Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Letter

The letter was horrific and hateful ... it violently suggested the end of a life, the harvesting of organs ... the final solution to the problem of difference in the neighbourhood. People are reacting with shock. Outrage even.

For the last several years I've been reading about the increased hostility towards people with disabilities in Canada, the UK and the US. Images of several people with disabilities, killed by gangs, killed by neglect, killed by families come to mind. Reading of studies that show the people with intellectual disabilities who live in the community live in fear, knowing from personal experience that people easily demote me from a person with rights to 'thing in the way, hearing from others with disabilities horror stories about life out in public.

Hate crimes against people with disabilities are on the rise.

We knew that, first from statistics, then from personal experience.

I'm supposed to be heartened because so many people have rallied around this child and this family. I don't. I have lost trust. I believe that people are upset at the clear expression of disphobic and ablest attitudes - in the same way that people are horrified when people use racist words and express violent racists sentiments, but go about practising a quiet racism on a daily basis.

Those who decry the words of the letter - after you get over being all righteous about the words used, will you be fighting for employment rights for people with disabilities? The writer says that this young man will never be employed, well, shock, people with disabilities are disproportionately unemployed - where are the adaptive workplaces, where are the supports for people who need them to work, where is the consumer demand for seeing diversity in the workforce in stores, restaurants, government offices?

Those who are horrified about 'normal girls' not dating him. Where are you in ensuring that integration and inclusion happen such that people with disabilities have real opportunities for developing friendships and relationships with people regardless of disability status? Where are parents demanding that there be more kids with disabilities in the classroom so that their child comes to understand diversity in a real way while young?

The person who wrote the letter did a favour for the bigots ... "I'm not so bad as that?" "I'd never say those things out loud." "I guess I'm pro-disabled because I think killing them is going a bit far."

What the letter writer has done is alert us all, in the disability community, to the depths of hatred that exists towards those of us with disabilities. It should be an alarm bell sounding ... this is what's already here, imagine what's coming.

To that mother and to that child - I'm sorry you had to experience that, I'm sorry that those words were ever said to you, I hope that behind all the tinsel of media hype and the 'outrage' of others ... you know that there is a core of support behind you. Not temporary, not fleeting ... the disability community is here, we know what you are facing, we know what you are fighting for ... I guess I'm saying, though you may feel it, you are not alone.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for that Dave. I won't like, I've been refreshing your blog page knowing it was coming and you did not disappoint!

For anyone even partially involved in disability advocacy, that letter and the response to it has provoked a lot of mixed feelings. For those immersed in these issues, it's been downright troubling - but it does present an opportunity.

Hatred directed towards people with disabilities can't be defeated just by saying "I don't like it" as so many people are currently doing in response to "the letter."

It's great that the public have shown overwhelming support, in terms of saying, correctly, that the letter is disgusting, hateful, horrific, nasty.

But if you really want to make a difference, you have to contribute to changing the conditions that make that type of hatred quite common (I recall a CACL report where about 50% of people admitted discomfort just being around a person with an intellectual disability).

Hatred can take the blatant form like "the letter". But marginalization of people with disabilities happens mainly through our social structures that keep them separate from "the rest of us" and reinforce - if not cause - the bigotry that is actually very common, even if it might not always be so boldly and publicly expressed.

So, if you didn't like that letter, what are you going to do about segregated (aka "special") education, living, recreation, and vocation - all the places where the "normal" aspects of life are made different for people with disabilities (particularly people with intellectual disabilities) by separating them from everyone else?

Are you going to advocate with your employer that they hire more people with disabilities? The unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities is upwards of 75%. And it's not because they don't want to work or can't work.

Are you going to advocate to your flag football league that they reach out to local organizations who support people with disabilities and let them know that (as your website probably says you do) you truly welcome ALL enthusiasts to join? That you've realized not a single person who has Down syndrome has ever joined your league and you wanted some help reaching out, making an invitation, and being welcoming?

