Saturday, November 05, 2011

Disability History Week

As many of you know, I get all kinds of stuff in my e-mail. It’s one of the reasons I’m always so behind! This week I got an item that made me think back to my college days.

The e-mail was about Disability History Week. I think the official week was actually last week, but am not entirely sure since I couldn’t find a date on the movement’s Web site. Perhaps it is different in different states? For the purpose of this blog entry, the actual date is not important.

It’s the idea.

The idea of having a “week” or a “month” for various ethnic groups and their history has been a topic of controversy. After all, why should we only remember African-American history during African-American History Month. Shouldn’t we be pushing to have history, every day, more inclusive?

I think the answer to this has more to do with the times in which we live than it does with the pros and cons of the idea.

The reality is the civil rights of people with disabilities have always seemed to lag behind those of other groups. Perhaps I’m alone, but I feel like people with disabilities are the one group for which people feel it’s “okay” or “justified” to discriminate against.

A prime example is the work currently underway to make it illegal for businesses (mostly those that operate sheltered employment situations) to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage based on the rationale that they could never be as productive as non-disabled people. This is 2011 and we’re still talking about equal pay for equal work.

We are still at a point in history where the average person, whether they’re aware of it or not, makes all sorts of assumptions about what a person with any given disability can or cannot do. They make these assumptions based on what they believe they’d experience in the same position. For example, they imagine that closing their eyes is what it’s like to be blind. How would they cook? How would they get around? In reality, people who are blind (hopefully) have undergone special training and developed alternative techniques for doing every day things. They’ve had a chance to adjust to not seeing, unlike the person who just closes their eyes and tries to imagine.

Discrimination against people with disabilities often is the silent kind. It’s the job opportunity never mentioned because everyone assumes it wouldn’t be possible for such and such a person to do it. It’s the subtle difference between two job candidates of pretty much equal qualifications. It’s the questions everyone knows they aren’t supposed to ask in a job interview of a job candidate, yet still somehow hang in the air as unaddressed concerns.

Perhaps if people with disabilities were further ahead in our civil rights challenges, the idea of a special week to celebrate historical achievements wouldn’t appeal so much to me. I suppose it does because I suspect many would see the idea as political correctness to the max. I suspect the average person, disabled or not, would be hard pressed to come up with historical examples of people with disabilities – besides the most obvious ones.

When I was in college, I was much more involved in the National Federation of the Blind. I remember many talks about “blind history” and the “history of our movement.” It was empowering. It provided role models, but it also made me not take for granted the ground we have gained. Yes, we have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way too.

If you want to check out the Website I received in my e-mail, it is:

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