Martin Luther King and disability rights

Today it is 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King held his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Fifty years where many people have worked to expand equality around the World. And great progress has been made but even more needs to be done before we can call ourselves just somewhat equal. So I rejoice in the advancement that has been achieved. But I also weep when I re-read Dr. King’s speech. In particular, I weep reading passage:

“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.”

I weep because when I replace the word ‘disabled’ for ‘negro’ things are truly looking sad. Not just in the United States but in all the Western countries where I know disabled people – not to mention third world countries. In the intervening 50 years we truly have not come far when it comes to segregation, discrimination, poverty and misery for disabled people.

As a group we have poorer education than average, we have far poorer health (on top of our disability), we earn less money, we have a poorer social life and most importantly, we have much less access to things in our societies that others take for granted. Services are off limits for many disabled people. Stores, cinemas, museums, police stations, yes even hospitals are often off limits for those of us with different kinds of disabilities.

I am not here to compare the living conditions of disabled people in the 21st century to the black people in the 1960’s. I do not know what appalling conditions they lived under and quite honestly I dare not think about it. But I know a few things about what I and many of my peers have to endure. And that is enough to make Dr. King’s words ring equally true in our day and age as they did 50 years ago.

What my mission is today is to point out some of the subtle forms of discrimination and segregation experienced by disabled people on a daily basis. Things that were all addressed in that speech when it came to race; same things that are far from being solved today when it comes to disability.

Why is it that we are still not acknowledged as equals by others here 50 years after the civil rights movement? The easy answer is ableism, a term that is not very well known to those outside of disability circles. And if it is not known who is to blame?

I am sure I could point the finger at many groups in our societies. But I also think we have to look inwards on a day like this.

The black people of the 60’s worked diligently to be recognized. They formed groups, they took to the streets, they made their voices be heard loud and clear.

We have simply not been good enough to gather
as a coherent group to fight for the things that are blatantly wrong. Yes, we are surrounded by all kinds of discriminating practices and poor legislation. We are at the back of the line when jobs are created and we are the first ones to go when they disappear. We are dispensable in a lot of situations.

But we are also perpetuating that discrimination. We have internalized the oppression that we are faced with by accepting that we do not have the same rights as other citizens. And we have been conditioned to accept this as a fact of our societies. Too often we bow our heads and let the abuse continue – because what can we do? We don’t have a strong human rights organization behind us. We are not even a cohesive whole, being all segregated in our little individual organizations.

For a long time I have wished that we could gather enough people to engage in a march on our respective capitals. That we could be enough people to form a crip pride parade and proudly display our natural diversity. Where the wheelchair users held signs about “standing up for your rights” where the blind were wearing t-shirts saying “Blind is beautiful” where the folks with learning disabilities shouted: “I know things that you will never learn” to the tune of the deaf singing songs of their freedom.

However, I don’t have high hopes for any of that to happen. We are moving towards a world where it is survival of the fittest and where money talks. If anything we are heading for a cut-throat world where the so-called weak are going to be culled and there will be no room for individual differences.

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Planes, trains and automobiles

I have used many kinds of transportation throughout the years. I have been lucky enough to be able to use public transport for the better part of my life when I was in Copenhagen or other metropolitan areas. I lived for most of a decade in rural Washington, hitch-hiking wherever I wanted to go. I also used my chair for long distances, and we’re talking pushing for days to get somewhere. Yes, I have been blessed with seeing large parts of the world without utilizing my own motor vehicle.

After having bad a few old beaters and a wonderful motorcycle with a sidecar while still in Washington, I finally broke down when I redeployed to Denmark and got myself a brand spanking new van (partially subsidized.) And I might as well admit it, it was a great feeling being able to move around a lot faster than before. Of course I missed the long summer nights trekking here or there while listening to the birds performing the best they know – but not enough to leave the van behind and go down the road in my chair. And I have really loved being a motorist most of the time.

