Friday, July 27, 2012

Disabled Persons Deserve Better

Yesterday, the American Association of Disabled Persons (AADP) celebrated the 22nd  Anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the sweeping legislation dramatically increased accommodations for the disabled. Alongside the celebration was an awards ceremony, whereby the AADP recognized several people for their work to further the cause.

The event was held at the Cannon House Office Building across from the Capitol. Three flights up is the Cannon Caucus Room. An ornate, high-ceilinged affair, the room was most famously used for some of the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950’s. I half expected for someone to ask: Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

Veteran religion writer Mark Pinsky was presented the 2012 Justice for All award for his most recent book. Entitled Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion, the work tells the stories of over sixty people of faith that have struggled in a world that has little patience and understanding for those who are not able-bodied. My own personal narrative comprises one section of the book; my written words feature prominently in the account. Because of this, I was invited to the ceremony in support of the author. He took great pains to compile stories like mine into one volume, showing a wide spectrum of disability. 

What I observed was not what I expected. What I was privy to was, for all intents and purposes, a partisan pep rally. Only Washington political culture would invent awards to give to people for the sake of giving awards. As prominent figures walked to the podium one by one, I heard mainly self-aggrandizing talk. Washingtonese was the preferred language. Speakers used the lingo and shorthand of a very small, exclusive club where everyone had known each other for years. Bills past and currently under consideration were mentioned as though everyone in room knew of their existence and stated purpose.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina all accepted awards. Each gave a mercifully brief speech. While I heard each speak, I heard lots of excessive self-congratulation and masturbatory commentary. Humility would have been appreciated. Beyond noting lifetime achievement, it was difficult to say why the work of these men needed to be commemorated once again. All three said the right things when it came their turn to speak, but there was a pronounced lack of substance and specificity to what was said.

The gathering took extra effort to define itself as non-partisan, but speakers took pot shots at Republicans for not being amendable to a spirit of partisan cooperation. The ideological makeup of the organization begs an important question. Are Democrats the only legislators and party who care about disability rights? Even with this important distinction, the only politicians who made their way to the podium were staunch Democrats and long-time Washington insiders. They were establishment players, thoroughly dyed in the wool. Most who spoke had made politics their primary career. 

In substantial contrast, Mark Pinsky came to the podium and humbly told of life on the outside, beyond the echo of marble hallways. He mentioned being arrested only a few blocks away for protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for social justice as a young man. He noted that he’d, more recently, participated in the Occupy movement, even when he believed he might be too old to take to the streets once again. The suits wanted to talk about the esoterica of legislation from twenty years before and the important figures they’d known. As is often true, a total disconnect was on prominent display.

AADP’s current goal is to impress to companies the importance of hiring disabled workers. I would have loved to hear some specifics about implementation, but received none. Some might have said that this occasion was not the time or place for an in-depth discussion, but I’ve grown tired of navel gazing Washington politics. Forgive me my skepticism, but I’ve struggled with disability my whole life. Hiring practices have been a severe impediment. I’ve drifted from dysfunctional workplace to dysfunctional workplace because these were the only companies willing to hire me.

One prominent speaker was the CEO of a company who had consented to put more disabled persons on its payroll. As was true with much that I heard, it all sounded impressive. Had I been able to pose a question to him, I’d have asked how he intended to pull this unprecedented challenge off with high unemployment, when even those who do not have significant limiting factors still can’t find jobs. Like any other minority, minority interests are usually the first to be shoved aside while citing the importance of the bottom line.

I’m not the first person to find Washington politics a clubby, incestuous business. Many Americans are inherently cynical on this prescient point, often for good reason. In living here in Washington, DC, for four years, I’ve seen how small and exclusive is the legislative branch. The halls of power, regardless of how seriously its residents take themselves, remind me more of a graduate seminar, or a kind of fraternity or sorority.

If the entire establishment would really seek to look beyond its tunnel vision and need for constant validation and affirmation, reform wouldn’t be paid lip service. Does Congress have such low self-esteem that it needs to be constantly patted on the back? The rights of the disabled are important, but with the current system intact, I’m often surprised much of anything gets done.      

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