January 05, 2006

'Little Acts of Degradation': Ragged Edge Online launches Project Cleigh

By Cal Montgomery

Dear Ragged Edge Reader:

I'm writing to ask you for help with my New Year's resolution this year. I'm hoping that you will write me with your stories about those little acts of degradation to which other people subject us. Those little reminders to us that we need to know our place in the world, and any ways you have come up with to respond to them.

Here's my resolution: in 2006 I'm going to work much harder at addressing the constant battering against my sense that I deserve justice, and the way other people (often unconsciously) are reminded that justice isn't even something that can be contemplated when it comes to people like me.

I don't know for sure yet what I'm going to do with them. Well, I'll write, of course, and report back. But I'm not sure yet what form that writing will take. I only know that I need to write about the phenomenon of the many indignities we are subjected to when we go out our front doors or let the world -- through TV, radio, internet, newspapers, magazines, books, and so on -- come in. I've only got a clear sense of urgency and a clear sense of inspiration. I'm building from a conversation with Mary Johnson, and I'm calling this one Project Cleigh after Carol Cleigh, one of the strongest activists I know.

"You didn't tell me about that," Mary emailed me while she was editing my recent piece on Getting the Truth Out. She was talking about the whole new set of ways that people force their attitudes about people like me on me, now that I have my puppy Nate. I'd eagerly told her how great he is. I hadn't bothered to tell her how lousy people on the street or at the vet's can be.

It's the same old attitudes, of course. "People like [me]" -- whoever that is -- haven't the right or the ability to decide whether, let alone how, we're going to do the most minor thing. We should drop everything to satisfy other people's curiosity about us, and we should do it in a manner that is pleasant and convenient for them even if it is physically impossible for us. We have no right to object when they interfere with our communication, our decisions, our bodies. We should wait patiently and mind our own business until they're finished interacting with the people (and now apparently the dogs) who happen to be with us. You know: the usual stuff.

Well, no, I didn't tell her. First, I was too busy telling her about what a great dog Nate is. Second, other people's attitudes are an old story, old enough to be kind of boring.

Nate and I are at our first vet appointment. I picked him up at the airport less than three days ago, and this is one of my first experiences with other people's reactions to me with a dog. Already the people in the front office have made it clear that they'd rather talk about me with one another than have to deal with talking to me. On the other hand, unlike a great many people who are flummoxed when I point to the text display on my communication device or hand them a hand-written index card, they do seem able to read and comprehend what I have to say. So that's a good sign.

In the examination room the doctor won't look at me. She's speaking very rapidly; I'm only understanding bits of what she says, and the bits I get aren't very helpful. "Dogs get fleas." "Puppies need vaccinations." I know this stuff. When I ask questions -- I really want to know whether she suggests I stick with the food he was getting before or switch to something else -- she speaks faster but not, so far as I can tell, about the subject of my question. Eventually I give up.

She hands me a "New Puppy Packet" and I'm grateful. I'm good at reading. But it's full of advertising materials. The same doctor who didn't want to take the time to discuss what Nate should be eating slows down as she goes through the packet extolling the virtues of each product. I do ask her whether the dog health insurance kicks in before he's 6 months old, because the plans I've looked at have a 6-month minimum enrollment age. She seems surprised that I've even considered the matter, but she doesn't know the answer to my question. She knows I should be sending these people money, but she doesn't know whether they'll take it.

Finally, I go out to the waiting room to settle the bill. As I'm leaving, the vet comes out with a hand-written note and a phone number. "These people train therapy dogs. You can call them, and they'll help you."

Mary pointed out that as far as a lot of people are concerned, this isn't an old story. It's not even a story at all. To a lot of people, the phenomenon is completely invisible.

In fairness, it's largely invisible to me too, most of the time. I tune a lot of it out: I have to, or I wouldn't be able to bear getting up in the morning. I'm noticing it now for two reasons: it's taking new forms and it's happening more often. People used to ask nondisabled people who aren't even with me whether I've really pressed the right button in an elevator that serves two floors; now they also debate whether they should take my dog home with them so that he'll be properly cared for. I used to spend days sometimes dealing with both the trapped and the peaceful feelings that came with staying in my apartment; now I go out every time I suspect Nate is fixing to pee on the carpet.

Every few hours I run up against people who feel free to remind me that I'm their inferior and that I should conform to whatever they've decided "people like [me]" are supposed to be like. Every few hours I run up against people who are so convinced that this is true that they are mystified that I'm not grateful for the experience. Every few hours I run up against prejudice that now affects not only me but my dog. Every few hours.

