A Letter Advocating for Disability Rights

by Laurens R. Hunt

I have been a long time feminist activist. As a person with a disability I have been working closely with disability rights groups to become more involved in feminism. I think that more people with disabilities being involved puts a different face on this movement. My inspiration came from the former National NOW (National Organization for Women) President Patricia Ireland. Ms. Ireland was among one of the first feminists to extensively focus on people with disabilities. My diagnosis is cerebral palsy.

Very often in past generations people with disabilities had not been discussed at all. Going forward I intend to broaden the involvement of women with disabilities. Having more women and men with disabilities involved in the feminist movement will add to strength in numbers for women. Also, having more women and men involved in politics who have disabilities can help shape a better health care system and more realistic portrayals of women who are not exceptionally tall and thin as depicted by countless advertisements. This is equally true of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Trans-Gender, and Queer Communities.

I am mentioning the LGBTQ Community because I try to educate them about the plight of people with disabilities. The most salient organization is PFLAG (Parents of Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays). PFLAG has been very active in promoting the Safer Schools Initiative. When I attend their support group meetings I mention the similarity about bullying people with disabilities. I speak with experience for generational reasons. Just 2 weeks ago I turned 37 years old.

Some of the most hostile and vile language was most accepted when I was attending grammar school. In June 1986 I completed the sixth grade. In those days it was considered fashionable and almost en vogue to refer to people with disabilities as “retarded” and “crippled,” but it did not stop there. It was common to refer to a student who wore glasses as “four eyes”. The joke for people with epilepsy was “hold my milk, I want a milkshake”. I experienced another layer of this.

A decade earlier I underwent a nearly life ending ear operation. In August 1976 when I turned 3 years old I had part of my right middle ear removed. The correct medical term is known as mastoid. It is easy to confuse a mastoid removal with tumor growth, which more than thankfully I did not have. Anyone seeing my right ear will know that this part is missing. I have known some students later on in high school refer to this as a car garage. Two years later was my left leg operation also during August in 1978 when I turned 5 years old.

My left heel chord had been lengthened. This was because I had been successfully walking as a toddler, but my left heel was a few inches off the ground. With much more sophisticated studies known over 30 years later the imbalances of ones weight on each leg leads to many kinds of hip and even back problems. Thankfully this was corrected early on when I was very young. Just like my right ear jokes had been made about the way I walk, and that was when I would hear “What are you a cripple (or retard)?” Again many of these epithets came during high school. In later years much of this same treatment emanated not so much from these harsh comments but more from abusive professional decisions.

Nowadays these words are not heard nearly as often. There is extensive outreach in the community of people with disabilities to stamp out the word retarded. I can say that use of the word “retarded” can be accurate when referring to Downs-Syndrome and similar diagnosis. What has become lost is that it is better to stop the use of certain words instead of training people with disabilities to be self-reliant. The job that I currently have working at the Hudson County Government is clerical and considered sheltered employment.

The belief is that people with disabilities cannot function and serve in management. The labor malpractice laws make words such as “retarded” and “cripple” considered as harassment because of their harshness. However, the thinking has changed very little. The people I see with disabilities have clerical and secretarial roles, not managerial and supervisory positions. The gist that I am getting at is that in lieu of the name calling is the job discrimination. I have been denied multiple promotions after having completed a dual MBA from the Baruch CUNY Zicklin School of Business in May 2006. The areas of studies were in Finance and Human Resources Management.

I have been unable to get any cooperation from my local union while being required to pay annual dues of 2 % of my salary. The job that I have has no advancement potential. There are vocational centers, but they are fixated on placing people with disabilities in clerical and secretarial roles. They focus more on promoting their agenda rather than helping place clients. The only exception I will make to some of these observations is that some of the counselors have had disabilities themselves. I did know one vocational worker nearly a decade ago who has cerebral palsy as I do. Still the senior management is operated by people without disabilities.

During this period the Lilly Ledbetter Act has been passed. Lead women’s groups have accurately complained that even now women make less than 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. In fact, in some professions women still make closer to 60 cents on the dollar. For people with disabilities, the percentage tends to often be closer to half of this 60 or 80 cents on the dollar. The rate of unemployment is the highest for people with disabilities during both economic recessions and expansions alike. During the 8 years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency the rate of employment for people with disabilities climaxed at only 25%, and this was considered a good reason to celebrate for many in the non-disabled community who were oblivious to this egregiously low percentage. As most of the voting citizenry knows, this was touted as the United States’ longest peacetime expansion ever.

Another major issue is the media portrayal of people with disabilities. Respective disability rights activists groups tend to be very isolated with low attendance. The issues hence receive less focus and attention, and therefore those of us who have disabilities get less positive and less frequent media coverage. The perception for many of the clients and members in these organizations is that we are feeble, uneducated, uneducable, and non-ambulatory. Therefore it is automatically accepted that we are in need of help and we can’t think for ourselves. This is just as slanderous as the bombardment of emaciated female model photos used in all forms of marketing media for a different set of reasons. This behavioral pattern creates a vicious cycle for two main reasons. Many of the vocational counselors without disabilities inexorably claim they are helping clients in their career goals but in fact are hindering them. What’s worse is that they get angry and defensive when those of us with the disabilities complain and point to the fact that we are being hurt, not helped by these actions.

In conclusion, name calling is always painful. The important life lesson is that actions always speak louder than words. Abusive language is never acceptable, but actions are what have the greatest and longest lasting impact. Because women, people with disabilities, the LBGTQ communities, and people of color know this all too well, we have to command respect and equitable treatment from our elected officials and service agencies. The same thing is true for media representation. Unfortunately this professionalism will not happen without insisting on it. Each one of us is a taxpayer and voter, and we cannot afford to forget that we pay for our public services and the outside media.

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