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A member of the disability apartheid

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Elizabeth McClung | 06:41 UK time, Monday, 20 August 2007

What surprised me this week was not just the awareness of a disability apartheid, but the short space of time it had taken me to completely accept that I too did not deserve equal access. I was jolted awake with last week’s article in Japan Today about a judge in Kobe District Court who dismissed a case for compensation by Masayuki Ota, a 37 year old man with “brain paralysis” (or what we know as Cerebral Palsy). Ota, after buying a ticket on Singapore Airlines was refused airplane entry at Kanasi international airport because of his “disabilities to his limbs and in speaking ability.” Ota had obviously bought the ticket, gone to the airport, and gone through some of the check-in when, two hours before the flight, his visible disability was noted and he was denied entry to the flight. The judge said that the captain and flight crew must “have a common view” on what to do in an emergency. Or rather, seeing someone with CP, the flight crew didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how much help Ota would need, was not trained in giving that help, and decided the solution to the problem was to force it back on Masayuki Ota (in denying him the right of equal access to goods and services) rather than change the organizational structure.

Having been on planes with people who speak almost a dozen different languages (none of which matched the safety announcements), I find the excuse of “safety in times of emergency” to be laughable. The fact is, you can be too drunk to stand up while on an airplane (as I was once when I got bumped to first class and went crazy on free champagne) much less find an escape hatch and still have no problem from the staff. But if your limbs twitch and you slur your words on boarding however...... As for “special attention” there is always at least one person who pushes the “crew attention” button within three minutes of boarding (and every 4 minutes thereafter), but again, they don’t have speech difficulties and a visable disability.

Admittedly, this event occurred in Japan, a country where the government poll earlier this year found that almost 83% of those polled say there is discrimination against the disabled even though over 33% of the respondents had disabled relatives. Or as stated (without irony) in the comments; “Disabled people just need to learn, like women, elderly, foreigners and the infirm that all they need to do is learn to "be normal" and they won't notice these problems any more.” Errrrr...yeah.

Two statements regarding Masayuki Ota’s case struck home. The first was from a comment on the article (like the BBC’s comment system), where a person stated about the airline, “they are not running an air ambulance service. The next thing you know quadriplegics will expect the same consideration”. While Ota’s lawyer said, “disabled people cannot move freely if it is necessary for them to notify in advance each time what disorders they have”.

These two statements struck home because I have so often encountered the first attitude, and only now realized how much I had accepted the second. I am so used to being left behind by wheelchair accessible buses whose drivers don’t want to ask able bodied people to move for me that I don’t even bother complaining (not after the training manager informed me he told his drivers they could leave wheelchairs behind in “some” circumstances). Indeed, when I go to a restaurant and am told that the two tables in the entire establishment I could have used are full and I will have to wait and hour or more (though the restaurant is half empty), I now consider it my fault for not notifying them in advance.

I moved from the UK before they had passed a law ensuring that people could not deny goods or services based on sexual orientation. And you should have heard my screaming every time someone told Linda or I, “No, can’t do it, not for you” because we were lesbians. If last year, someone had told me, “Sorry, tall females can’t eat/shop/get haircuts/get beauty treatments/exercise here” I would have run to the papers with a strange glint of righteous fury in my eye. These days, because I can’t run anywhere, getting told that about twice a day is normal. Wednesday, when I went to the mall I was told by one store clerk, “This isn’t a store for wheelchairs to come in” and I was like, “Okay.” (Remember, I live in Canada; no disability laws here). If I don’t give advance notice AND a doctor’s note, I don’t get to use the gym or board a plane. I was talking to my physiotherapist about getting a doctor’s note for the BC ferry system to use their first aid bed while on board and she told me not to do it because “then they (BC Ferries) might decide to ban you from using their ferries.” That’s not something you want to hear when you live on an island. I’ve been banned from gyms, I’ve been turned down by agencies which transport people to medical appointments after being told I would have to hire the car and an RN at my expense. I agreed. They then decided, “It wasn’t worth the risk.”

So why do the same gyms which turn me away have subsidized exercise programs for people recovering from a heart attack; the same gyms who allow type A personality “heart attacks waiting to happen” people to come and do what they please without a blink of an eye? And these are the gyms which require me to have authorization from a doctor, AND the head of the gym AND the athletic director? But more important, why do I think that is normal? Talk as much as you want about a social model of disability or a society not able or willing to see and treat disabled as equal; but at what point did people under apartheid accept that it was “just the way things were.” Why is it my responsibility to tell everyone everywhere I wish to go in order to ask permission from them first? And when, in just six short months, did this become something I don’t even think about anymore?

