Friday, February 22, 2019

All of Us: A Gay Man's Response to Jussie Smollett

I do not apologize for believing Jussie Smollett.

There is a growing chorus of people who, delighted at the idea that his beating and abuse was faked, are taking control of the discussion of racism and homophobia. They feel they are in the driver's seat now, as if they haven't always been, and are making it clear that claims of institutional and confrontative  prejudice doesn't exist, or if it does, it's minor and even then, exaggerated.

They laugh at those of us who had hearts that hurt at hearing Mr. Smollett's story. The talk about 'confirmation bias' as if we are always sniffing around looking behind shrubs and trees to find the rare and brittle branches of bigotry. While they exult in this moment I wonder if any of them will wonder why I believed Jessie Smollett.

If we were so easily tricked, why would that be? We are people who hang up the phone when robocalls warn that the police will come if we don't pay up on fictitious taxes. We are people who know better when fast talking cons try to sell us our own shortcomings. If we were tricked why were we tricked.

"Because you want to believe in racism and homophobia so badly that anything that confirms your world view you scoop up like baked brie!" is the suggestion.

Racism.

Homophobia.

Those aren't things I believe in. Those aren't abstract unproven hypotheses. They are concrete and deeply embedded historical realities.

Why would I believe Jussie Smollett?

Why would I believe that 'outrageous' story?

Because I've lived it.

Not all of it.

I am a white, gay, disabled man.

I only speak to what I know. Homophobia exists.

I shook hands with prejudice a long time ago. I grew up and before I knew who I was I knew who I was was wrong. Do you realize that people have to come out because they've been locked in? We hear the words said around us. "Fag!" "Sissy!" "Gearbox!" "Pansy!" We hear them as children and innately we know what those words mean, and we know that we need to find a shady spot to hide ourselves in. Shame makes a good blanket under which we hurt ourselves. We are our own first bullies. We are intimately connected with violence. We use it to punish our difference.

Leaving 'Buddies' a bar in Toronto years ago required walking a few steps down an alley. It was terrifying to enter and terrifying to leave. People were beaten around there. People were hospitalized around there. And no one told. Silence was the only option when discovery would cost jobs, and family, and even lives.

It wasn't hard for me to believe Jussie.

Marching in an early pride parade, long before corporate sponsors, long before pride was a product, Joe and I walked side by side. A rock is picked up. It whizzes by my face and hits Joe on the shoulder. No damage was done, except it's odd that its that same shoulder that Joe has trouble with to this very day.

It wasn't hard for me to believe Jussie.

Crossing the English channel in the Volkswagen beetle we meet a young black woman. She is bright and funny and told one helluva story. When the boat docked we invited her to ride with us to London, she took us up on the offer. We talked and laughed on the drive. We watched night fall and when we arrived in London we started looking for places to stay. We had some sort of student guide to where travelers could get good rooms cheaply.

When Joe and I went into get us a room, we mentioned that we were traveling with a woman who also needed a room. Rooms were available, the price was right, and we were signing the register when she came into the lobby. Suddenly there were no rooms. They made it clear that they hadn't realized that she was, 'you know.' This happened at every stop. At one point, three refusals later, she became really upset and yelled at the manager. Called him a racist pig. He, in turn, called the police. They arrived instantly, the colour of her skin being a magnifier of the concern. The hotel guy over described what happened, said that he wasn't racist but what was he to do - being the manager of a place with disappearing rooms, it's just so hard.

We were brought to the police station.

We were let go.

She was held.

We didn't get a room for that night. We parked outside the station and waited til morning. She was let out. She looked like a different woman. She looked defeated.

We drove her in silence to where she was to catch a train.

Said goodbye.

And she was gone.

It wasn't hard for me to believe Jussie.

I don't apologize for believing a story I've heard before, a story I've lived before.

I have no claims to understanding the experience of racism, I have observed it, I know it's real, but that is not my story to tell or the pulpit on which I choose to stand.

I do have claims to understanding the experience of homophobia, heterosexism, disphobia, and ableism. I get those.

I don't believe in them.

They are facts.

And until they are not facts.

