere close to where you need to end up. If you then need to use a bus, many of which are wheelchair accessible but often overcrowded, you had better hope there is space on it and those occupying the front section are willing, without resentment, to give up their seats.

When I lived in the Bay Area, The BART, while definitely one of the more accessible public transportation systems, even so there is a lot of room for improvement. Oftentimes I would try to enter or exit a train platform only to find the out of order sign on the station’s elevator. With no prior notice at any point of my trip. I would then be forced to get off the train, find out the lift is broken, get back on, ride to the next station, get off, and ride back in the opposite direction to use the elevator on the other side of the original station where I intended to disembark in the first place. Suddenly, your trip became twice as long, and ten times as frustrating, as the commute of an able bodied person.

Then there is the issue of sidewalks. Some cities do not have proper sidewalks that everyone (able or not) can use to travel safely to their destination. If sidewalks do exist, there may not be curb cuts or, if there are, they are extremely damaged and impossible to use as intended. At times I must roll in the street and use the bike lanes (if they are around) to get up the street because aside from there not being any curb cuts, I cannot use the sidewalks themselves at all if they are in great disrepair. I am unable to share sidewalks with pedestrians and am sometimes in the way of bicyclists or unsafe near traffic. This creates a sense of both being in the way and not belonging to either world.

A lack of space is another way PLD are isolated. It’s been a trend over the past 2 decades for restaurants or performance spaces to open that are often too small for a wheelchair. In these places, PLD are forced to ask complete strangers to make room so you can get to your table. Sometimes your chair is so big that you are invading their space, forcing the dynamic of social interaction into one in which PLD feel like they have to apologize for their presence and the able bodied feel inconvenienced for having to accommodate them. The grocery store is another environment where PLD are forced to have to ask complete strangers for assistance to reach a product, taste a sample, or even just get through an aisle that is not wide enough. (The original Berkely Bowl in Berkeley, CA and Greenlife in Asheville, NC are two incredibly inaccessible examples). Navigating an aisle filled with able bodied people can be quite a task in and of itself not to mention the social skills needed to ask people who are not paying attention to you to move so you can get what you want.

My last observation is focused on simple awareness and mindfulness. I find that in most cases, able bodied people unintentionally cause feelings of social isolation for PLD without even realizing they are doing it. I remember one of the first times friends isolated me without any realization. It was in a park for someone’s birthday. Everybody that was celebrating was sitting on a little pavilion that had a step. Being in a wheelchair, I couldn’t access where everybody was so I sat alone, isolated from the party. Nothing is more depressing than sitting by yourself as you watch all your friends gather in a space that is completely inaccessible to you, enjoying each other’s company without even a second of awareness that the only thing that prevented you from socializing with them was simply a step. It’s sometimes the littlest things that can get in our way and make us feel disconnected from others.

What PLD must endure everyday socially is so detrimental to their state mind. We as a society must recognize, accept, and acknowledge how we ignore, forget, or are completely unaware about how we could be isolating PLD. Then we will be on our way to living in a place that is really inclusive.

Don’t Forget About Us

Today I went to The Big Crafty here in Asheville. It was such a great event for the extremely talented Asheville art community to share what they do with the community they live in. I did really enjoy it, but unfortunately there was one huge thing overlooked that was really bothering me the entire time I was there. Some of vendors had booths that were inaccessible to people living with physical disabilties. As I looked around I noticed the large amount of people using wheelchairs, walkers, and canes and I was really bothered that these people would not have the freedom to explore all the options available to them.

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People Living with Disabilties(PLD) are extremely susceptible to depression due to isolation and when an event like this or of any kind is not all inclusive by being aware of this is contributing to the isolation this community feels. While I do not think this was purposeful act of the disregard of awareness of the PLD it is something that we as a community need to strive to remember because the damage to a PLD’s independence in this case is not one of just physical, but mental as well.