Segregating Segregation

Timmy and Jimmy are at the forefront of disability thought.  You know, Jimmy and Timmy, the two disabled characters of the foul-mouthed television cartoon, South Park – truly, they’re among our community’s most profound thinkers.  As the story goes, Timmy, who uses a wheelchair, and Jimmy, who uses crutches, were upset at Christopher Reeve, whom they didn’t view as a real “crip” because he wasn’t born with disability as they were – disability, according to Timmy and Jimmy, is a culture you’re born into.

This episode hit home with me not only as among the most daring topics – as with mocking Reeve’s struggles – but also as among the most true, bringing to light the common but rarely discussed lines of dissention within the disabled community among those born with disability and those whom received disability later in life.  As one born with a disability, and active among all forms of disabilities, I have been acutely aware since a young age of how the disabled community divides itself based on the origin of disability.  The standard fallacy of those born with disabilities says that because you received your disability later in life than at birth, you haven’t lived the full disability experience, you’re not a full-fledged member of the disability club.  On the flip side, the fallacy is that those whom received disabilities later in life don’t see themselves as “one of them,” those with so-called true disability, because they’ve lived a “normal experience” to a given extent. As a result, you end up with a divided community where our brothers and sisters face each other, stating, “You’re not one of us,” or “I’m not one of you.”  

On a similar note, South Park is not the only television show of recent to bring to light division among those with disabilities based on how we view each other.  Christy Smith, a hearing-impaired competitor on TV’s Survivor, has undergone a barrage of bashing from the deaf community for not complying with a code of conduct that many of her deaf peers follow regarding using sign language at all times.  Smith, a graduate of Gallaudet University, chose to read lips and speak by voice on the show, rather than using sign language and an interpreter.  On the web and in the press, many members of the deaf community have labeled Smith as somewhat of a trader for not staying true to her deaf culture’s form of communication.  Again, we see the phenomena of segregating each other within the disabled community based on status policies that we create.

Beyond the interpersonal, organizations within the disabled community set up similar fractions, striving to support one particular classification of disabilities over others.  If you use a wheelchair due to paralysis, one group will assist in your ADA complaint. However, if you use a wheelchair due to any other disability, you’re not eligible to use their services – you need to go through a cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy, or multiple sclerosis, or other disability-specific organization to get assistance. And, let’s not overlook wheelchair sports like quad rugby or events like United Cerebral Palsy sports that have both implied and formal rules stating that you cannot participate unless you have that particular medical designation.  You may have all four extremities affected by disability or have a disorder of the central nervous system, but unless you’re a card-carrying medical member of this or that “disability” group, you’re not allowed in the door.

If all this sound absurd – that is, differentiating others based on origin or type of disability – it is.  In my mind, segregating others based on differing disabilities is as absurd as Timmy and Jimmy labeling Reeve as not really disabled, or members within the deaf community calling Christy Smith a trader for using her communication abilities as she wishes.  No matter our disabilities, or how we handle them, for the most part society doesn’t distinguish among us – lack of access, employment discrimination and similar “mainstreaming” issues impact all of us.  Why, then, do we discriminate against each other, why do we divide amongst ourselves when we face common struggles?  

There are many possible answers to such a complex question.  From the interpersonal, maybe it’s hard to witness your own struggles in another person?  From the organizational, maybe resources are so scarce that groups feel a need to protect their own?  And, from the societal, maybe we struggle to maintain our culture while still striving to be part of the mainstream?  Indeed, in the grand perspective, all of these aspects play a role in division within the disabled community.  However, ultimately, individual action supercedes all, and we have an obligation to support others with similar situations to our own, uniting and creating a better life for everyone.

Constitutional Mobility

Has anyone ever told you how lucky you are to have mobility?  Has anyone ever walked up to you and said, “You know, a lot of people aren’t as lucky as you to have that motorized wheelchair.”  Well, I’ve heard countless forms of the tired adage, “Be grateful for what you have,” and it always irks me, recognizing it as the most socially demeaning forms of patronization toward those with physical disabilities.

I, for one, don’t believe anyone is lucky to have mobility.  What I do believe is that those who go without adequate mobility are deprived of more liberties than most prisoners behind four physical walls.  I believe that the fundamental rights specified in Amendment I of the United States Constitution – rights to various forms of expression – cannot be achieved without adequate mobility.  I believe that an individual’s opportunities to succeed in society – education, employment, healthcare – cannot be fully realized without adequate mobility.  And, I believe that one’s emotional and mental health suffer without adequate mobility.  Point blank, I believe that mobility is as important to one’s existence as every word in the United States Constitution, as every cry for equality among the races and sexes, as every human’s rights law ever signed.

For one to suggest that we should consider ourselves lucky to have mobility goes beyond absurd, into the realm of socially destructive.  Imagine the uprising if, in the U.S., it was determined that only the privileged few of a minority group were allowed out of their homes.  Imagine a white person walking up to a person of a different color, and stating, “You’re lucky to be allowed out of your house.”  It would be offensive, discriminatory, racist, possibly illegal, and entirely offensive; yet, this happens everyday to people whom use wheelchairs, and it’s somehow viewed as acceptable thinking, that it’s alright for us as a group to take a lesser role in society, to have the privilege to participate in society, not the right.  

The question is, what steps do we take to help further promote mobility as an essential right, not a privilege handed to us?  On an interpersonal level, when someone suggests you’re lucky to have a chair, take a moment to tactfully explain to them that a wheelchair isn’t a privilege, it’s a necessity, affording you the ability to pursue life to the fullest, to obtain the same rights they have, that everyone is entitled to such societal liberties.   From a consumer standpoint, vote with your dollars, demand that manufacturers build better, more affordable products, do your homework and buy those that are great in performance while reasonable in price.  And, on the government level, if you are drowning in an insurance undertow of funding cuts, get your Congressman involved, let the leaders of our nation know that your voice is as powerful as any other, that you hold your representatives responsible for upholding your liberties just as they do everyone else’s.  Put simply, take a personal approach to demanding your rights, as most other groups have done to achieve equality.

If one applies the rights of everyone else to those with disabilities, it becomes clear that mobility isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.  And, as with all rights, liberties can only be had when exercised – that is, you have the right in society, and an obligation to yourself, to demand mobility, not plead for it.