There is one thing that bothers me to no end though. And that is the fickle nature of non-standard equipment in my van. I don’t know if they make it to break but I have a strong suspicion. I spend more time in the cripple garage than I do in the other garage. The lifts in the two vans I have owned so far have both been of such a nature that they can’t withstand the weather (and I am not just talking about the nasty winters here in Denmark, they are equally bad in the summertime) and if it’s not the weather that is their bane, they just decide to leak hydraulic oil, or the door decides not to open properly (something that seems to happen bi-monthly) and then I am back with the other cripples in the ‘special’ garage, looking at babbling kids with crash helmets used for walking and drooling adults driving their aides mad right before my eyes.

Sitting there it makes me wonder why it is expected that I take the day off for this task. Which immediately makes me think about all the other things I spend my time doing… as a result of my disability. Time at the hospital, time at the apothecary, time on the phone with various government and semi-government agencies, time spent filling out forms for the aforementioned agencies (and God knows they love forms – the more mindless drivel they can put into a form, the better it seems), time spend explaining some 16 year old clerk why I need to speak to one of the aforementioned government employees who actually  knows something and not a 16 year old clerk, time spent fixing and maintaining my wheelchair (or any other piece of equipment that I need for my daily living), time spent hiring, firing and trying to find new aides, time spent keeping track of their salaries and reporting them to the right person.

Then things were a lot easier when I spent my time hitch-hiking around the Western States. Me, my backpack and my sleepingbag tied to the chair. But that was half my lifetime ago and things have changed. However, I still remember the Native American guy who picked me up by Pyramid Lake in Northern Nevada and told me to travel with the hawks while handing me a hawk feather and a pack of cigarettes as a parting gift. And to this day I try to uphold my promise to this wise man and live a life that takes me where it is supposed to.

But boy, it seems difficult when I sit there staring into my coffee cup while contemplating the redundancy of getting something fixed that in reality should just work properly and not break down for the third time in 8 months.

I say, please let me pack a bag. It requires no hawk’s eye to see what direction I would take my flight. I know that and so does she.

Disabled access – dog edition

One of my American friends was denied access to a restaurant yesterday. The excuse for this was that he couldn’t bring his service dog. When he asked, “Why not?”, they answered that some people might be allergic. Not only is this a lame (pun intended) excuse, especially since nobody else was in the establishment, it is also illegal to deny service animals’ entry into places that service the public under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

He is a wheelchair user like me; additionally he relies on his service dog for his daily living. Therefore it is only natural that this dog should be allowed entry into this place. I suffered from the illusion that these dogs naturally were allowed entry wherever their owner went. It is clearly a civil rights violation to deny these dogs entry – not to the dog – but to the owner who rely on them.

In my country the service dog concept is fairly new. However, using guide dogs for the blind is an old tradition, so I was fairly sure that there were specific laws not just allowing these types of dogs in public places along with their owners, but demanding their access. But I was sorely wrong, not to mention disappointed.

There is no provision in my country saying that service dogs automatically have access wherever their owner goes. The only legislation I can find on the subject is a law concerning food handling whereby the proprietor is allowed to let them in if he pleases. This in turn means that he might as well deny them access. Apparently it is totally up to the owner to decide whether the dog – and therefore the disabled person – is welcome in their establishment. So, even if service dogs are allowed in all publicly owned and run places, those places run by private people or corporations are exempt from this rule.

This sort of treatment is clearly discriminatory. Service dogs are essential for many disabled people. If these people didn’t have their dogs they would be in need of human aides. And as far as I know there is no place barring human aides from following the disabled person anywhere (then again, with my level of ignorance in this field I might be equally wrong about this).

I am already severely shameful of my country and its treatment of certain people (e.g. foreigners). This sort of wishy-washy legislation is just another sign of the spineless way our government is treating those who look, act or seem different. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how my friend could have been denied access at a Danish restaurant – even if it was perfectly accessible physically (which would have almost been a miracle to begin with). And I am truly glad to see how American law (at least on paper) does not allow this sort of differential treatment of the disabled. Even though my friend and his dog were denied access to this place illegally the ADA clearly states:

“Under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.”

Which brings us to one of my (many) pet peeves. Why is it that these discriminatory practices are utilized over and over again despite being clearly illegal?

