Not Separate, but what is “Equal?” The True Nature of Equality and Disability

Hello, readers,

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you probably know my feelings about segregated classrooms, sheltered workshops, placing people who do not need them in “homes” and institutions, and the like. But the question still remains: even though it is morally wrong to segregate and separate people with disabilities from the rest of society, what is “equal” in their case? Can they ever be expected to be equal, or is that unrealistic, or even cruel? And if they can be expected to be equal, then how?

I would challenge you all to remember back to your American history classes in school, including college. If you have a basic knowledge of history and the Civil Rights Movement, you know that in circa 1896, America accepted Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruling stating that the segregation of African-Americans was fine as long as African-American schools, transportation, bathrooms, and other facilities were “equal” to white ones. But they never were; they were always substandard or worse. Even after the victory of Brown in Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, African-Americans continued to have to struggle for every civil right they should have possessed by virtue of their status as human beings.

Most of us would say that what African-Americans had to go through to obtain basic rights to an education, adequate housing, and even adequate toilets, among other things, was a blight on our history for the white majority. In these politically correct times, we all hate to admit that we or our ancestors would ever have a part in willfully excluding someone. And we deny doing it to people with disabilities all the time because we have the “time-honored tradition–help the handicapped,” according to Mary Johnson. But we continue to separate them. Or, if we don’t separate them, we do not treat them as equals. And we use what we think of as a valid excuse.

“You can’t expect people with disabilities to be equal all the time,” we say. “They have special needs. Their bodies and brains just don’t work the way ours do. No matter what laws you pass, you’ll never change the fact that their bodies and minds are not equal. And trying to make them equal can even be cruel. Would you expect a little boy or girl in a wheelchair to perform to the same standards as others in a sports event? Would you expect someone with a mental disability to perform just like everybody else on a standardized test? No–so they can’t possibly be equal. Because of this, sometimes separating them out is the best thing for them.”

Baloney.

To those of you questioning that, ahem, “extreme” response (I know some of you are thinking it), let me clear up the first fallacy in this argument: that because people with disabilities’ bodies and brains may function differently, they cannot be equal. I say, that is a lie. They are still human beings, aren’t they? They have the same goals, dreams, desires, hearts, and minds as you do; those hearts and minds may just function a bit differently in terms of the organ, as everyone’s does. I am a personality quiz fanatic, and one of my favorite quiz sites, blogthings.com, has two quizzes where one can find out what color his or her heart and brain is. You fill out a quick personality-based quiz, and you get a result at the end telling you your colors and what they mean (for example, I apparently have a purple brain, which means I am both intellectual and creative. My heart is apparently green, which means I am most concerned with balance in a romantic relationship). If you accept the theory that, for fun, people can be different at their inner cores, what is so hard about accepting less light-hearted forms of the same things?

“But Chick,” you say, “maybe those people are right. You can’t expect somebody with Down’s Syndrome or Fragile X Syndrome to do the same standardized test as kids without disabilities, right? And wheelchair basketball is different from the ‘regular’ kind.”

Yes on both counts–they are different. But only in the sense that the sport uses chairs, not legs, and the tests may need to be altered. Keep in mind: the question at the root of equality is whether or not the child or adult with disabilities deserves to be treated first as a person–and we all do. So at times, yes, the playing field needs to be leveled. But it would be leveled only so that the child or adult with the disability (ies) could perform the same task as those without disabilities do, as much as possible. Giving a person who is blind a Braille writer does not make him or her unequal to you, nor does it make his or her tasks unequal to yours. The modification makes equality possible, because then that person can write, just like you can. Allowing a person with OCD or bipolar time off for counseling, or allowing them to reasonably adjust the work environment to what they need (i.e., cleaning off a desk), does not make that person unequal. It makes equality possible, because with that counseling and those modifications, that person can do what he or she needs to do without constantly worrying about the disabilities involved.

It doesn’t seem like a difficult concept. I would say that if more people understood it, they would be more willing to see the needs, hopes, dreams, and goals of people with disabilities as equal. And it is true–the disability-related Civil Rights Movement sometimes seems to live underground. But it needs to be brought to light, because people everywhere, like Julie Shaw Cole, Kathie Snow, and others, are seeing the ugly truth. Even though her book is fiction, Ms. Cole bases it on realistic, true events that can and do happen to people with disabilities. In one scene of her novel, Emily, the protagonist, overhears aides at her “home” complaining she is “getting too self-determined.” What a horror! They also call her “uppity.”

Hmmm. “Uppity.” An adjective used to describe a lot of “bad cripples” who dared ask for better lives, for new choices for themselves.

“Uppity” is what white men in Mississippi called Emmett Till when he dared acknowledge a white woman.

In another scene, Emily joins a group outside the nursing home as they protest their substandard care. Some drivers roll by and show their support. But one yells, “Parasites!” out his window.

“Parasites.” As in, bloodsucking, life-stealing creatures that need to be squashed. I think I need an antacid.

In many situations, real and fictional, people with disabilities are referred to as “incompetent” to do certain things. Let’s take a look at what “incompetent” really means, shall we? My computer’s thesaurus gives me synonyms such as:

Inept

Useless

Bungling

Unskilled

Stupid

Hopeless

Unable

Incapable

And my favorite: the definition used in medicine, as given by my computer’s dictionary:

“Incompetent”: adj. In medicine, this means a body part, such as a muscle, that does not function properly

Okay, we’re back to the medical model. What you’re telling me with this definition, medical community, is that the safest thing for you to do might be to define a person with a disability only by what doesn’t “work properly?” How un-equalizing can you be? And to think, doctors take oaths to “first do no harm” to patients. Well, no offense to the many, many good doctors out there, but that sounds like a lot of harm to me.

Think about it. If anyone dared call you, without a disability, stupid, useless, inept, or hopeless, you’d fight them with everything you had. But when it comes to people with disabilities, why does “incompetent” roll off our tongues?

I recently watched an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman where the main plot involved African-American characters Robert E. and Grace experiencing harassment from the KKK for buying a home. The KKK leader, one Jedidiah Bancroft (George Furth) had these lines:

“It wasn’t enough that the [Civil War] set them free…now they want it all! They want what’s ours!”

“Bigot!” we scream at the screen. “Narrow-minded jerk!”

Ah, but then we turn around and say that people with disabilities just can’t be satisfied with laws like ADA and IDEA–that they want what’s ours, and they’re being foolish because they’ll never be equal.

Really?

Think about it.

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