Saturday, March 21, 2009

The question

Hours before the Leno show was taped, at the town hall meeting in L.A., Gary Karp, author and activist, asked President Obama a question:

Q I’m Gary Carr [sic], and Mr. President, thank God for you. (Applause.) Sir, my question regards the true renaissance that’s happening with people with disabilities. They are an emerging population — millions of people with more potential in capacity, more mobile, more educated, more healthy, more empowered technology, but still trapped in very, very old social models that see them in terms of tragedy and charity and need and care. And the modern population of people with disabilities simply does not fit that model.

And as your plan succeeds and you generate these jobs, and as baby boomers retire, we’re going to need every single person of capacity to work that we can. And that must include many, many, many thousands, if not millions, of people with disabilities. (Applause.)

So — I see you nodding your head, so my first question is, do you subscribe to what I’m saying, and next of all, can you talk about how your disability agenda will release this emerging potential that’s currently wasted and untapped?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you are exactly right, that we need everybody. And every program that we have has to be thinking on the front end, how do we make sure that it is inclusive, and building into it our ability to draw on the capacities of persons with disabilities.

That’s true on the education front, where our recovery package increases funding for children with disabilities. It is true in terms of how Hilda Solis, our Secretary of Labor, will be thinking about our training programs, to make sure that we are not excluding from training for high-tech jobs, the new jobs of the future, persons with disability.

It means enforcing the ADA and fighting back on some court opinions that have tried to narrow in ways that I think are inappropriate the original intent of that legislation.

So one of the things that I think is important is to make sure, as you pointed out, that we don’t see this as an afterthought, a segregated program, but we are infusing every department, every agency, every act that we take with a mindfulness about the importance of persons with disabilities, their skills, their talents, their capacity.

That I think is the approach that my administration is going to take, and we hope that by taking that approach that attitude will infuse state and local governments that are also receiving federal money. Okay? (Applause.)

The president spoke about infusing 'every department, every agency, every act that we take with a mindfulness about the importance of persons with disabilities, their skills, their talents, their capacity.' Hours later, he made the Special Olympics joke.

Negative attitudes toward those with disabilities are so ingrained that many who watched the show tell me they didn't even notice the joke. Of course not. We hear these kinds of jokes every day. People with disabilities are still openly mocked. Many who would recoil with horror at being called bigots still laugh at jokes like this and still make jokes like this.

Raising this topic inevitably brings a knee jerk reaction from some who cry out that we are thin-skinned, overly sensitive. They fail to make the connections between the underlying negative attitudes toward people with disabilities that dehumanize them and the fact that it leads to subhuman treatment. We don't even call crimes against the disabled that. We call it neglect when a person with a disability is found living in circumstances that horrify us and are considered criminal for others. When our institutions fail people with disabilities, whether through abuse or neglect, we as a society fail to address it until the media becomes involved and, even then, take years to address one instance. We pay caregivers for people with disabilities such low wages that many go hungry or dirty. Thank God I don't have to live like that, people say.

No wonder jokes like this abound. It's the tip of the iceberg of what's really going on in our treatment of people with disabilities. In fact, we are so busy as a society laughing at these jokes that we don't even take time to look at solutions to the problem. What if we changed our attitudes and took the issue of employment of people with disabilities seriously? What if we built housing that was accessible and provided transportation that was both affordable and available? What if we stopped making jokes about the Special Olympics and volunteered for it instead? What if we started looking at the potential of people with disabilities rather than warehousing them and excluding them from opportunities?

This would require change. First, people would have to realize that joking about disability is adolescent and dehumanizing. They'd have to believe that people with disabilities are fully human, with the same inherent dignity and worth as - well - the able bodied. Some people don't believe this. Others believe they believe it, but they laugh along. They would deny they believe stereotypes, but they laugh at them all the same. And their children laugh along, perpetuating this behavior.

Perhaps some people are laughing out of embarrassment at the way people with disabilities are treated. Unfortunately, although some of those laughing may simply need to change their attitude and are open to change, others are true bigots. These kinds of jokes just encourage them in their bigotry and reinforce their contempt for people with disabilities.

Wasted and untapped. That's how Gary Karp described the potential of people with disabilities. It's so true. I see it in so many lives. I've cried many tears about it.

But, no, I've never ever found it amusing.

The level of suffering caused by our nation's failure to address the needs of people with disabilities so they can attain their potential is staggering.

I hope people can hear the question being asked over the laughter.


Terri said...

I agree, it is not funny. And the fact the people don't even notice it or react viciously when it is pointed out is very disconcerting. People who vocally defend the rights of other diversity viciously defend their right to make fun of people with disabilities.

The picture that people with disabilties are "less" is apparently essential to some people's world view... and this traps people in lives no one would want.

It is unfair and unnecessary and not funny at all.

Troy Wittren said...

As always...very well said Wheelie

Gary said...

I'm actually much more troubled that Obama's quip about Special Olympics has overrun the key point I wanted to get across at the Town Hall: "There has been a true renaissance in the lives of people with disabilities."

THAT'S what the conversation needs to be about. I suggest we let go of the sensitivity about the language on this one, please, and get on top of showing the world who we really are and how vastly out of sync society's understanding is of the Modern Disability experience.

Gary said...

I'm troubled that the conversation has been so completely overrun by the Special Olympics faux pas. Yes, language is a really important issue, but the point I most wanted to get across with my question to President Obama (it was me, Gary Karp) has been completely drowned out: "There has been a true renaissance in the lives of people with disabilities."

I want to urge us to put our energy into that discussion. How do we get across to the broader society that broadly-held beliefs about disability are so extremely out of sync with the truth of who we are and what we can contribute?

My concern is that the more loudly we focus on things like the Special Olympics comment (unfortunate as it was) the more we play into the stereotype that we're over-sensitive because of our disabilities. Is that what we really want to emphasize about who we are? Is that really going to lead to the broader understanding that will allow us all the right to pursue our possibilities?

Julana said...

From Special Olympics staff:

"Finally, we invite the President to take the lead and consider hiring=20
a Special Olympics athlete to work in the White House. In so doing, he=20
could help end misperceptions about the talents and abilities of people=20
with intellectual disabilities, and demonstrate their dignity and value=20
to the world."

Kirsten Suto Seckler
Special Olympics

william Peace said...

Gary, You are correct, too many will miss the point you tried to raise. But the sort of debate you want to enter into, and which is desperately needed, requires thought and careful consideration. I don't see this happening any time soon and wish it were possible to make others really think about disability based prejudice.

Wheelie Catholic said...

Gary, thanks for your comments. The important issues seem never to be reached - or addressed -in the media coverage or in so many other ways.

Anonymous said...

That "renaissance" most assuredly does NOT include all people with disabilities! Advocacy for one disability does not mean the advocate is knowledgeable about any other ones. So if Gary is truly seeing a "renaissance" from where he is, great! - but it is most assuredly NOT inclusive of all disabilities.

While lack of physical access to a venue is discriminatory, it doesn't verbally denigrate anybody. People with intellectual disabilities or facial disfigurements are consistently ranked at the bottom of the 'disability acceptance scale'. Down there, the barbs, jokes, looks, etc., are largely ignored by everybody else - so 'we' - hanging on to the bottom rungs - experience these 'jokes' over and over and over again.

For anyone who avows to be a "disability advocate" while defending someone else's "joke" towards someone with a disability - to me that advocate has lost credibility, and represents only those whom he considers "worthy". That is no advocacy - it is discrimination.