Yesterday afternoon, I talked to a blind friend and regular BlindConfidential reader. He, in my opinion, tends to possess terrific insight and, in a manner unlike me, doesn’t wield a flame thrower when thinking of issues but, rather, prefers a better reasoned approach. He also finds the politics of disability far less interesting than me and chooses not to be active in the discourse on such issues.
My friend took issue with my call for a general strike among people with disabilities to celebrate the anniversary of the approval of the language from the Convention on Human Rights and People with Disabilities. More so, he described why he found my parallels between issues of prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities and the civil rights movement led primarily by African Americans. He demonstrated some excellent points and, after spending night thinking about it, I think that the difference between the struggle to reach equality for people with disabilities is actually different in many substantive ways than the movement against racism over the past century and a half. I also believe that there are similarities which I will also mention.
The differences, as my friend described to me, comes in the form of hatred or the lack thereof. Excepting some incredibly eugenic Nazi types who would destroy us for having birth defects, no one seems to truly hate people with disabilities. While we may receive the most condescending treatment from everyone from well meaning and well educated do gooders to ignorant people working in retail, I can’t ever remember people treating me differently out of actual hatred for blind people.
Sighted people, at one point even old friends of mine, have asked me on job interviews if I could actually do a specific job with “your condition.” I would say, “Yes,” but learn that they chose some lunkheaded sightie with a third my skills a quarter my experience but profoundly more vision. One group, in the Santa Cruz area, had their VP of Engineering go so far as tell me that he couldn’t in good conscience hire me as their office had no hospital nearby and, even if I chose to live near enough to walk to work, if I strayed out into traffic, a car might hit me and the company and its leaders, then friends of mine, would feel horrible if I suffered badly waiting for a helicopter to take me to a hospital over the hill in San Jose. I had done my homework and said that California, especially Santa Cruz County, had excellent Para transit and that I could live in the very accessible downtown and get a ride to work every day. He claimed that the danger presented was still too great and they hired a sighted lunkhead instead. The situation I describe about the gig in Scotts Valley hurt and suggested that I should question my friendship with these people and, today, nearly ten years later, I only remain in contact with one or two of those guys and none who held a position with the authority to make hiring decisions.
I hear about blind people struggling with discrimination issues on a daily basis. On a similarly frequent basis, I hear about other minorities being attacked verbally or physically for nothing more than the color of their skin, their accent or their gender identity. While the California company may have had other reasons for not hiring me and used blindness as their excuse, they didn’t do so out of hatred for blind people but, perhaps, because they thought I didn’t fit their model and, as friends, they felt that using my personal safety as an excuse would hurt less than we found someone smarter or we didn’t feel that your specific skills fit our model. Meanwhile, blacks, gays, Latinos and other minorities who struggle against discrimination actually have people who hate them and will, when they get the chance, perpetrate violence against them. I’ve never been attacked just because I cannot see.
As I thought about my friend’s statements about hatred and violence, I felt I needed to reevaluate some of my ideas on discrimination against people with disabilities. We are the world’s largest and most disenfranchised minority (or so says the UN), in the US we have a 70% unemployment rate. Inaccessible web sites are the “whites only” signs of the 21st century. We are often treated as second class citizens and people will talk to our companions rather than to us. There exists overwhelming ignorance of how to treat a person with a disability but I don’t think this is the same as having an organization like the KKK or the National Alliance or the various border patrol militias pointing guns at people out of simple hatred.
I think some tactics from the civil rights movement can be used by people with disabilities in our quest for equity but others will probably not have an analogue. While the discrimination we feel is pretty similar to that of our friends in other minority groups, we don’t feel the same kind of hatred nor are we subject to the same kind of violence. I’ve never heard of a blind person being dragged around behind some redneck’s pick-up truck or tied to a fence and beaten until he died simply because of our minority status. If anything, we need to deal with discriminatory, self righteous and ignorant people who feel that they should help us do something we can do ourselves.
Martin, Malcolm, Mandela and others are still my heroes but, if a group of blinks chose to peacefully stop traffic and march down the streets of Birmingham to protest Alabama’s refusal to have an ADA like law that applies to the state employees there, I doubt that the mayor or police chief would send out attack dogs or hit us with fire hoses.
So, I thank my old and trusted friend for explaining, from an entirely blind perspective why he believes that web sites should be treated as places of public accommodation and, therefore, fall under the ADA but the discrimination we, as people with disabilities, suffer is quite different from the hatred and violence that our black, gay, Latino, Moslem and other friends suffer daily.
I still believe strongly that discrimination against people with disabilities in technology, the workplace, in places of public accommodation, in transportation and in many other aspects of life in the modern world is deplorable and needs to be stopped. Direct action should be considered as a tactic along with litigation and other manners of creating a more equitable world.
The people at OccuPaws sent a letter to Dena and me promising to end their bizarre legal attacks. They also agreed to follow more standard guide dog training techniques and seek more input for ways to operate their organization in a manner that is more safe and in line with generally accepted methods of guide dog training. I thank them for responding so quickly and for being receptive to ideas from the outside.