I will always give my heart out to those who have the courage to speak.

I don't care what happens next.

Cause this isn't about Jussie.

It's about us.

All of us.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Power of Fact

Some think that researchers are people who sit behind computers and dream up studies of little consequence. We have come to be a society that has discarded facts and lionized opinion. But research can do something magical with their statistical wizardry if it asks important questions. Questions that have the potential for real life impact. As such is a recent study done by H-CARDD  (Health Care Access Research and Developmental Disabilities) here in Toronto. Here is an infographic from their latest research:

 

 I just wrote the team there and this is what I said to them. (I hope they don't mind.)


Hi, could you please pass along to the H-CARDD team my thanks and my congratulations.

Congratulations for completing and publishing this report.

My thanks, both as a professional and as a disabled person, for doing radical research that ‘speaks truth to power’ … you are constantly creating facts in an arena where opinions and anecdotes used to reign. Because of your work people in general, but most importantly, people in power can’t ‘not know’ this. It matters. It shows that the lives of people with intellectual disabilities are on the line. It affirms the idea of both ableism and disphobia as a constant theme and a constant threat in the lives of people with disabilities.

I am in awe of your commitment and your courage.


Now the opinions in the letter are mine and the reading of the report is filtered through my understanding of the world. But this is what I took from reading the report.

Research like this gives us ammunition with which to clearly state our case when we want to advocate or inform or make policy. It allows us to confirm what we've seen as a real phenomenon.

I invite you to read the whole report which you can link to from the one I've provided.

Take the time.

Become informed.

It matters.






Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Ramp and The Woman In The Cobalt Blue Sweater

It was hard going.

I was pushing uphill, on carpet, and was working very hard. I could feel my muscles burning, I could feel forward motion. "This is what it's all for," I thought, as I crept slowly towards the top of the long ramp. The hours in the gym, the hours with dumbbells at home, the aerobic exercises I follow along with on-line, all of it, it's for this. I don't mind that I'm struggling. I don't mind the challenge, As long as I'm moving forward.

She was wearing blue. A nice cobalt blue sweater. That's what I remember seeing first. She had been standing near the top of the ramp speaking to a friend. I know they noticed me. I could see them react to the sight of me coming slowly up the ramp, I could see them pause and decide what to do, I could see them relax into the idea that doing nothing was probably the best option. I also knew that if I had asked them, they would have been there in a shot. But I didn't. I didn't want their help. I appreciated their decision to simply let me do what I was doing. Being disabled means gratitude when people don't take an interest in you.

The ramp was long. It was carpeted. The carpet was plush. My shoulders were burning, my breath was coming short, I was tiring. I was only a few feet away from the top. I don't know why but with every long ramp I've ever gone up, it seems like the last few feet are at a steeper grade. I stop for a second to catch my breath. I look at how much of the ramp is left and I begin to feel defeated. Will I need to ask for help.

In my pause, the woman in the blue sweater finished her conversation with her friend and started towards me. "No!" I thought, but did not say, but my hands tightened around my wheels. I would not be pushed. I would not have this taken from me. I wanted to finish. I prepared for the confrontation between interference and independence.

But, in the end, I took her help.

In the end, I was grateful for it.

Because what she did, for me in that moment, mattered.

She got close to me, leaned down and whispered, "You got this!" Then she turned and left.

And I realized that I did, I did have it in me to finish.

I began pushing again, harder, like my muscles had fed on the encouragement. And I made it to the top.

Yes, the hours in the gym paid off. Yes, the hours of time at home on the wheelchair treadmill paid off. Yes, my dedication to making myself stronger paid off.

But a word of encouragement.

That's the kind of help I really need from time to time.

I have learned from this. Sometimes the only help people need is our belief in their ability to do it on their own. Sometimes the only help people need is room to succeed. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes. In our busy lives we can forget to give what's needed and simply take other's victories from them as if they were unnecessary bother.

"You got this," she said.

And I did get it, in every possible way.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

I'm Good With That

It lay there on the floor.

I was standing. I can stand. I can walk a bit. But I have to have something to steady me, a wall, a railing, and arm or shoulder. I had put my clothing in the laundry hamper and a receipt had fallen out of my pants pocket. It lay there, on the floor, looking like it needed to be picked up and put away.

