My first job in Toronto was one I took in desperation. I had worked in Glendale, a small institution in Victoria and then had been hired over the phone to work at the Rideau Regional Centre, one of Canada's largest institutions. It wasn't what I'd expected from the phone interview. It wasn't a place I wanted to work. So I, almost immediately, began looking for work elsewhere. Toronto seemed to be the place to go, it was big, there would be lots of jobs there. I had an impossible time finding work with people with intellectual disabilities because of my, very short, history of working in facilities.
I ended up getting a job working in a high school with kids who had physical, but not intellectual, disabilities. While they were all integrated into the regular school for everything else, they had a segregated home room. This was because several needed extra space, adapted equipment and a large bathroom with many adaptations made to it. I provided general support to the students. I really enjoyed working with the kids there and turning many of them on to the powers of activism. I helped them start a letter writing campaign to get the playing field made accessible, I helped them plan a day to skip school and go to a rally for better transportation access for people with disabilities, I generally got them thinking about rights and respect. It was fun.
What struck me, then, though, was that some, but certainly not all, of these kids were completely prejudiced against students, and people, with intellectual disabilities. They made the excuse that others treated them like they were one of 'those' and they wanted it to be very clear that they weren't one of 'those.' I tried to get them to think of the larger disability community but they abjectly would not. To them there were two communities. A valued one - with people with physical disabilities and a devalued one - with people with intellectual disabilities. They saw no connection, they saw the issues as entirely different, and they didn't want to talk any more about it.
That bothered me then and it bothers me now. I know that there isn't, at least not that I've seen, any formal unity between the two groups. It goes both ways, I see organisations that serve people with intellectual disabilities not give a second thought to the issues of accessibility, and I've met people with intellectual disabilities who think that they don't have a real disability like those who use wheelchairs do.
I remember watching the movie "Murderball" and it's wonderful until one of the players makes a really, damning, prejudicial remark against people with intellectual disabilities. I was surprised he'd said it, I was surprised it wasn't edited out - clearly no one saw a problem with it. WE ARE NOT THEM - that was the message loud and clear.
Similarly, when I read about the success of the recent campaign about the Globalize shirts that had a version of the 'r word' on it, I saw that a paralympian, Mel Leckie, showed up at the rally against the use of the word on a tee shirt, wearing the shirt. She said, stunningly, that it was just like a tee shirt with the words 'dickhead' or 'idiot' ... which means that she understands that the word is a pejorative and she sees no problem with it. What's even more shocking is that Ms Leckie is referred to as a DISABILITY ADVOCATE.
Clearly she advocates for ... as she defines it ... the valued end of the disability continuum. In all of this, the recent successful campaign against the lipstick sold by Sephora and now the, equally successful, campaign against the selling of these tee shirts, this traitorous act by Ms Leckie bothers me most. She clearly went there to make the statement - "My voice counts. My opinion counts. Your's doesn't." The article says, despairingly, that she wasn't alone in her attitude, that others with physical disabilities were quickly buying the shirts. Now this is what a spokesperson said and we have no proof that this happened - but the sad thing is that it could have.
Ms Leckie, if there be but six degrees of separation and you somehow come to read this, I challenge you to actually become what you say you are a 'disability advocate'. I challenge you to broaden your definition of disability to be an inclusive one (an odd request I know) and actually meet some people with intellectual disabilities, speak with some family members, challenge yourself to grow. Just because you have a disability yourself doesn't mean that you are automatically well informed about the community as a whole.
Me, I'm a guy with a physical disability who provides support to those who have intellectual disabilities. I am part of their community, they are part of mine, of course - because there is only one community. That's something I think that you will find enriches all of us.