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August 09, 2005

Am I a bigot? June Gordon says I am

In her comment to my Incident at the Induction post of July 30, June Gordon says that I "reveal myself to be a bigot." Perhaps unwittingly, she concedes.

But I do not believe that I am a bigot because I note that discrimination is discrimination. Why do we want to believe that because it is coated with kindness, or attributed to ignorance, that the result is any less offensive, any less discriminatory? Why do we have the need to rank "ism"s?
When one is denied use of a restroom because the owner will not bother to provide access, one suffers as surely as if the access is denied due to hate.
I would be a bigot, I think, if I sought to rank "ism"s -- if I were to say " disability discrimination ("handicappism," we used to call it; some call it "ableism") is worse than racism." I would be a bigot if I said racism was worse.
I say they both are terribly harmful and terribly wrong. I also say we admit one but deny the other.
I do not believe that anything in my blog post -- or anything I have ever written, for that matter -- has ever said that racism was less pernicious than disability discrimination. I would not say that; I do not believe that. However, I do believe disability discrimination is more pernicious than June Gordon seems to believe it is. And I believe much of our problem comes from the fact that we always want to rank "ism"s, with disability discrimination always at the end of the list, if it makes it onto the list at all. And the reason? Always: "nobody meant any harm."

Gordon writes," There's never been any legally mandated, wide-ranging and historically consistent effort to deprive the handicapped of their rights." Not true: an amicus brief provided by over 100 scholars and historians to the Supreme Court in 2000 laid out in detail the record of state-sanctioned discrimination against disabled people. You can read the whole thing here.
Despite this record, the Supreme Court too has said there's no evidence of state-sanctioned discrimination against disabled people. They said that in the 2001 Garrett decision, denying disabled people the right to sue states when encountering disability discrimination. That's why Patricia Garrett couldn't get her job back when she was fired for having cancer. I talked about that in a blog last week.
I bring up "racism" when I talk about disability discrimination, despite advice that I not do so, because it is the only way to get discussions like this one out in the open where they belong.
Yes, racism is horrid, horrid -- was and is; and everything our country has done to lessen it is important and we never want to go back to segregation and we never want to condone racism. And we have a very far way to go yet to eradicate it, even now.
Denials of access are also horrid, horrid. But most in this country have yet to agree with this very simple point. Always, with disability, discrimination is not as bad because it is not "intentional", it's said. No one means any harm.
But to the person being denied the restroom, the job, the home, the medical care, discrimination looks like ... discrimination.
June Gordon writes,
The truth of the matter is that if you or Cass Irvin had been rolling along the fictional street described in the reading looking for a bathroom, as white people you would have been allowed to use one. As people in wheelchairs, you might have had difficulty reaching the bathroom or the toilet itself, but you would not have been excluded by law or custom.
No; Cass would not have merely had "difficulty." Difficulty implies that the problem is not insurmountable Lack of access means just that: not "difficulty" -- but the complete barring of access. Something insurmountable. When was the last time you had to help someone in a wheelchair get cleaned up after wetting themselves from the inability to "hold it" any longer?
The accident and the embarrassment would come as surely whether the exclusion were from "law or custom" or from -- what? We are supposed to call it "ignorance?" It is not ignorance; not 15 years after a federal law. Federal law requires places of public accommodation provide access. In older buildings, the law is uniformly ignored. Those who seek to have the law enforced are vilified in the news media because they dare assert their rights.
I'd like to continue this dialogue. Please comment.
COMMENT-AUTHOR:Penny L. Richards
COMMENT-BODY:In a sense, June Gordon makes the point for you when she delineates the "most distinctive aspects" of segregation: Affirmative support of the law, range, and history. All of these certainly apply to disability discrimination. Disability discrimination, supported in the law, has for CENTURIES affected where (and whether) families and people with disabilities live, where (and whether) they work, and even who (and whether) they can date or marry, to name three of the conditions Gordon cites under "range." Add in the ways people with disabilities have been prevented UNDER THE LAW from voting, attending school, or even appearing in public--is that enough range?

As you say, the Garrett amicus brief is full of specific examples of state-level legal restrictions on the lives of people with disabilities (I am one of the scholars listed in that brief). But the overall message of recent work in disability history is also that the discrimination was seldom just about nice people being ignorant. Systematic exclusion, segregation, and schemes to make PWDs disappear pervade that history--terribly harmful, terribly wrong, and definitely intentional.
COMMENT-BODY:Thank you Mary for putting up the Record of our history. And what a history huh?--well, we're hoping to make it ALL history anyhow. Someday---it'll happen.

It's about time we join the ranks of the blogosphere. Great stuff I'm reading! Good topics and commentary. How refreshing to see the comments also. What can I say...it's all good.
COMMENT-BODY:Mary, first I want to add my opinion that this blog is a great place.


You've hit it dead on, that ranking 'isms is a dead end.

I think the minute someone decides to assign a higher value an 'ism that's closer to their personal experience, that can end up being divisive.

It's hard work, but good work, to get to the place where one recognizes that all 'isms, oppressions, detract from the work of being better people.

I'm late to the party, (and late to the discussion of disability rights--it all happened when I thought I wasn't disabled, natch), but I'm perched in my seat and learning :)

Posted by mjohnson at August 9, 2005 09:47 AM