Wednesday, November 20, 2013

When an Advocate Fights Advocacy: Mel Leckie's Personal Protest of a Protest

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.


Anonymous said...

These are problems of a culture of scarcity: there isn't enough (public money, services, assistance) for everyone, so who gets it is limited, and the disabled must battle each other - like the Hunger Games - for what little there is.

In a culture of abundance, each investment of these resources can be seen as potentially multiplying the ability of the individual who receives them to do more than he or she could without those services.

And 'well' people see us as 'taking' from them, instead of as participating as best we all can in the same life.

Inclusiveness of any kind is a product of a more highly evolved morality; the instincts of humans are to identify oneself with the 'higher' group - and that always involves pushing 'them' into a 'lower' group, as we compete for resources.

You'd think we'd be past that, but every generation has to work through it again.

There will never be enough to share - for some people.

It is sad. But it is better out in the open, and talked about, than in the minds of people who consider themselves 'normal' and us 'different.'


Tamara said...

I want to say I'm shocked, but I'm not. I am, however, extremely disappointed. As an advocate, you would think she would at least keep her mouth shut if she didn't agree - maybe consider that she might need to think about it a bit more.

The comments attributed to Clayton Cross about "mollycoddling" and that seven letters don't mean anything were ridiculous. He obviously doesn't have a clue.

Vanderlost ViaGPS said...

Be loud and proud.

When we oppress one another because of fabulous diversity, what a boring world it would be if we were all the same

wendy said...

I see this all the time even among the people with developmental disabilities I work with. Those with more skills often look down on those with less. And, like your students years ago, they are often steadfast in this prejudice.
It's disheartening.
To Alicia, I don't think disabled people are taking anything away from me...just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for articulating something that I have found disturbing for a long time! We have a long road to "inclusion" and until we are all talking the same journey, we are going to do it "alone" - and with less clout because of it!

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this. As a mother of a child with Down syndrome, I often wince when I see such celebration of certain abilities in or community, because I think it contributes to this very kind of hierarchy that Wendy just commented on. I try very hard not to make all of my pride in my children's intellect or achievements for this very reason. It simply isn't what I see as the most important thing in our lives. Love, kindness, inclusion, and bettering one's community are far more important to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I noticed that too as a recurring theme, particularly in the comments section of media articles. So many people saying, 'I'm in a wheelchair & it doesnt bother me'. It was very upsetting to me that they couldnt, or didn't want to, identify the difference. I'm pretty new to parenting a child with an intellectual disability and it was quite eye opening and distressing to realise there's a pecking order in the disability world too!

Mother of a child with inetllectual disability and friend to many with intellectual, physical, mental health concerns, any mix, or none of them! said...

What is even more disturbing, is that Mel's physical disability was caused by a suicide attempt as a teen. Because she was bullied. It is just beyond me to understand her stance, so I have put it down to a likely mental illness, and feel she probably needs our support more than anyone, as much as I am loathe to give it.
Incidentally, she didn't even buy the T'shirt - she went into the shop and borrowed it. Bizarre.

wheeliecrone said...

While I was busy advocating for accessibility for people with physical disabilities, I met a young woman who had an intellectual impairment, and who could ask the best, most pointed questions I ever heard. Her questions were always completely relevant to the subject being discussed and completely respectful. They were often the questions that everyone longed to ask, but didn't have the intestinal fortitude to ask. That young woman taught me a great deal.

Keri said...

I see similar issues amongst people who have Down syndrome. Just because they have that extra chromosome in common, doesn't mean they have anything else in common with each other. Yet we throw them together, expecting that they will get on.
I'm fat and I'm blonde - doesn't mean I will get on with every other fat or blonde person and I certainly get discriminated against by skinny people. Respect for diversity is what it comes down to. None of us know fully what any one else's journey through life has been. But words which put down and demean others should never be used.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit amazed that this blog has been posted without first contacting Mel to verify that the quoted report is accurate and is a complete coverage of what is supposed to have been done. In the comments instructions it states in part " comments which personally attack or bully another will be removed." and I can't help but see the blog post and some of the comments as bullying against the subject person. How about temporarily removing the blog post and comments, contacting mel and discussing the issue, verifying that she did what the quoted report says she did, that she does have the stance that she is supposed to have, and then putting the blog back in when verified? To do otherwise seems pretty nasty to me, and the apparent 'ganging up' in the comments section looks awfully like a bully group.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Anon, I followed fairly standard practice with this piece, I found three different sources for the story. I also found photo's of Ms Leckie at the protest, protesting the protest AND I found an television clip of her stating what she believes:

I think I've done due diligence.

Anonymous said...

Me again, of Anon title. You make personal value judgements in your blog and state them as facts, example: "Clearly she advocates for ... as she defines it ... the valued end of the disability continuum." No, not clearly, that's your opinion which you state as if it were fact. And you state "She clearly went there to make the statement - "My voice counts. My opinion counts. Your's doesn't." " again, no, that's your value judgement that you are stating as if it were fact not your opinion. You're very entitled to your opinion, and to express it strongly, but stating it as if it were fact is not cool.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Anon, if you watch the video, she rolled INTO THE PROTEST and spoke over the voices of those who were there ... that's a fact. She wore the tee shirt in opposition to the advocate for people with intellectual disabilities and in front of people with intellecutal disabilities who were clearly saying the word was hurtful. You are right, these are my opinions, but they weren't plucked out of the air.

Anonymous said...

I was at the protest. I saw the young man with intellectual disability tell Mel what he thought of the word and the tshirt and how it hurt him, in front of the cameras.
If Mel had an intellectual disability and she wanted to wear the shirt and "own" it, that's one thing, (like the Retarded Policeman series of videos featuring an actor with Down syndrome), but this lady does not have an inetlelctual disability. She can wear what she wants, of course, but to disrupt our protest with her self-centred attention seeking ambush was inexcusable. Today teh Australian Olympic Committee practically disowned her too. An embarrassment is what she was on Monday, and it's a pity, because she is bright, and could offer so much if she could just look outside our herself...
And she didn't even buy teh shirt - she borrowed it from the store, which was only accessible via a long escalator. I must admit I did admire how she managed to get up there in her wheelchair. the irony of her, a woman whose disability was caused by a response to bullying and victimisation, defending an inaccessible store stocking hate speech products, in exceptional.

luna said...

This is a problem in the very popular middle school-level book Wonder. The boy in the book has a facial deformity, and he goes to a school where some people think he doesn't belong. He gets angry at one point and says "I'm not r****ded!" Nobody in the book calls him out on that, and it's seen as a very good point that he is smart and belongs in that school because of his intelligence. I love that book for many reasons, but there are parts of it that make me pause and that's one of them.