Sunday, April 20, 2008

If it works, why not?

Yesterday I attended the monthly meeting of my local chapter of a by-and-for-blind-people organization. I don't go every month because I'm often too exhausted and need all the weekend time I can get to recuperate and steel myself for the next work week, and sometimes the weather is too crappy to be outside waiting for the bus--and, to be honest, a lot of the attitudes of the individual people in the organization, and the official positions of the organization itself irk me. The organization does a lot of good in advancing the public image and understanding of blindness, but they do a crappy job of accommodating other differences, whether that be additional disabilities, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

The theme for the current Disability Blog Carnival is "Abuse." I don't feel equipped to do justice to the more mainstream interpretations of this (physical and emotional abuse), although I have personal experience with both. I look forward to reading what others have to say. However, as a person with multiple oddities/variations from the perceived norm, I'd like to discuss a lesser-thought-of family of abuses: willful ignorance and dismissal of minority/marginalized groups by other minority/marginalized groups.

In social theory, one speaks of privilege and power: class privilege, white privilege, male privilege, ability privilege, etc. These privileges exist not because of personal merit or effort, but because of a self-sustaining system that unequally distributes resources and power within groups. The more categories of privilege one falls under, the more likely one is to have resources and opportunities, and the more likely one is to take these privileges and opportunities for granted, to the point of being unable to recognize that they even exist. It's this ignorance that leads to further marginalization of the groups without privilege: "If I can do it, so can you, what's your problem?" or "Those people just don't measure up, it's just the way things are." When the people with the power have things set up in the way that's most ideal to them, they feel threatened by any attempt to change the way things are set up. Whether one actively or passively (through ignorance) resists change, the result is still the same. This shows up especially well when one is dealing with attitudes towards disability and accommodation.

Getting back to the meeting yesterday, I observed several examples of people with disabilities failing to recognize the rights and needs of other people with disabilities, even though the need for accommodation and respect should be more obvious to a person with a (albeit different) disability than to a person without any disabilities, and to recognize that a person with a similar disability may have different, fewer, or additional needs for accommodation. Being figuratively crapped on by another disabled person stings a lot more than experiencing the same prejudice from a person who isn't immersed in the disability culture and concept of accommodation.

I heard an elderly man criticized for using a white cane that's sturdy enough to use occasionally as a walking stick, as opposed to the flimsier type of cane the organization favors. I use both types of cane, and they have advantages and drawbacks. Yes, the long, one-piece fiberglass cane is more sensitive and better for walking quickly, but if one can't walk very quickly anyway, what's the harm in using a shorter, sturdier cane that one can lean on when one needs to?

A woman who is an English teacher has temporarily lost her voice. Someone suggested that she use her braille notetaker (which has text-to-speech output as well as a braille display) as an augmentative communication device, but she rejected this idea. If it works, why not? What's wrong with using a computer to speak for you when using your own voice is painful and inefficient for communication? Is she afraid of being perceived in the same negative ways as other people who can't use their own voices for communication?

One positive experience was the segment of the meeting in which the chapter's secretary reported on a recent volunteer experience with the local Arc chapter's thrift store. She was pleasantly surprised at being treated with dignity and respect by sighted volunteers.

I challenge every person reading this entry to go and try to understand some of the needs and alternative techniques of people with a disability you don't have.

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