I mentioned in my last post that I had a conversation with my regional field director this weekend about disability issues in politics. My RFD is a really nice guy, but the stuff he said made it really clear that he has little or no experience with disability.
He knows I identify as disabled, so he asked me what one issue could unite the entire disabled community. I didn’t even know where to begin with that. First of all, I’m not comfortable speaking for everyone with disabilities. Disabled people are such a diverse demographic, and I can’t speak to everyone else’s experiences. For instance, I don’t use a wheelchair, so I’m not very well acquainted with those sort of access issues. I don’t know what it’s like for blind people to navigate the world. I have significant hearing loss, but I haven’t experienced being Deaf. I don’t want to try to speak for those people–partly because I’d probably get it wrong, but mostly because I want them to speak for themselves and be heard.
My RFD’s question lumps us all into this same demographic, but we’re not all that much alike. I can’t think of just one issue that matters to everyone with disabilities. We all have different thoughts, experiences, and needs. I mean, it’s like asking for one issue that will unite all women–that just doesn’t exist. The access issues that are most important to a Deaf person are likely to be different than the access issues that matter to someone with a psychiatric disability. The needs of a blind person are probably different than the needs of someone with MS.
It felt like he wanted me to boil all of us down, all disabled people, into something slightly less than people. I was trying to explain othering to him while he was doing it to me, and the frustrating thing is I didn’t even realize that was what was happening until hours later. I knew the conversation made me feel uncomfortable, but I couldn’t pinpoint why while it was happening.
He also asked me if I would call all the disabled delegates. (For the convention, to ensure diverse representation, there are slots reserved for add-on delegates [non-elected, although priority is given for those who ran but lost in their local caucuses] in three categories: youth, minority, and disabled; the people he wants me to call self-indentified as disabled by applying as disability add-ons. I know there are also elected candidates who identify as disabled.) I said that I would, and I’ve asked him to dig up for me any information he can on the candidate’s record on ADA compliance cases and so forth while she’s been the AG, as well as any statements or position papers on disability issues.
But I feel kind of squirmy about making those calls, too. It feels like I’m colluding, in a way–like I’m agreeing that I should be the one to talk to these delegates because I’m “like them.” In reality, I may have little in common with these people beyond party affiliation and disability status. See, all the disabled people I know care about plenty of things outside the realm of disability issues. Am I really more qualified to talk to them just because I’m disabled too? Wouldn’t anyone who had information at their disposal about the candidate’s record and stance on various disability issues be just as qualified as I am?
I keep thinking, you know, he wouldn’t ask me to call all the white delegates because I’m white and he’s not. We do get Spanish speakers to call delegates who are more comfortable speaking Spanish, but that’s a communication issue. My RFD’s never asked me if I’d talk to female delegates because I’m a female; he doesn’t assume I inherently know more about the candidate’s record on women’s issues just because I identify as female. I wonder if he’s subconsciously uncomfortable addressing disabled people around disability issues. I’m not saying he’s a bad person–I think it makes a lot of people nervous because they don’t want to offend or hurt anyone, and society doesn’t often teach us that disabled people are still just people.
I can’t even clearly communicate why the whole thing feels so wrong to me. I also think I’m making my RFD sound like an ableist asshole, and he’s really not–I think he just doesn’t quite get it.
And I’m not sure how I want to handle the situation. I don’t want to tell him I won’t call the delegates because that feels almost discriminatory to me–it might be better that I do it just because talking to disabled people doesn’t make me anxious like I suspect it does him. I also don’t want to accuse him of othering–that tends to make people defensive and shut down conversations. But I don’t know how to address it. It’s not like we have a lot of heart-to-hearts; we’re mostly on the ground working with little time for in-depth conversations.
There’s also a part of me that just rolls my eyes and says, “Educating him is not my responsibility.” I get tired of having to spread awareness and educate people. I feel like a lot of resources–both time and money–go into public awareness campaigns. I understand the aim, I do, but they feel so pointless most of the time. Are they really making non-disabled people more comfortable interacting with disabled people? A lot of times, it even feels like awareness campaigns contribute to othering us by saying, “Hey! Look at these ways we’re different from you!” instead of, “Hey, you know, we’re basically just people who want the same basic stuff you want: love, respect, safety, community, stability, and lots of chocolate.” I end up resenting all the awareness campaigns because it feels like we’re still spending our time, attention, and money focused on the non-disabled people. Instead, why don’t we put the money into making buildings wheelchair accessible, providing ASL interpreters, providing adaptive technology, helping the many disabled people who live in poverty, creating job opportunities, and so forth? Benefit US, not the people who are uncomfortable coexisting with us.