I stood there and looked at it.

It's only been in recent months that I can reach down and pick something off the floor. I still have to be careful because of balance, but mostly, I can do it.

But I haven't had to do it for a very long time simply because I couldn't do it. In fact for nearly 13 years the floor and I have only had passing acquaintance. I could wave to it, to no effect because it never waved back, but that was it.

For years and years and years, I would simply let Joe know it was there and eventually, usually sooner than later, he'd pick it up and deal with it. He never minded, he was good with helping me where I needed help.

It's a complex thing being disabled. Because though I thought I wanted the skill of bending over and picking up things I'd dropped. It was really easy to simply let Joe do it. And 'easy' is something I can get used to.

I had a decision to make, pick it up, or leave it for Joe. If I didn't pick it up, he would never know that this was now about my laziness turning his help into servitude. He'd never know. But, shit, I would know.

I picked it up.

I'm no hero here, the reason I'm telling you isn't to point out how I made the right decision and Joe's day was lightened by a tiny little bit.

No.

I'm wondering if it happens with disability that habit destroys motivation. If it's just a habit that you help me with my shoes, then why would I be motivated to use the skill once I'd learned it. It's easy to live the easy life.

I remember working in a school tying the laces on the shoes of a little boy who simply let me do it. It wasn't until another staff told me he could do it that I realized that he had tricked me by my own need to be helpful and my own stereotype of what I thought he could do.

Teaching a skill and then giving the privilege of using it.

Discovering one's own personal power.

That's cool.

Very cool.

Joe won't know until he reads this that I had that little debate but I know when he does, I'll be picking shit off the floor for the rest of my life!

And ... I'm good with that.

Friday, February 15, 2019

One Word

There are times when powerlessness is the only sensible reaction.

Joe and I were watching a television program and just as it ended, building up to an emotional climax, one of the characters uses the 'R-word.' 

It's like a sucker punch, the whole of the ending is thrown off, our understanding of the characters involved is knocked off course, the time we've enjoyed watching the show is now thrown into question.

Powerlessness.

Nothing I can do will ever fix this.

We are left sitting feeling like we've been slapped by our own trust, the trust we'd given to the writers of the program.

Breathlessness. 

I'm told that I'm too sensitive in my reaction to that word.

I don't understand why I'm expected to be able to let purposeful hurt, purposeful hatred, roll off me.

And I don't know what to do.

 I know people who can be brought low by that word, can be torn up by that word, can be left bleeding by that word.

I know that their pain is real.

I know that their tears are wet.

And I don't know what to do.

I watch people forced to apologize for the language they use because the language they use is hateful.

But disabled people are expected to expect pain.

It's their just reward.

We have people sign pledges, but only good people who already know sign pledges, we need something bigger and louder and stronger.

But I don't know what that is.

This is a ramble.

And I'm sorry.

But sometimes I'm unguarded and sometimes I trust and sometimes I'm stunned by how quickly one word changes everything about a moment.

One word.

One powerful word, so powerful that it drinks up the power from all those who hear it.

So.

What do I do?

Talk to you.

Thanks.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

This Post Is Not About The Gym

Yesterday I gave my first lecture of 2019. I've had a long time off from travel, and even this was just an hour and bit away, it still counts. Hotel rooms, supper via delivery guy, room full of people looking at me. The longer I take off from lecturing, and this was the longest time ever, the more nervous I get about the whole thing. But I arrived at the hall, was greeted warmly on a really cold day, and as the hall filled I went about my rituals for calming down and right at the right moment I popped my anti-anxiety.

The audience was receptive and as I got going I realized, again, that I was enjoying being there, enjoying teaching, enjoying the questions that came my way. In a blink of an eye, it was lunch time.After Joe and I had eaten I said to him that I'd like to go to see the gym in the community center that we were in. We headed off and up and arrived there to look around.

