02 December 2008

Disability Awareness Week

I have learned to hate Disability Awareness Week. I learned to hate it by standing and watching activities in American high schools and on US university campuses - watch notions of disability be reified. Watching the issues of "disability" turned into parlor games.

Wheelchair races. Writing while looking in mirrors. Trying to walk around wearing Vaseline smeared eyeglasses.

National Feel Sorry for the Crips and Retards Week.

No thanks.

Anyway, it may or may not be Disability Awareness Week where you are. It's a moving target, in February, March, April, October, November, December. What set me off today was an email from Teachers TV (which I love) referring to their Disability Awareness Week scheduled to coincide with "the United Nations International Day of the Disabled Person on Wednesday" 3 December 2008.

Now, I can't argue with the UN's recommendations for the day:
  • Involve: Observance of the Day provides opportunities for participation by all interested communities - governmental, non-governmental and the private sector - to focus upon catalytic and innovative measures to further implement international norms and standards related to persons with disabilities. Schools, universities and similar institutions can make particular contributions with regard to promoting greater interest and awareness among interested parties of the social, cultural, economic, civil and political rights of persons with disabilities.
  • Organize: Hold forums, public discussions and information campaigns in support of the Day focusing on disability issues and trends and ways and means by which persons with disabilities and their families are pursuing independent life styles, sustainable livelihoods and financial security.
  • Celebrate: Plan and organize performances everywhere to showcase - and celebrate - the contributions by persons with disabilities to the societies in which they live and convene exchanges and dialogues focusing on the rich and varied skills, interests and aspirations of persons with disabilities.
  • Take Action: A major focus of the Day is practical action to further implement international norms and standards concerning persons with disabilities and to further their participation in social life and development on the basis of equality. The media have especially important contributions to make in support of the observance of the Day - and throughout the year - regarding appropriate presentation of progress and obstacles implementing disability-sensitive policies, programmes and projects and to promote public awareness of the contributions by persons with disabilities.
These are all great things to do. But if you are working on some kind of event of this sort, I'd like to list my "please don'ts."

Please don't make it all about sympathy. The "cry for the cripple" movie isn't necessary. Neither are any of the savant films - from Rain Man to A Beautiful Mind (these are great films, just not appropriate). People with "disabilities" are "othered" enough, without setting them ['us"] up as either always pathetic or always brilliant and courageous.

Please don't play those games - the blindfolds, the wheelchairs, the mirrors, the foggy glasses, the wraps that limit hand use. Here's the thing - if you accept your notions of "disability" one of the things you accept is a state of permanence. Wheeling around in a wheelchair might be fun, trying to write while seeing backwards might be fun, but neither is "disabling" and neither suggests anything about the experience of "disability." Using the bathroom without using your legs - in a non- accessible rest room, and knowing this will happen to you again and again and again - that's disabling. Being humiliated by school assignments and even peers because of your reading, and having no solution for it - that's disabling. Getting fired because your boss won't bother to text message you even though it's the best way for you - as a deaf person - to get his messages - that's disabling. Now, recreate those experiences, and I'm all for you.

Please don't define disabilities according to your definitions - I know, it's easier for you if "we" can be easily categorized. But we can't be. So here's a trick - don't bring advocacy group speakers, and please, don't bring speakers from parent advocacy groups - nothing says "dependence" more clearly than "call mom," and please ! please! avoid the folks from your campus disability services office - their job will be to tell you the "happy stories." Instead, ask students, whatever students are willing to get up and describe their lives in your school. You'll get contradictory pictures, certainly, but you won't get nonsense.

Please don't say "mild disabilities" or "severe disabilities" - that is not yours to say. Is a complete inability to read better or worse than an inability to walk? And who does the ranking? If anything like this is in your vocabulary, I suggest you get it out, right now.

My thoughts? I like stories. I like stories which describe the struggles without pretending that everyone with a disability is always a nice guy. I like stories because stories pull you in, let you see the world through the characters eyes, in ways parlor games never will.

Stories can be presented as "One Book, One Community" kinds of things, or in Book Groups, or Movie Nights - whatever - as long as there isn't any pretense that there's a single "correct" answer. The characters in Borderliners, Rory O'Shea, Curious Incident, even Drool Room might elicit sympathy, but maybe they ought to elicit frustration as well. The ways that they struggle with the world are not solved by everyone deciding to "be nice."

Here are some (including my own shameless self-promotion)...

(Please do, add your recommendations in the comments)

You can also collect so much on line - yes, videos from Teachers TV, yes blogs, and blogs, and blogs, and blogs. (random picks, go find your own). But look for voices (again), not advocates. Advocates have something to sell you, voices have something to tell you.

Of course if you really want to celebrate - celebrate by demanding universal design - from doorways to rest rooms - from housing to seating - from every computer to every office - from locker rooms to that counter at the coffee shop, from every syllabus to every exam. If you want to think about how to use the social media we know to take the action we need, you might start with Ewan McIntosh's blog post today.

Because, when it comes down to it, awareness is nice - but not having to be constantly, consciously aware, that would be progress. Real progress.

- Ira Socol


Kate said...

right on and amen to that!

whoissecretdubai said...
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