This blog is about reconciling the two worlds of disability understanding. On one side are the strong voices of activists in the disability community. On the other is the well meaning but naïve/ ignorant able bodied population who see disability as something pitiable. As an able bodied person who has realized the very compelling and interesting arguments about society and life coming from the disability community, I am compelled to referee the exchanges between the two sides. Often times it seems that everyone is speaking so loudly and with such great conviction that the other doesn't even listen. Since I am not personally motivated by either side, I can weigh both sides of the arguments and hopefully facilitate an open and accepting space for both sides to express themselves and learn about each other. Please join the discussion!

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Rewards of Mainstreaming Disability Education

Check out this article in today's Wall Street Journal for a story about how a high school succeeded in bringing people with disabilities into the mainstream. Also see here for a special online feature they've published about the same topic.

What I find compelling about this story, especially in light of some comments on an earlier post, is how success was defined in this story. The quick summary of the article is that by including students with disabilities in regular classes, they were empowered to believe that they could succeed. One particular student tried hard but did not pass the required state tests. He was still able to achieve his dream working for the army, if only as a truck driver on base. He is now on a path to his goal of being a combat infantryman or a paratrooper, if he works hard and proves himself.

"Adam says [his high school] educators made him feel his disabilities didn't resign him to isolation or failure. 'Even though I am just a truck driver, I am proud of what I do and what I've become,' he says. 'I believe deep down inside that I have succeeded already.'"

Disabilities in the Media: The next act

As I have written more and more about disabilities on this blog, I have discovered that my thoughts have revolved mostly around how it is covered in mainstream media. For me as an able bodied person, media is the most noticeable place that I see frustrating ideological portrayals of peoples with disabilities.

Separately, I learn from the blogs of other activists how much distress there is about how the able bodied population in the world doesn’t understand peoples with disabilities, and I couldn’t agree more.

The reason I mention these two things together is because I see how pivotal media is to cultural education of the population. For example, I think that the TV show Will and Grace had a very significant impact on how gay men are understood in the general American culture. The show portrayed the character Will as a successful, smart lawyer who was looking for a long term relationship. In many ways that was contrary to the stereotypical gay man. I believe that this portrayal improved the way most Americans understood gay people because they were exposed to a more positive and more realistic example.

Likewise I see that there is great potential for “good” portrayals of peoples with disabilities to affect the way Americans understand the group. I would define “good” here to mean some character that is able to connect with viewers without the barrier of the disability getting between them. As I have posted before, this idea is similar to how The Color Purple erases the barrier of race between the characters and the viewers through a compelling and human storyline.

So while activists should continue to lobby for reforms in government and in their communities, I think it is also imperative for the disability movement that we use media more effectively to teach the population what we want them to understand, that peoples with disabilities are every bit as flawed, dignified, relevant, human, beautiful, funny, dorky, and capable of contributing to the world as anyone.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Limited Connotations of Metaphorical Blindness

In this post at Disability Culture Watch, Simi brings the unfortunate negative connotations of metaphorical blindness.

"Definitions of the word “blind” found in my computer’s Thesaurus support the idea that blindness limits . The terms ignorant, imperceptive, insensitive, irrational, oblivious, obtuse, random, rash, stagger, unaware, unconscious, uncontrolled, unknowing, unplanned and violent came up on my screen. My Roget’s Thesaurus also provided inattentive and purposeless. These meanings lurk under the surface when the word “blind” is used whether on its own, or in pairings, in such phrases as “blind passion”, “blind rage”, “blind justice”, “blind drunk” and “blind faith”."

Only recently, having read Planet of the Blind, do I now understand how unfortunate this seems. These definitions and based on an sighted perspective of how limiting blindness is. But I've come to understand that blindness is beautiful because of how it plays on the imagination and can paint a unique picture of the world.

Think of the beautiful moments created when sighted people have their eyes closed...

-The moments before sleep
-A kiss
-Eating somthing truely delicious
-Listening to beautiful music
-In prayer

When I have had these "blind" experiences, I was in a heightened state, grasping something that sight interfered with. The blindness freed me in those moments from the terrestrial world and let me experience another world.

Think now of how beautifully "blind" could be used metaphorically if we had this connotation in our language.

"She blinded me with her beauty."
"I was blind to my earthly cares."
"The music blinded me into a new realm."
"I was blindingly impressed by that play."

In this example, it should be easy to see how clearly society's negative views of disability permeate our lives. A seemingly innocuous word connotation reveals a blatantly narrow understanding of blindness, even though every person has the capacity to appreciate the beauty of not seeing in a kiss, prayer, etc. Thanks Simi for bringing up the subject and opening up the beautiful metaphors that await me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Uncourageous #1: "New approach to banking for physically disabled"

I have been talking a lot about how poorly peoples with disabilities are covered in media, so I wanted to offer this story as an example of how coverage can be better. Firstly this story isn't at all "inspirational". It doesn't trumpet the person's valor for accomplishing so much even though he has a disability. Rather it quickly moves beyond the characteristics of the person and describes his many successful ventures including a practical and marketable new one to create an online bank especially designed for people with physical disabilities. Why would he do this... not because of the poor people in wheelchairs who can't reach the teller (although it will help them), but because its marketable. What a concept, that you don't have to be purely altruistic to positively affect the disability community. You can help people and be profitable by providing a service that people value! Thanks to Crains Chicago Business for reporting this story in a very "Uncourageous" way.

"Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 16 years ago, Brad Saul has learned there's opportunity in marketing to people like himself. He's established a non-profit that trains the disabled for radio industry jobs and has started a local handicapped-accessible transit service. Now comes his latest and most ambitious idea: Mr. Saul, president of Chicago radio syndicator Matrix Media, is launching a bank catering to disabled people. First Access Bank will operate online only and be compatible with the types of software used by people with vision or hearing disabilities. Mr. Saul, 47, has recruited a New York company that specializes in bank startups, NuBank Group, to manage the financial and regulatory aspects of the enterprise. The bank's application hasn't yet been submitted to regulators, but the organizers intend to open in about a month as a finance company, with deposit and other banking services provided by Town Center Bank in south suburban Frankfort, also a recent NuBank startup. They hope to have approval for the bank itself in early 2009 and will need to raise between $1.8 million and $2.4 million to capitalize it, says NuBank President Dan Hudson. Mr. Saul says First Access will fill a real need. "There's not a single bank in this country — not one — that has an accessible Web site" for all kinds of disabled people, he says. His online bank will permit customers to pay their bills electronically, avoiding the need to write checks and mail bills. It has been very challenging for me, and I rely on my wife to pay the bills and write the checks," Mr. Saul says. In addition, the bank will give customers free access to ATMs, paying the fees charged by other banks itself. One banker agrees that the market for the physically disabled is not adequately served. "There is, I think, some need for it," says Tommy FitzGibbon, executive vice-president at Chicago-based MB Financial Inc. and head of the bank's community development unit. "The issue is, how do you define the need? And how do you get the word out?" Mr. Saul, whose marketing plans include working with non-profit advocacy groups to promote First Access, hopes his efforts will help empower people who can be vulnerable to predators. NuBank initially was skeptical of Mr. Saul's idea, which had been rejected by other banks big and small, Mr. Hudson says. NuBank itself turns down about a third of the proposals it gets, he says. But research into the disabled market convinced him otherwise. He started by visiting bank branches in Chicago and observing. "I asked myself, where are the disabled people in the lobby?" he says. "Why aren't they here?" His conclusion: Banks aren't set up to provide service to the disabled, whether they're blind, deaf or in a wheelchair." -Crains Chicago Business 11/12/07
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