It was packed with machinery and I rolled around looking at it. My own gym was having members fill out a form suggesting new machinery or other ways to improve the experience. They had come to me and told me about it in case I knew of other machines that had been made accessible. I thought I might get an idea. There wasn't any, not one, and I was surprised. I spoke to the guy there and asked if this was a city run gym in a community center or if it was like a Planet Fitness or something. He said it was run by the city.

I asked him, then, where the accessible machines were. He said they had one where the seat could be pulled out. It was over near a corner and though it was cool it was hardly enough for someone with a disability to bother. I asked him why there weren't options for people with disabilities, in a taxpayer funded place shouldn't all taxpayers have access.

Now, for those who wish I'd shut up about the gym and going to the gym, here's where the switch happens. The post isn't about the gym but about what he said in response to my question. So what did he say in answer to my question about why there weren't options for disabled people? In a firm tone, "This gym is for the general public."

I stopped still.

He looked back to see me no longer behind him in chatting distance.

"I am a member of the general public," I said.

He looked confused and started talking to me about some other place with the word 'ability' in it's name where I might be able to go.

What part of Community in 'Community Center' did he not understand? 

But, I had to get back and go on with my lecture.

He had flat out told me that  I don't belong, I am not welcome, I am not one of 'us' ... I am not part of the general public. I am something else that should go somewhere else.

Sometimes ableism and disphobia is so deeply ingrained that people don't even understand the impact of their words. They don't even understand the depth of their prejudice. The can say clearly, 'not you, not here' and still think they offer service to the general public.

There is work to be done.

So much work to be done.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Accessibility ...

Accessibility is Attitude because Attitude leads to Action because Action conquers Architecture.

Did I mention that I love alliteration?

Actually, I'm not at all trying to be cute. I believe every word of that sentence. Access comes from an attitude that believes that people with disabilities have a right to exist in all spaces and participate in any activity of their choosing. Existing in all spaces is still a wild dream for many of us with physical disabilities.

But this morning I was remembering how terrified that I was when I heard that my doctor's clinic was moving to a new building. I went and looked at the building and saw that it had one step up into the lobby. One step that left me sitting, outside, in my wheelchair. I liked my doctor, I liked feeling safe receiving healthcare, where was I going to find that again. When I mentioned the step to my doctor he simply said, "We haven't moved yet, and yes, you will continue to have access." I shouldn't have worried, I shouldn't have had to worry though either, but in truth I do, we all do, those of us who need adaptations.

A restaurant in Toronto, at it's own expense, builds an elaborate ramp so that disabled people can come up and enter the front door. They wanted to. They did. Sadly the restaurant lasted only a couple of years, but here's the thing. As soon as they moved, the ramp was taken down. The new place didn't think that we were a necessary part of the community and they showed it. In a museum about prejudice they show signs that deny entry to various racial and religious groups. It's a powerful reminder about attitude and access. But I suggest they need to put up at least one picture of a building with a single step in and see if visitors can guess what this image means. My guess is they won't. My guess is that few people even noticed that the ramp was gone. Except us, of course.

So if attitude can conquer architecture, why is it so difficult for it to create welcome. Getting in simply isn't enough. Once in can we expect that welcome naturally awaits. No, because attitudes also creates barriers. They can take space that is accessible and make it not so. At a whim. Without thought, they say, but they're lying. There is always intent when a table moves that blocks access to disabled people. Always.

I am writing this because I went into a store yesterday that is normally quite accessible and I was unable to get into the store because of how they had arranged items for a big 'sale'. I spoke to a manager who refused to see my point and then when she did, I was persistent, diminished it, "It's only for a couple of days."

Of course.

I'm sorry.

Was the response I didn't give.

I am writing this because I went into a clinic for an appointment yesterday. I was treated as a bother. I've never gone into a medical clinic where there was a space left open for a wheelchair user to park a chair. This place was overflowing with chairs, put there for those without the foresight to bring their own. I was a 'bother' ... chairs had to be moved, space had to be made, it was, for a moment like theatre as they acted out their annoyance to a group of people who seemed to agree, by their silent consent, that I didn't belong in that space.

Of course.

I'm sorry.

Was the response I didn't give.

Attitude can defeat architecture but it also can create barriers not built but that are built, brick by brick, out of privilege and prejudice.