And the simple answer to that is retribution – or lack thereof. The laws concerning human rights and equal treatment of disabled might be reasonably good in many countries I know of. But unless there is a system of justice with reasonable punitive action in place very few people and/or businesses feel the need to do what is necessary to allow equal treatment – why should businesses spend the money or energy on compliance if their lack of action is only shrugged at by the authorities?

To me, it’s pretty simple. If my friend is denied access to this place – either because they truly don’t know the law under which they are doing business, or if they just don’t feel like letting in cripples for whatever reason – then the penalty is too lenient! If the retribution was fair (a.k.a.severe enough) they simply would follow the law.

I am usually not amongst those who believe in severe punishment for criminals. In fact, I am pretty lenient and I strongly believe in re-socializing most criminals. But I have a strong belief in the deterrent effect of reasonable punishment for differential treatment of fellow human beings. I don’t really care if it be monetary or otherwise as long as it’s going to make a difference for the individual doing the discrimination. And I actually believe that is the only way forward if we truly want to make our societies open for all, not just physically but most importantly mentally and emotionally.

Disabled accessibility

…as opposed to accessibility for disabled.

Every day I bump into somewhere that is inaccessible, maybe not to me but then to someone else with a different kind of disability. when I say inaccessible I am not only talking about physical structures like buildings or transport or places like bathrooms. There are many things that are inaccessible as well. It might as well be a website like this one – and to be quite honest, I could be pointing my finger at myself here. I have never explored how my blog is accessible to the blind, for instance. And it could be any other sort of communicative device or medium that most of us take for granted.

Lack of access is not in and of itself discriminatory. I am one of those who have a certain level of understanding when it comes to e.g. historical buildings. I live in a city where they abound and I love living here despite the fact that there are places that I will never be able to visit. But at the same time, to my great delight, I am seeing more and more of them being retrofitted so they are accessible. And to a great extend I also have some compassion for how it is not always possible. There is a very small renaissance royal castle here that would be virtually destroyed if elevators were installed.

I am not so radical that I will demand everywhere completely accessible, to me that is a pipe dream. What really does make my bristles stand on end, though, is when I see how new building designs are made in a fashion where disabled people are forced to use a ‘special’ entrance because they didn’t think accessibility into the design to begin with. I am sure they often do it for aesthetic reasons, but I have yet to see an architect leave out the stairs for those reasons. Most of the time accessibility seems more like an afterthought which means that an elevator or some hideous ramp is ‘glued’ to the backside of the building without being part of the original design. So not only is it mismatched with that sort of thing, it also doesn’t matters that it might take ridiculously long time for the disabled to get into wherever it is they are going. Personally have I seen some pretty funky places when I have gone to some venue, museum or whatever, living quarters, offices, storage rooms, you name it.

So today when I ran across one of these ‘special’ entrances to a fairly new building, I couldn’t help thinking about a relic from my childhood. Growing up in a city where most of the residential buildings are from late 19th and early 20th century, I used to regularly encounter signs at the foot of wide swooping staircases that read something like this:

“Servants, delivery men and children must use the back entrance”

No ‘please’. It was obviously not necessary to be polite to such groups of sub-humans. These entrances would in most cases lead directly into the kitchen that in those days had a purely utilitarian purpose making it crammed and dark and smelly. And they were used for carrying all kinds of stuff up and down from the apartments, like garbage, coal and human waste (before the water closet was invented) I know it was not just in Copenhagen that this sort of signage could be seen, there is a strong tradition in the western world for having undesirables be out of sight unless they were needed. Not to mention all the ones that were not even allowed into our structures.

Making unnecessary special entrances for the disabled is no different than making delivery boys and servants use the back entrance. These sorts of entrances send mixed messages to the community at large. On the one hand are they show the proprietors as being thoughtful of the disabled people who want to use their establishments. On the other hand they are sending a message to the disabled community that even though they need not feel like they aren’t welcome they are not truly valued on equal terms and that their participation is more of an addendum than something that was thought of from the start. And by not being valued as participants we are not really valued as individuals with equal rights.

