Friday, January 15, 2010

MLK & People Like Me

Here's my original, long version of the Martin Luther King Day op-ed that appears in today's USA Today.  This is almost as originally submitted (I added one small detail):

How often am I stared at in public, even in this enlightened age? Showered with prescriptions for healing myself or, worse, prayed over? As if there were something wrong with me.

On the other hand, how many times have people told me, "When I talk to you I forget about your disability. You don't seem like a disabled person."

Which I take as a compliment, though what exactly a disabled person is supposed to seem like I don't even want to think about.

Still, both situations beg the question, What are people's assumptions about someone like me?

It's a question I imagine Martin Luther King must have pondered, too. I'll bet there were some whites way back at the beginning who were surprised he didn't talk like Rochester! And that's one of the reasons I believe we disabled owe a profound, personal debt to the civil-rights leader, second only to that of African-Americans. (And if you're black and disabled, you're doubly indebted.) Both groups are familiar with being under-valued.

I was born with a neuromuscular conundrum called spinal muscular atrophy. I never walked, stood, or had much use of my hands. When I lived past the age of two it was declared a miracle. Later, when I graduated from Harvard, got married, fathered two daughters, and began publishing articles, I was judged heroic, inspirational!

I was only living my life, doing the best I could, yet my accomplishments defied expectations.

King knew all about defying expectations. He proved that to move out from the shadows into the mainstream of society, sometimes you have to defy expectations.

To be sure, King wasn't thinking about the disabled per se, but he was prophetic in defining what's become a central theme of the disability-rights movement. Specifically: unfair treatment and prejudice do far more to hold us back than our actual physical conditions.

The concept permeated his speeches—perhaps never more clearly than in the preamble to his famous "I Have A Dream" oration. His people, he said, had been "sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination."

Indeed, those of us who nowadays only use the word "cripple" as a sort of rebellious slang have suffered more from segregation and discrimination—evident in the architectural, attitudinal, financial and legal obstacles that are still only starting to crumble—than from our disabilities. This is an important point for two reasons. First, it tells us where to focus efforts to effect fixes—i.e., on access barriers, not physiological conformity. Second, it gives people with disabilities permission to feel okay about themselves just as they are, perhaps even engendering a little disability pride.

Believe me, it's hard to build self-esteem, let alone achieve parity, when you're made to feel inadequate for biological traits beyond your control. King's message teaches us how to stop feeling ashamed of our differences.

Make no mistake: there is a legacy of shame. Just as African-Americans were shunted to the margins of society, not so long ago we disabled were housed in attics, basements and institutions. Handicapped kids were sent to segregated special-ed schools, and many just stayed home. Why do polite wheelchair-users in old movies always cover their legs? Why did all blind people used to don dark glasses to conceal their unseeing eyes? Granted, some of that was for practical reasons--cold laps and light-sensitive eyes. But all of it, all the time?  You longer see these things as you used to. Have they simply gone out of fashion? Have we forgotten that, until the early 1970s, U.S. cities as progressive as Chicago actually barred visibly disabled people from appearing in public, under what were known as the Ugly Laws?

What's more, both blacks and the disabled were once considered genetically inferior. (Some people with disabilities still are.) There were laws curtailing our reproductive freedom, ostensibly to protect the gene pool, and many disabled people were forcibly sterilized.

Even today, people with disabilities—the nation's largest minority group—suffer higher unemployment rates than African-Americans.

The historical and current similarities are stirring. Which is why Martin Luther King Day should have special meaning for people with disabilities. Besides showing us how to organize and agitate for equal rights, King gave voice to the simple yet revolutionary notion that we're good enough—valuable, even—as we are. And as such we deserve better.

The more we celebrate that message—internalize it and get it across to others—the better off we'll all be.

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