Archive for December, 2006
The disability rights movement is truly a movement that is hidden in plain sight. We all benefit from reforms brought by the movement on a daily basis, yet many people are not aware of the events that led to these reforms or the determined activists who fought for them. There is a perception that the barriers facing people with disabilities have been removed but this is not the case. More than ten years after the passage of the ADA, still only 32 percent of Americans with disabilities aged 18 to 64 are employed, but two-thirds of unemployed people with disabilities are able and want to work (ADA Watch site). Perhaps incentives to hire people with disabilities should be considered. Another major problem as mentioned earlier is the lack of funding for personal attendants. This is already an issue for all the younger people who need such assistance, but will grow even further as the population ages.
There is still a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding towards people with disabilities. As an autistic person, I have also encountered people who treated me with condescension and pity or at the other extreme those who insisted I couldn’t possibly be autistic due to my intelligence and ability to speak.
Disability rights has many passionate and eloquent spokespeople, but no Martin Luther King Jr. It has many organizations, but none with the well-known and influential status of organizations in other movements, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. I am still trying to figure out why this is. There are a number of possible factors. One difficulty is the disproportionate poverty of people with disabilities. It also seems that there is more media attention, and more support for various charities that seek to cure disabilities.
Another factor is simply that disability includes so many conditions, diagnoses and illnesses that it is difficult to create a movement that includes the challenges faced by all these disparate groups. While activists have at times succeeded in uniting across disability lines, there are still internal hierarchies and conflicts which exist between disability communities. The people with more severe disabilities, those who have been institutionalized, those with conditions that are deemed unsightly and embarrassing, those with mental and emotional disorders that others fear or misunderstand, those with conditions that others consider “made-up” or exaggerated, like chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, all these people are too often stigmatized, dismissed or ignored by other people with disabilities. Even within the same disability community there are divisions, as when the disability varies in severity or manifestation or people disagree with how it should be treated or not treated.
With all these divisions among disability alone, how can we even begin to work on other issues in disability communities that crosscut with ours, such as gender, class, race and sexuality? Those of us with disabilities who can more easily pass as “normal” or are not yet disabled in some way must use the power of our privileges to advocate for others. We should all try to learn about other disabilities and the problems faced by people who have them. There are more disability-related issues than one person or group can work on, but we can remain in solidarity with activists who focus on other areas, collaborate when our interests coalesce, and negotiate when our interests seem to conflict.
Bollag, Burton. 2006. “President-Elect at Gallaudet U. Fails to Win Faculty Support.” Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19, 2006, p. 1
Bollag, Burton. 2006. “Protests Against President-Designate at Gallaudet U. Intensify with Campus Takeover.” Chronicle of Higher Education. October 12, 2006.
Bollag, Burton and Farrell, Elizabeth F. 2006. “Campus Rift Continues to Widen at Gallaudet.” Chronicle of Higher Education. October 27, 2006, p. 1.
Fleischer, Doris Z. and Zames, Frieda. 2001. The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Philadelphia: Temple University.
Longmore, Paul K. 2003. Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability.
Philadelphia: Temple University.
Schemo, Diana J. 2006. “Tension Simmers at University for Deaf.” New York Times. May, 13, 2006, p. 10
Shapiro, Joseph. 1994. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Times Books, Random House
Teicher, Stacy A. 2006. “Signs of Change at Gallaudet.” Christian Science Monitor. November 8, 2006, p. 13.
The Americans with Disabilities Act
In the early 1980s Justin Dart began work on legislation that led to the ADA. At this time, many disability rights groups were pessimistic about the likelihood of passing comprehensive disability legislation, feared backlash and were concerned about enforcing protections that already existed under Section 504, and maintaining funding for disability services (Fleisher 2001). Pioneering activists had to convince others that a more dramatic change was possible. The 1980s was a conservative era, characterized by many cutbacks in social programs and backlash against the civil rights and women’s movements. So why was it that this time, support for disability rights arose? Instrumental in the push for the ADA was Evan Kemp, a Republican lawyer with cerebral palsy who convinced President George Bush Sr. to support the act by pointing out that most people with disabilities wanted to work and be independent (Shapiro 1994). In this way disability rights was re-framed to gain support from Republicans. Another factor is that disability touches everyone; many politicians had family members with disabilities or had some form of disability themselves. In this way the ADA gained bipartisan support, though there was also significant opposition from business interests like the Restaurant Association, the public transportation establishment, Greyhound Buses and more staunchly conservative members of the Republican party such as Pat Buchanan and Representative Dick Armey (Fleisher 2001).