Are you going to speak up at school board meetings in response to pro-segregationists and say "Having students with disabilities in the same class as my son won't hurt my son, it will make him a better student and a better person?"

What will you DO about the circumstances of separation and segregation that help fuel and sustain ignorance and hatred of people with disabilities?

That, my friends, is what I think THE QUESTION should be in response to "the letter."

FunMumx3 said...

I'm sure that there are elements of this story that I don't know as all I heard was a brief news item last night and then Dave's post. But. On the news last night I heard that police will not investigate as a hate crime, although possibly will look at other charges (harassment etc.).

Okay then... let's say this letter was written about a person of African-Canadian heritage. Substitute in "black" for "autism" and wait for the hype about hate crime, racism, there would be activists all over the place. Would the police take it seriously as a hate crime then?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, David, for this morning's comments. I agree....while the letter is graphic, it does provide a reminder of the need for more committed action....but how do we get the message across? We seem to put so much value on people's "" and not each person's gifts and characteristics that make life worth living...otherwise, we might as well live in a world made up of highly skilled good looking robots. Just a thought ...

Ashley's Mom said...

Great response! I also like this post from a Mom who lives in my little corner of the world:

Anonymous said...

What letter?

Dave Hingsburger said...

there is a link to the letter on my blog, just click there ...

Jo Kelly said...

I could not have said it better myself Dave....there is so much more here than a hateful letter. I have shared this commentary on FB - hope you don't mind!

Princeton Posse said...

Thanks Dave! I was wondering if the letter would come up in your blog. Such intolerance...sigh

Rachel said...

Hi Dave, your point is well taken. There is a difference between outrage on behalf of a particular family and doing work to end systemic discrimination and exclusion. I have no argument with that, and people who are outraged at the moment may very well forget their outrage in a couple of days and go about their business.

However, I find myself heartened by the community's response, and it comes out of my own experience of having been shunned and ignored after a shattering experience. When the experience happened, there is nothing I wanted more than for people in the community to express their support for how I was doing and to ask how they could help. No one did, and it continues to be a source of significant pain to me over eleven years later. Could people have solved the larger systemic problem that caused my pain? Probably not. But for me, there is very little worse than being the victim of cruelty and having no one come to my side. It makes the cruelty go even deeper.

So I give thanks that this young man and his mother (who is also disabled, BTW) do not have to live in isolation with the pain of the verbal violence that targeted them. Stepping up in support, even if the support is fleeting, is a whole lot better than not stepping up at all. It can make the difference between a feeling of despair and a feeling that the world isn't such a cold and lonely place after all. Over eleven years after the fact, I am still searching for a balm for my wounded soul. I would have given anything to have had a community that rallied around me when I was being targeted, whether or not they ever grokked the systemic problems that had caused me to be targeted in the first place.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

You are so right about this. That letter is the tip of an ugly iceberg that we as a society do not want to look at. And we as individuals do not want to face our own prejudices and what they mean. Taking appropriate action seems pretty scary for some reason.

It shakes me to the core that someone would put such horrible thoughts in writing and send them to a family. It shakes me even further that this is not considered a hate crime.


Deb said...

Personally I think it is *vitally* important that the community and country stand up and support this family by saying, "This is NOT acceptable! All children have worth."

And I absolutely believe this is hate mail. If you put Black, Muslim, Jewish, Native, or any other minority they would have slapped a "Hate Crime" label on it immediately. Who can say a child should be killed because it is different in some way?

The fact that we have not yet integrated all disabled individuals into the workplace is not the point. In this economy we have not yet integrated all college graduates into the workplace.

There was a story on the local news about a family here who has an autistic daughter who is seven and non-verbal and makes the typical grunts and shrieks non-verbal children make.

The parents said they rarely go anywhere without someone saying, "That kid needs a good spanking", "If you can't control that kid you ought to keep her at home", "If you can't keep her quiet you ought not to bring her into a restaurant"...

