A place called disability
The struggle for rights in America is a very old story. Many
groups claim such a struggle as an integral part of their
American heritage. If only we disabled people could somehow tell
a similar story about our arrival here in America, about our
attempts to become part of this society, then maybe our struggle
for rights would be easier:
We all came on the boat from the Old Country to
escape persecution in Europe. The king had
decreed that there would be no ramps.
We were brought to the New World to work as
wheelchair slaves. We did the jobs that required
no reaching or lifting.
Oh yes, we'll always remember the Old Country
where everyone could sign for the deaf, and the
meat was already cut up into bite-size pieces. All
people with cerebral palsy looked like Daniel Day-
Lewis and the paraplegics looked like Tom Cruise
or Joan Crawford.
Of course that place does not exist for us. If there is an Old
Country for people in wheelchairs it's right here in America.
It's a place with no windows and bad linoleum that's run by a big
angry nurse. It's a place with stairs and no ramps, narrow doors,
and people who won't help us in or out of our chairs.
What a lot of people don't realize is that civil rights for the
disabled, even though not a national or racial struggle, is
integral to the concept of civil rights for all. Our struggle for
inclusion in this society is a test of whether American society
truly wants diversity and freedom for all.
We, the disabled, are a diverse group to begin with. Each of us
has arrived on the scene with individual experiences fully
realized. Each of us has made the world work for us as best we
could. It is in this world that we celebrate our victories with
legal symbols like the Americans With Disabilities Act. We also
signify our struggle by those who've made it: the role models.
But we should never forget that symbols and role models are not
enough. Just as white America sees Michael Jordan as a symbol of
African-American success, the able-bodied world latches on to
success stories among the disabled. There's no need to endorse
real change as long as we occasionally check in to see how those
crips are doing. And if a few of them are doing well, they must
all be doing well. Right? Wrong.
In the case of disability the difference between the symbolic and
the real is vast. While one disabled person's success may be
indicative of the whole group's success, real success only comes
when another ramp is installed, when one more person learns how
to sign, when a new service is provided. Then and only then does
our world -- everyone's world -- open wider.
I've traveled all over the globe, to the worst places and the
best. My wheelchair and I have been hauled in and out of a Somali
land-cruiser decked out with machine guns, an Iranian helicopter
that needed a repair job, and through assorted uprisings in
Zaire, Afghanistan and Gaza. One thing I learned is that most of
the rest of the world lives in a place that physically doesn't
work, where the people are forced almost daily to remake their
communities to fit their basic needs. The survivors are the ones
who tolerate, who can adapt.
So it is with the disabled community. We are survivors. If
society as a whole ignores and excludes our expertise, they do
it, in the long run, at their own peril.
America needs to finally start answering the question it has been
avoiding for more than 200 years. What is a truly inclusive
society? Forget the theory and the Supreme Court and the
legislative process -- they deal only in abstracts. Real
inclusion is not measured in laws and lawsuits, but instead by
what the community builds together in order to bring everyone
together. Inclusion is a subway everyone can use, a building
everyone can enter.
There is no single definition of inclusion, but you'll know it
when you see it. --John Hockenberry
The author is a correspondent for ABC News. His
forthcoming book, Moving Violations: Discovering
America, the Middle East and the Virtues of Advanced
Wheelchair Repair (Hyperion), is due out in the spring