Nate and I are waiting to cross a street. Just as the light changes, a woman steps into the curb cut, turns around, and reaches for him.

I'm trying to get both him and me away from her, but it's hard, because she's much more nimble -- I wasn't really good at evading other people's hands when I just had four wheels to keep track of, and now I've got four legs on top of that. She just keeps moving around us, grabbing at him, and babbling about how she knows us from "the summer."

She doesn't. Nate only arrived in Chicago in November. She's also asking me questions and not looking at me, which is a dead giveaway that she's never actually communicated with me before.

Hands all over him, encouraging him to jump up, and I'm reprimanding him every time he tries and still trying to get the two of us away. Nate's getting frustrated; I'm getting frustrated; she just keeps grabbing and babbling.

And then just before the light changes again, she dashes off across the street. I spend the red light calming Nate down again.

And as long as this phenomenon remains invisible to the people who perpetuate it, it's never going to change.

Mary shouldn't have had to remind me of that, but I have to admit that she did.

But what can I do?

When I moved to Chicago in 1999, one of the immediate blessings of the city was getting to know some of the activists here. Good people and great colleagues. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have met them, let alone worked with them. Carol stood out in that group, though: she is the only person I have met who has been consistently willing to drop everything and respond to an act of discrimination. The first summer I was here, I recall being at some big event with a couple of other people and having someone roll up to fill us in that when the bus to the event had a broken lift, Carol had blocked it and been arrested. No one was surprised.

Most of the rest of us have good reasons not to be like Carol. We've only got so much in the way of resources, and we've got to pick our battles if we want to have a life. The closer to home that we muddy the waters, the narrower the world is in which we can relax. We learn that in certain battles we will not be supported by others, and choosing not to fight at least lets us retain the illusion that we have more friends and allies than we really do.

These are true of Carol, too, of course; she has been more willing than some of us to pay the price. As Mary and I had that conversation -- and speaking for myself alone -- I began to realize that I have begun "going along to get along" more than I am comfortable with in recent years. So here's my resolution: in 2006 I'm going to work much harder at addressing the constant battering against my sense that I deserve justice, and the way other people (often unconsciously) are reminded that justice isn't even something that can be contemplated when it comes to people like me.

James Cone's Martin & Malcolm & America is a book which has been very helpful to me as I have thought about the variety of different approaches to injustice which a movement like ours needs.

There are other reasons, too, for people to do things differently than Carol does having to do with a difference of opinion on which tactics are appropriate in which circumstances. Some people, for example, have taken to heart the old adage that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. I know there have been times when I have respectfully disagreed with Carol about tactics.

But I know that we need a range of tactics out there. Those people who seem to the people in power to be "like us" gain legitimacy from the methodological differences between themselves and the often-"scary" outsiders ("see? we're not like them!"), and at the same time the "like us" crowd's failures when it comes to achieving justice legitimize the people who have had enough and take to the radical edge of the movement. We need people like Carol. In fact, I think some of us could stand to be more like her.

Having decided, then, that I must do more to struggle against the constant ways that both my neighbors and I are reminded that I am not their equal, the question becomes: what? I'm lousy at comprehending situations in realtime; I am almost entirely unable these days to communicate effectively with random strangers; much of what I have seen Carol do is completely beyond my abilities these days.

And here I come back to that email exchange with Mary. We're writers: we write about this stuff, and we hope it makes a difference. But I don't know what I can write. And here I come back to my appeal to you. I hope to hear from other Ragged Edge readers about the constant reminders and -- as Carol reminded me to make sure to mention -- about any ways they've found effective in responding to them. Please tell me stories, and let me know whether I have your permission to quote you by name, and I will write about what I learn from you and from my own study of the problem; and maybe between us we can come up with ways that we can struggle more effectively against these attitudes.

Thank you very much.

Posted by Cal Montgomery (montgomerycal@gmail.com)

Cal Montgomery writes frequently for Ragged Edge. Read her articles Ripples, A Tide, An Ocean and Drugging Dr. Sell.

Get to know Carol Cleigh through her articles for Ragged Edge:

Creating Access, Now and for the Future

Backsliding and Bigotry

Riding Lessons

Is There Any Safety -- or Equality -- for Gimps?

Attempted Suicide, Completed

Posted on January 05, 2006