I heard the same kind of remarks about my very large for his age ADHD son. At two he wore the same size clothes as his nine-year-old brother, and people expected him to act like an older child, when he was just a toddler.

I think people should keep their comments to themselves unless it's to say something encouraging, like "It's okay. Hang in there. Parenting is the toughest job in the world."

But I don't think there's a rise in intolerance against disabilities. When I was a child in the 40s and 50s you simply didn't *see* people with disabilities - period. They were warehoused or hidden away. The intolerance was so great that the disabled were not even allowed to be seen in public. So, I think we've come a long way.

I wasn't allowed to start school until I could walk without my braces and crutches. So I didn't start school until I was almost eight years old.

The first Down's Syndrome child I ever saw was when I was 13. My neighbour found a family keeping their DS son in the basement. He was 11 and he'd never been out of that basement since they brought him home from the hospital.

Our neighbour cleaned him up, moved him into her spare room, and told all of us kids to treat him like we would any other kid.

What I think has changed is the tolerance of nastiness in this society. Think of how many TV shows are based on the participants competing against each other and the one who plays the most dirty tricks wins.

Think about bullies like that English chef, who screams abuse and obscenities at the people in his kitchen show. This is passed off as entertainment? Our entertainment is violent, bullies are revered. What can we expect if this is what is held up as the model?

We were taught to look up to heroes who worked to benefit humanity, or who accomplished something worthwhile. We were taught to think of the other, of the consequences of our actions on our families, school, community and country. Now it's all, "Get out of MY way, I am in a hurry."

Unfortunately those of us with disabilities, but also the poor, and the elderly are a little slower at getting out of the way of those who believe they are the only ones on the planet who matter.

Anonymous said...

I echo Dave and Keenan's comments. This hatred and exclusion/segregation of individuals with disabilities won't go away by commenting on a FB post or sharing a link to "the letter"... This hatred and segregation will ONLY go away when we start VALUING AND INCLUDING EVERY MEMBER OF SOCIETY FULLY!!! People need to read the letter and put some action behind their words.
Example: This is wrong... so I am going to do what I can within my ability to support individuals affected by disability...
*I can do this by becoming an advocate or assisting an individual with a disability in being a self advocate.
*I can tell my friends and family that it's not acceptable to use the 'R' word.
*I can be a friend to someone with a disabilty... I can be a friend to a parent of a child who has a disability.
*I can support businesses and encourage other businesses to employ individuals with disabilities.
*I can advocate for accessability for individuals affected by disability.
*"I can" could be your new mantra. I can make positive change for individuals affected by disability and we can as a society push the community living movement forward.

My 10 yr old daughter returns to school in two weeks. She attends classes in a regular classroom along with her peers and the support of an Educational Assistant. We are reminded weekly- if not daily of how great her peers are to her. I have witnessed this so called "greatness" first hand. Seeing her peers push her out of their way, laugh at her, mock her speech, roll their eyes when it is their turn to be her "peer buddy", talk to her like she is lesser than them. Inclusion is so much more than putting a child or adult into a common community setting. Inclusion is a culture- a belief that everyone belongs, that our differences unite us- not divide us.

My daughter had an Educational Assistant last year who asked me what my profession was. I shared that I was Human Services Professional- working with adults profoundly-moderately-mildly affected by Intellectual Disability as well as those with a Dual Dx.
She replied: "I could NEVER work with THOSE people"
Needless to say her career with our daughter was short lived. I could go on and share other experiences of hate and ignorance but there is no need... we know it exists... WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?

Rickismom said...

Oh how true!

Ettina said...

It could turn out the way you expect, or it could turn out in the opposite direction.

Very often, an extreme case serves to make people aware of the milder violence that it reflects. Look at Steve Biko, for example.

Many of those people who rallied arouned this autistic boy are undoubtedly guilty of milder discrimination against disabled people themselves. Some may use their sympathy for this boy to excuse their behavior. However, others have just become aware that discrimination against people with disabilities exists, here and now, and once you reach a realization like that, very often you start to notice what's been all around you all along.