The overwhelming majority of comments on the airline article support the airline in not allowing the man with CP on board, including comments from airline crew staff. One crew member asks; how am I, a woman, supposed to help him wipe himself in the bathroom? Another wants to know how Ota could think about foisting the responsibility on others when it was HIS role to find someone to accompany him. It was? Under what law does being disabled mean the person with the disability is required to find themselves “a keeper?” Particularly when it is so clear that those commenting (and likely those on the flight) had no idea of what different disabilities there are, much less that disability needs are individual. “The next thing you know quadriplegics will expect the same consideration”: Ignoring that the comment seems to put quadriplegics on the same level as certain animals; as the videos on Wheelie Catholic’s site show, not only is a quadriplegic quite capable of doing their own shopping (see Aug. 4th) and making pizza (depending on site of spinal injury) but I realized that depending on my condition that day, they are far more capable in some, perhaps many respects, than I am. If through one blog, I can educate myself for free, why is it that the people earning money from a disabled person’s airline ticket cannot?

Let me give you another example. I subscribe to Shojo Beat, a “girl manga” magazine (yes, I know it is aimed at 17-18 year olds – isn’t everything interesting?). They are running a contest ending Aug 27th called “Design a Beat Girl” challenging artists to draw their idea of the Shojo Beat female reader. In the July 07 issue announcing the contest, under the main title, runs in bold the subtitle: SB seeks able-bodied artist to portray spokesperson”. My reaction was, “Oh well, guess the fact that this Shojo Beat reader is in a wheelchair excludes her; weird.” Why did the magazine require the artists to be “able-bodied?” But more importantly, why did I just accept it? If it had read “Magazine seeks Caucasian artists only” I would have been livid. There was no article that ran later retracting the headline. And why would there be when even their disabled artist reader could only come up with a “shucks!” level of indignation.

The very first brainwave decision I had after being confined to the wheelchair was to take up indoor rock climbing (It was half denial, half reaffirmation). I called three climbing gyms; only one would take me. Basically, I’m paying someone $30-40 an hour to hold the end of a rope for me, so what does it matter if I am using 2 limbs or 4 to go up that wall? But obviously to some it did. So I sighed and went to the one place that said I could come.

Where the heck did my self affirming identity go? Why would I still be outraged today if someone denied or restricted me because of my sexual orientation but would placidly accept the same treatment if they said the magic words; “you’re disabled”? I may say that being disabled doesn’t mean someone is half human, or sub-human or less a person than someone else, but I obviously don't believe those things about myself. The proof is in the stories, in all the times I have and still let someone (let’s face it, pretty much ANY able-bodied person) tell me I can’t eat there, or shop there, or work there, or even stop and rest there. Or what about the dozens of times I have seen that panicked face of someone looking at me, my chair, my oxygen tube before telling me “You are too sick for us/here” and then accepting it quietly as my just due?

Seriously, what is wrong with me? And how do I change it? Every time I accept being treated as less than an equal I am reflecting back the ignorance and prejudice I have absorbed from those around me. Why do I allow them to make their inflexibility about disability my problem? If I start acting as if I am an equal person, will I also start to believe it about myself? Please, tell me this passivity has a cure.

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Comments

I have lived with mental disabilities since early childhood and became physically disabled in an accident 15 years ago. To this day I am just flabbergasted at some of the things I've seen and endured. I have just started working on creating a blog for disabled artists (visual- paintings, digital art, etc.) to try to help others like me to show some of what we create and offer the world. http://disabledartists.blogspot.com/ for any that would like to visit though it is just a few of mine till other disabled artists find out about it.

For anyone that would like to read journal entries as to some of what I as a disabled person face as I try to build a life for myself, click on my personal blog link (where I post such entries).

I was just thinking today, on your point about the ignorance and prejudice out there that is limiting - about how lately I've noticed myself saying to people "Why not?" when they tell me I can't/shouldn't do something. It really evokes interesting reactions but in a way I don't care about that. It feels affirming to me to just say those two words.

"You can't do that (with your disability)(because of your disability) (because of my reaction to your disability)."
"Why not?"

The first few years are hard. No matter our physical/mental status, we learn that disability or impairment = social death. It's hard for a ghost to speak up for herself!


Laura Hershey is disability rights activist who has answered your exact question with a fabulous poem I read whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by the disability apartheid.

You can read all of You Get Proud by Practicing at her website, www.cripcommentary.com. Here are the first two stanzas:

If you are not proud
for who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
if every time you stop
to think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
with golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can
get proud.

You do not need

a better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.

to be proud.

You do not need

a lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.

You do not need

to be able to walk, or see, or hear,

or use big, complicated words,

or do any of the things that you just can't do

to be proud. A caseworker

cannot make you proud,

or a doctor.

You only need

more practice.

You get proud

by practicing.

Randall: Thanks for working to break down the barriers - I have a feeling there are a lot of stories out there.

Ruth: "Why Not?" - hey, I'll try it.

Jesse the K: I like that line "It's hard for a ghost to speak up for herself" - great encapsulation. Thanks for the poem - I'm going to get practicing.

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