A Whole New World

When I did my undergraduate degree, I had a bit of a reputation for being radical (so I discovered later). There were a bunch of political stickers on the back of my wheelchair and I possessed some fairly left-leaning opinions (I know – big surprise). The radical bit surprised me - when I lived in Denmark, I wasn't very ‘political’. Which means, I had opinionated stickers on the back of my chair, impassioned debates and even attended a demonstration or two. I remember one of them very fondly - it was an evening demonstration, early in December. The snow was falling and we marched through the dark streets of Copenhagen carrying torches - it was beautiful. (And for the smartasses among you, no. there were no pitchforks and no, we didn't burn the monster) But in comparison to many of my peers, that wasn’t very politically active.

Later, in Canada, I was always somewhat involved in 'the disability thing'. It was a subject of interest - not the only subject that interested me, but something that I wrote essays about, read about, talked about. And when I started working, one of my responsibilities was to run a committee that was trying to make the workplace more accessible and I was therefore also plugged into a number of community initiatives regarding disability and accessibility. And I didn't always like it much. Apart from being the only person with a visible disability in this rather large workplace (we made jokes about the token cripple), the only community initiatives I could find at the time was in the awareness field.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with disability awareness, but in environments where it is unsupported by legislation, it can get weirdly rah-rah and almost condescending at times. The disability simulations might be fun, but I doubt they work - 20 minutes in a wheelchair or wearing a pair of goggles won’t magically change people's perception for longer than maybe a day - and awareness days felt like the way for the able-bodied people in charge to feel all proud of how inclusive and open-minded they were. Well, at least for a day or maybe a week. After that, we were expected to go back on the periphery, happily sucking up the discrimination. I often had the nagging feeling that we, like Oliver Twist and others considered “less fortunate”, politely, cheerfully and with great decorum asked “please, sir, can we have some more?” – more access, more understanding, more participation. Powerless, waiting for the powerful to deign to grant us privileges, instead of rights. And as we all know, privileges can be taken away if you’re not a good little boy or girl or if the powers that be decide that there isn’t enough money. Which is why we need legislation and which is why the employment rate of people with disabilities (never high) plummeted after Mike Harris scrapped the employment equity legislation. But that's a post for another day.

To make a long story… er, longer, I never really felt quite at home in either of these areas. It was all just a little too polite, y'know? There certainly is a place for manners, patience, cheerfulness, decorum, education (and education and education and education, ad nauseam), but working within the system like that... I did accomplish certain things, especially in terms making the workplace more accessible, but it didn't allow for the full reality of my experience. So when I lost my job (see above re: Mike Harris), I drifted away from the disability field.

And these days, I find myself accidentally being back in it, except now, it's a place where I feel more at home. There is a balance between the academic, educational, etc., but thanks to the Internet and to blogging, I've now tapped into places where people are living their lives unapologetically, in-your-face, a place with edge, sarcasm, humour, demands for rights and oh yes, spitting rage. A place where there is not only hope and working for a better future, but also real sharing of real lives, not just the accepted surface. Balance. And I like it a lot. Don't always agree with everybody, but that's a great thing about it - there's actual diversity. People are only polite and cheerful if that’s how they feel, not because they have to be. And that’s pretty radical.

There is the Ragged Edge magazine. Podcasts from Disability Nation (American – haven’t listened yet, but they look good) and Ouch! (from the BBC and very funny). There is Disability Studies at Temple University - always interesting and get this: there is a graduate program in disability studies! Holy crap! And then there are the people who blog. Arthritic Young Thing writes in one week about the feeling of shame when receiving public assistance and in many ways, she reminds me of myself, not just when I was younger, but about the issues I think about today. PlayfulFairy at Sexability writes about disability and sex, there’s The Gimp Parade and all these sites have links to other sites and I know how I’m going to spend the down time between Christmas and New Year’s: catching up, reading and finding out more about how things have changed.