There was however, a backlash to the changes brought by the ADA, one which still continues to this day. Many people who have argued against the ADA have misunderstood its intentions and exaggerated its costs and so-called “burden” upon society (Fleisher 2001).
Types of Activism: Conventional and Contemporary
As in other movements, in the disability rights movement, there are conventional and contemporary styled organizations. Conventional social movement organizations are characterized by a hierarchical, top-down structure and the use of lobbying and legal action as their main tactics. Contemporary activist groups are characterized by a loosely organized structure the use of consensus decision-making and direct action as a primary tactic. Some groups combine elements of both approaches. The two factions also often have philosophical division between those who advocate for inclusion in the existing socioeconomic order, and those who seek to more radical systemic change.
American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) was founded in 1983 in Denver, Colorado (Fleischer 2001). It is a notable example of a contemporary style activist group. I noticed that ADAPT had some similarity in tactics and organization to the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), though ADAPT predates ACT-UP so it’s possible it may have had some influence on it. ADAPT has often used theatrical tactics to get public and media attention such as people who use wheelchairs crawling up the steps of the U.S. Capitol, in a dramatic demonstration of the inaccessibility of the public sphere to millions of Americans. This tactic was criticized by other disability advocates who thought this made people with disabilities look helpless. ADAPT actually uses the perceived weakness of people with disabilities to its advantage. Often police are baffled to find people with often rather severe disabilities engaged in direct action, and feel too ashamed to arrest them. ADAPT was also one of the groups who fought for the ADA (Fleischer 2001).
In 1990 the name was changed to stand for American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today. Now that accessibility to public transportation was less of a problem, ADAPT’s members became concerned about the thousands of people living in nursing homes due to not being able to afford personal attendants that enable them to live independently. In 1997, ADAPT pressured Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich into introducing the Medicaid Community Attendant Services Act (MiCasa) by occupying his office.
Activism in the Deaf Community
The deaf community, while part of the greater disability movement, is in some ways separate and even in conflict from it. Deaf people often see themselves as members of a linguistic minority rather than having a disability. Some of them even prefer to develop a separate community in which they can easily communicate rather than integrate into the rest of society which most disability rights advocates see as the goal. It is the strong communal bonds they have developed as a result of their social isolation that has led to the potential for social protest.
In 1988, Jerry Lee, the president of Gallaudet University was retiring, and the board of trustees prepared to appoint a new president. Gallaudet in Washington, D.C. is the nation’s only college specifically for deaf and hard-of hearing students. Up to this point, the school had been run by hearing people. Some alumni, who were frustrated with the discrimination of hearing people, felt that continuing to appoint hearing presidents to govern Gallaudet implied that deaf people were not capable of running their own university. Two of the candidates were deaf and one was hearing. On Sunday March 6, 1988, The board announced the choice of Elizabeth Zinser, the hearing candidate.
Students blocked all entrances to the university with cars and occupied the main office. Classes were canceled on Monday, and while they resumed on Tuesday, 90% of the student body did not attend class and continued to protest until their demands were met (Shapiro 1994: 79-80). Student leaders brought a list of demands to Jane Spilman, the chair of the board of trustees. The demands included the dismissal of Zinser, the appointment of a deaf president, the appointment of a majority of deaf members to the board and no punishments for faculty and students who participated in the protests.
