“Oh man I would love to stay for the meeting but I think I should go lie down.” It’s a Wednesday afternoon in a hot and dark conference room at the Hilton and I’m in the midst of trying to protect my reputation. Two consults that have disabilities are getting ready to present a study that suggests that young people with disabilities have trouble understanding how Social Security and Medicare work. The committee I am on has paid these women a few thousand dollars to figure out this “shocking” piece of information. Rather than risk going off on a “gee you people in the ivory towers need money to figure this out?“ rant, I go to my room shaking my head in utter disbelief .
It’s not like I wouldn’t relish the chance to mock these speakers to their face, it’s just that my mouth had gotten me in trouble enough that week. I am at a conference of people who run support programs for students with disabilities in institutions of higher education, and I’m doing my best to annoy everyone. After about half the room walked out or laughed at a presentation about mental health services, I asked people why our community was so scared of discussing mental health. Then I asked a nationally known presenter one question too many (( i only asked him two questions) and was told he would happy to talk with me if I paid him a consultant fee of $250 an hour. Combine this interaction with my Zen-like passion for talking about sex and disability and you get a guy who will never get a key note speaker or a high priced consultant job because he does not know how to shut up.
As I try to make amends for my radicalism by leaving Wednesday’s meeting early, I spot another committee member, Sammy, in his three piece suit sitting silently. In fact, for the week Sammy sat silently through the whole conference, only speaking to remind presenters “to listen to everyone’s voice and to do something to inspire the next generation,” along with other lines crafted by Hallmark. After these Hallmark moments Sammy gets “ohh” and “you’re so right” from the proper disability advocates in business suits, while I get Joyce in a tie-dye shirt telling me about her time in Berkley in the 60s.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate Joyce’s stories of campus activism, but I secretly want the men in ties and the women in high heels saying, “here’s my card I might have something for you“ rap that Sammy gets. Try as I might, I can’t rival the blindness of Sammy, who makes Larry King look like the most outspoken guy on the planet.
My friends at the conference are unaware of Sammy’s ability to conduct himself as a moderate politician at every session. For example, one day a group of us are having lunch and talking about papers we are writing for school. When Sammy’s turn comes, he turns bright red and whispers that he is writing about how youth learn about sex. The way he whispers and his explanation that his instructor wouldn’t let him out of writing the paper sends shirks of laughter around the table. Poor Sammy must have been worried that one of the people in business suits might see him talking about sex education in public.
A few months later, I am with Sammy at a conference and another disability rights leader asks him “are you a super crip?” Just like the talk at the restaurant this question leaves Sammy flustered. He shrugs his shoulders and comes out with some rationale about how people perceive him to be one but he really is not. The leader and I both exchange knowing glances, yes Sammy is a of the , in fact he might be the king of the group.
For those lost in the last paragraph, a super crip is a person who believes that any challenges they face as a disabled person can be overcome by their will to succeed . Many of them reject the notion that society discriminates against people with disabilities. If a person is being mistreated then they fix their situation by trying harder.
Some super crips believe that the disabled community is partly to blame for not giving people enough incentives to reach their goals. Sammy often alludes to being the only one wanting to help people reach their goals, while others in the community are content to baby the person. In the mind of super crips, self-reliance is the ultimate goal. One organization, the National Federation of the Blind, has even sought to remove yellow strips from the edge of train platforms, arguing that blind people should be able to tell when they’re about to become “human road kill” for trains.
While it’s fine to believe in these ideals personally (and dream of a day when your safety is put at risk), super crips generally find avenues to share their message of positivity and individual reliance with the world. I was at a conference last month and a man who was about 3 foot 5, with no hands spoke about the discrimination he faced during his life. His message was simple “if you don’t succeed with getting somebody to see your potential, keep trying because someone always will.”
Come again? So if one of my friends is blind and employers can’t understand that she is capable of doing a job, she should continue her quest till she finds her employer “soul mate?” What happened to using the ADA or getting some disability advocates to point out that this is discrimination. No employer should be able to wallow in their own ignorance because there is always a more “open mined person out there.”
Why do I have this feeling that California Governor Jerry Brown’s office is trying to contact this man right now. “Hey disabled people who need in home help, there is always an attendant who is willing to work for crappy wages and few hours. Hey maybe that attendant will like it so much, they will be willing to spend extra hours with you for free. If you can’t find that attendant you just keep looking because there’s one out there for you.”
The thought that this guy gets paid to deliver a feel good message of self-reliance is particularly scary when our services are under attack. It is disconcerting that some business leaders benefit greatly when our services get fed this piece of feel good crap, or when our community doesn’t shut him down.
Like this man, Sammy has offers to speak to these non-disabled audiences. While I have not seen him speak, based on my interactions with him the message is most likely on self reliance and dreams, stuff that is easy to stomach by the black suits coming up to him at meetings. However, Sammy and “find the right person” guy are going to find out that self reliance won’t help if airlines can refuse to accommodate wheelchairs, or if new hotels can be built without wheelchair accessible rooms. See, the Americans with Disabilities Act was put in place by a community of people, and can be taken away by another group of people. By talking about self reliance you may be helping to eliminate the laws that give you the opportunity to speak.
However, there is hope for all the super crip speakers out there through the unlikeliest of men, Christopher Reeve. In the book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser writes about a corporate speakers event where he saw Reeve. Speaker after speaker talked about individual pride and wealth accumulation. When Reeve spoke, he warned the crowd about being so caught up in the game of making money that you forget to see others as sources of support. Reeve admitted that he had isolated himself from others after his accident and didn’t think he could repair the damage. The speech confused and angered some in the crowd, but it was nice that he began to admit that he turned away from a community that needed him.
Over the years I have thought, like Reeve, that I don’t need a disability community, but then I remember that people still see me as different. Last night I was on the bus and a man asked me for help. As I was answering he said, “sorry I didn’t know you can’t talk or walk good.” That comment was annoying, stupid, and hurtful. I must turn to my community for support to make sure others don’t face this crap. If I was to follow Mr. Super Crip’s advice I might still be on the street looking for a city bus that doesn’t have idiots as passengers.