Observations from Below: Why Can’t we be Friends?

Some weeks ago, I went to Raleigh for a meeting. After the meeting, I went out a restaurant with a colleague. We wound up having a conversation about friendships. My colleague had noticed a trend about advocates, which is that we don’t tend to hang out socially although we work very well together.

I found the conversation thought-provoking because it is true. I have more friends who are able-bodied than friends who have disabilities. On one level this makes sense. Throughout my school career, except pre-school, I was mainstreamed, meaning I took classes with my non-disabled peers instead of special education classes. Because I took classes with non-disabled classmates, I have over time became more comfortable spending time with them than with people I arguably have more in common with.

I’ve written a previous blog about how my mom felt that she didn’t want me to be around those “handicapped” kids. Her attitude is what delayed me from started school at the earliest possible time. I instead was enrolled a year late. I think somehow, I took on my mom’s mindset, so for a long time, I avoided friendships and in fact, made fun of my classmates in middle school who I later befriended and advocated for.

I’m not the only person with disabilities to have this attitude. Just yesterday, I watched a movie called “Warm Springs,” about President Franklin Roosevelt, and his adjustment to his disability, which was Polio, in case you didn’t know. There’s a poignant scene when more patients come down to Georgia because they read about FDR’s treatment in the newspaper. When FDR sees all the people like him in wheelchairs just like him, he rolls himself away as fast as he can. Tom Loyless walks up to him and confronts him, pointing out that Franklin had the same look when he looked at the other patients that he got from other people who looked down upon him. I’ll come back to the topic of Warm Springs shortly.

The actions depicted in the scene are not made up. I had a friend in college who also has CP. We had an interesting relationship. Some days, we’d be friendly, and other days, we would not talk to each other. Not to be too deep about it, but I think maybe we were afraid to be seen together for too long, because others might see us, and we both wanted to project images of being “normal.”

History has taught me that if I want to make a change as an advocate, this attitude is a problem.

FDR was one of the first people to recognize the benefits of people with disabilities spending time with one another and learning from one another. Warm Springs is one of the only places he was not afraid to show his disability because he was among others with Polio. The movie I talked about before does a good job showing the benefits of his stay there.

Later, people with disabilities in San Francisco had a similar experience and used it for very effective political activism. In 1977, there was a sit-in to enforce the first Civil Rights law dealing with disability, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which contained one sentence at the end which barred discrimination on the basis of handicap from any institution which received federal funding. The government had no idea of the power that small sentence. And when they started to figure it out, several administrations dragged their feet on drawing up regulations which would enforce the bill.

So, people with disabilities finally had enough and took things into their own hands. The sit-in in San Francisco remains the longest peaceful demonstration in the Federal Building in the history of the United States. It was either 25 or 28 days, depending on how the days are counted.

Arguably more important law that came out of the demonstration was the understanding that people with disabilities needed to include all types of disabilities in their advocacy, and learn from one another. Earlier this Spring, we saw this model of advocacy again, when the attempts to repeal the ACA was defeated three times. Unfortunately, there is some bad policy in the tax bill that did pass. But I don’t think we need to give up on the Social Model and the idea of working together. That’s why I’m excited to mention that the North Carolina Empowerment Network is now very close to being a bona fide advocacy network. We’ve just elected our first set of officers, which means we are very close to being able to do actual work. We’re still working out a few things., but I am encouraging all my readers to keep an eye on the NCEN, and join when the time comes.

While the tax bill does represent a major defeat for disability policy, it also shows us why we need to be engaged and be good partners in policy making to borrow a term from the famous set of classes. While I am disappointed, I am not ready to give up hope. It’s not about bad-mouthing one party over another because there have been times in the past both have been helpful regarding disability rights. We need to engage with each other and with our representatives on every level of government to make sure they don’t enact some bad policies without meaning to. I might be naïve, but I have been to Washington, and I don’t feel they are trying purposely to hurt us. I think it is more of a misunderstanding of the implications of what they are doing. So, I will continue to educate and inform them. I hope you will do the same.

That’s how I roll.

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