I’m just a person.

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.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “I’m just a person.

  1. Politics is a social science and social scientists work with groups and stats. So I say focus on the fact that your RFD is a nice guy (your words) and skip the negative militant stance. I do not mean to dismiss your feelings but I think the task you accepted is valid. So he doesn’t know all that you think he should, who does, unless he is intentionally offensive try to let it slide. It is likely he can learn from positive interactions with you. Asking for the data you did was really smart. I hope he gets it to you promptly. When he does you could gently say something about the diversity of disabled community and how no one person can represent everything. You know Hope, I felt queasy even typing disabled community as I live in a place where that term might cause offense. “differently abled” ?

    P.S. My work life was in music ed but I married a political scientist. We so do not think or approach tasks from the same direction.

  2. I have always had trouble with the words, I am disabled. I usually say something like, “I get disability payments (for a condition I have) etc but I do a lot of things with my time, like writing and artwork…” I am NOT completely unable to do anything after all. I simply have never been able to work an 8-hour day and be “gainfully employed” as the terminology goes. But I am not “completely and totally disabled” either, not the way the system would have me think of myself. I hate those terms and I think they actually create more longterm disability than they ought to.

    But that is another subject altogether. The whole Social Security disability system is f–ked up in my opinion, creating an entire underclass of young people who believe they have to stay disabled in order to maintain a small but steady income and then they have no incentive to find any way out of that trap…That should not be. At least not in the case of so-called mental illnesses.

    Furthermore, recent research is showing that the use of medications often creates longterm illness where it need not have existed, making someone think they will never be or get well. The result is that they fail to try anything different and remain forever mired in poverty, believing the lie that they always had a permanently disabling condition, when in fact, it need not have been the case…But I know this is NOT a popular position. I believe there is truth to it, but like many unpopular painful truths it is not a happy thing to look at. So I will just leave it at that and say no more.

    However, Thomas Insel’s DIrector’s Blog at the NIMH hints at just this sort of thing when he discusses the failures of the use, longterm, of antipsychotic medication in schizophrenia to effect recovery, compared to cases where meds were stopped or not used at all and compete recovery came about.

    Just saying…

    And I think the same would be the case in anti-depressant use and chronic benzo use yadda yadda yadda. Just to be more outrageous, frankly I think ADHD is a bogus condition in almost every instance and doctors iatrogenically create disability every time a person is medicated for it.

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