The protests were as large as 1,500 people. In unison they signed “Deaf Power!”, “Deaf President Now!” and “Zinser Out!” (Shapiro 1994: 77-79) On Wednesday, Zinser came to Washington to take office but was prevented from setting foot on the campus. They would not recognize her as president. Zinser finally realized she could not run a university that was so strongly set against her, so she resigned. Subsequently Spilman resigned as well. Ultimately, I. King Jordan was selected as president, and half of the board members were replaced with deaf and hearing impaired individuals (Shapiro 1994: 81-83).The news of these developments received national attention and increased public awareness of disability issues.Two months after the events at Gallaudet University, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced into Congress.
Ever since the events now known as Deaf President Now! have been annually celebrated, commemorated and studied at Gallaudet University. Sparks of activist passion relit when I. King Jordan announced his future retirement in December 2006, the board of trustees began searching for a new president. Faculty and students complained that they didn’t get enough input in search process. Also, students of color and their supporters were concerned over the lack of diversity of candidates, and at one point, a white male without a Ph. D. was chosen over an African-American male with a Ph.D. In May 2006, the board of trustees of Gallaudet University chose Jane K. Fernandes, the university’s provost as the next president. Some students, faculty and alumni opposed her designation, and began protesting. The chairwoman of the board of trustees stepped down, saying that she received threats (Bollag 2006).
Among the objections to the choice of Jane K. Fernandes as president were that she had a top-down leadership style, and was distant from students. Because of the university’s unique place not just as an educational institution but as a center of the national and international Deaf community, part of the president’s role is to be ambassador to hearing world, and a public supporter of American Sign Language both in education and the broader society.
Jane K. Fernandes, the candidate chosen as the new president, while deaf from a young age, was raised to speak and read lips and did not learn American Sign Language until age 23 (Bollag 2006). Gallaudet has traditionally recruited its students from schools and programs for children with hearing impairments. But as an increasing majority of students with hearing impairments are educated in the mainstream, Fernandes argues that Gallaudet must keep up with the times and attract students from different educational backgrounds and with different communication styles, both ASL and spoken (Teicher 2006). At a time when the deaf community is embroiled in controversy over the use of cochlear ear implants and other modern treatments for hearing impairment, advocates of Deaf culture and identity feel on the defensive. However, spokespersons for the protest, dubbed “Unity for Gallaudet” asserted that the media was framing the objections of the protesters to Fernandes as being “not Deaf enough” so as to discredit them and obscure the real reasons behind it (Schemo 2006).
In October, protests began again. Students blocked the main entrance to university beginning October 5 and put up a tent encampment. For a while classes were canceled but a boycott of classes continued after they resumed. On October 13 police were sent in and 135 students and faculty members were arrested. At one point a bull-dozer was brought in to push away protesters in a blockade, injuring several people. “We did not choose to arrest the students. They chose to be arrested” said Pres. I. King Jordan. Though Jordan had been popular before protest, after he called on police, a majority of faculty voted no confidence in Jordan (Bollag and Farrell 2006). More students, angry at the administration’s actions, joined the protest. Finally, after weeks of disruption, the Board of Trustees decided it would be best for the university to dismiss Fernandes and re-open the presidential search process. (Teicher 2006).
While the Deaf President Now protests lasted a week and united the University in the end, Unity for Gallaudet was much more divisive and contentious. In the first protest, the issue was more clearly about disability rights, as the protesters argued that people with disabilities are capable of running their own institutions and organizations. But in the second protest, the conflict’s relation to disability issues is more complex. It is debatable whether the protest was about the defense of Deaf language and culture, or highly empowered and united students and faculty demanding a better leader, regardless of the perceived Deaf ideological and cultural purity of Fernandes. Though there was very widespread support in the national and even international deaf community, I got the impression that there was less media and general public sympathy for Unity for Gallaudet.
To all my readers (….all 5 of them or whatever) have a Happy Winter Solstice, a Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, Kwanzaa and any other holidays I may be forgetting.
I’ve posted the paper I wrote on the disability rights for my sociology class on the page labeled obviously “Disability Right” since it’s longer it takes up several pages. The nesting format annoys me though, so I’m going to make the later sections into posts and link them to the page so if you see a seemingly incomplete chunk of an essay, that’s why.
(I tried putting it on Caelestis Realm , but the formatting got messed up. One of these days I’ll make a real website- until then…)