In some ways this sort of attitude is more insidious than those places both physical and virtual, where there is no accessibility at all. The completely inaccessible places are easily recognized as being discriminatory where these sorts of places are practicing a much more subtle and surreptitious kind of discrimination, one that most people will not even recognize or think about.

After I had passed the place with the hideous elevator addition I knew I would write this blog post. But another project kept nagging me. I felt inspired by the “Servants, delivery men and children must use the back entrance” sign of my childhood. And I thought to myself, why not make a “No disability access” sign that we can put up in those places where we are barred entry for whatever reason? Why not create a universally recognized sign that made it obvious to everybody that we are not welcome?

And immediately I knew what it should look like. Thanks to pictograms people worldwide have a common language for these kinds of things. So I set to it and created my image. As you can see it is pretty simple and I have found no other sign like it anywhere, so I have registered it under a ‘Creative Commons’ license which means that anybody can use it if they wish to.

Disabled, no entry copy

Once I have the time I will have a bunch of stickers made with the image so I can put them up wherever I feel the need for it. So if you want some drop me a note and I will get a bigger order. Otherwise you can always see the pictures I take of the places I will honor with this beautiful pictogram.

Going shopping

So I went to my local supermarket today and it is not just any odd convenience store. No it happens to be the biggest supermarket chain in Denmark, NETTO, which happens to be owned by the wealthiest company in the country, Maersk, which also happens to be the largest shipping company in the world. A company that apparently is too poor to accommodate their disabled customers in a decent and worthy fashion.

I just wanted to buy some groceries and what do I see to my dismay – the one – yes ONE – parking space they have at their store has been invaded. This time not by any of the usual suspects; shopping carts, bicycles, strollers or unauthorized vehicles. No, as a celebration of the coming spring the store has decided to let it be invaded by a floral display. A floral display of all things!

This is the parking space for disabled
This is the parking space for disabled

Not as in a sudden exclamation of peace, love and happiness – after all we’re talking about a commercial outfit that is not necessarily known for their sense of aesthetics. So they are exhibiting the pretty flowers that they are trying to sell at inflated prices to their customers.

What adds insult to injury is that there are about 50 non-disabled parking spaces, most of them completely empty all around this display of cheerfulness. Spaces that could easily have been converted into flower stands if they had so chosen. But that would have meant that the entrance to the door would not have been blocked – and who in their right mind want to see where to enter the store they are going to?Yes, the floral arrangement was in fact so large that it not only blocked the entire disabled parking space as well as the sign for it (God forbid anybody was going to see it and complain) it also blocked the entire entrance to the store.

Now, in their own understanding they did afford some replacement parking. On my way out I saw one of those ‘the floor is wet’ sandwich signs. [check out the pictures] With a tiny little piece of paper saying ‘handic  ap  space’ (yes, it’s true, the paper was so small that they found it wise to divide the word up into ‘handic’ and ‘ap’) This sign was conveniently placed up against some of the flowers in the back and not even close to any of the alternative parking spaces.

Notice the disabled parking sign behind all the shelves
Notice the disabled parking sign behind all the shelves

Ok, I am no idiot, I am certain the little sign had sat close to one of the other parking spaces. But that only makes it even more moronic. First of all, who but the most goodie-goodie old ladies are going to respect such an amateurish attempt at reserving a parking space for others. And secondly, and by far worse, those spaces are not wide enough for anybody with a wheelchair to get out of their vehicle. I own a van with a lift on the side and there is no way in hell I can get out if I try to squeeze into one of those.

So NETTO and Maersk, You better do better. I have decided to spend the next few weekday afternoons at your store, parked right in the driveway that goes by that parking space so your other customers will have a hard time getting past me. I plan on arriving around 3.30 when traffic really picks up and I can easily spent a good 1½ hour browsing your store and end up buying a pack of chewing gum – if I can find one cheap enough.

The 'new' type of signage, hidden away amongst the pretty flowers
The ‘new’ type of signage, hidden away amongst the pretty flowers