The Conference on World Affairs takes on the topic of pity.
The Conference on World Affairs is not an action related conference with policy-makers, officials and agents; but it is more of a contemplative conference that simply gives attendees the chance to think about issues. This year I was excited to see the topic “No Pity: The Evolution of Disability Pride,” as a CWA session on Wednesday.
Many people in the disability community are very familiar with committees, task forces, boards and work groups that aim to get things done but are short on action. It may be hard to attend a conference that professes contemplation over action. Like most people I cannot help but think that my local community needs to be more committed to action; and my state, the nation and the world to have more accomplishment and less pondering. As a matter of fact, I am a strong believer in the “do-it, fix it” philosophy over contemplative action, because I strongly feel that often our thinking about all aspects before we act can stagnate any action.
However, a topic like Disability Pride can use more thought. The CWA panel included Rick Guidotti, a fashion photographer, Henry Butler a musician and Michael Bérubé an author and professor. Cindy Donahue was the moderator. Overall, I was impressed the topic of disability pride made it on the program and I liked the perspectives of the panel.
Rick Guidotti told of his experience as a photographer in a foreign rural village where he was told that photography was taboo. Because of the warning, he believed he was just going to speak to the villagers about pride and images of disability; but before he could finish speaking, a mother held up her child and said: “Show the world the beauty of my son!”
Henry Butler noticed from his experience working with children at a music camp that everyone is a vehicle of creativity. He explained that pity was actually a reflection of how a person feels about themselves rather than a characteristic of the person being pitied.
Michael Bérubé explained in his opening comments how the Disability Rights movement is largely unknown by the typical American. He compared our movement to the Gay Rights Movement and asked when there would be a chic television show called “Crip-Eye for the AB Guy;” in the same fashionable trendy style as “Queer-Eye for the Straight Guy.” His main point was that although Disability Pride was evident in some ways, there was still significant stigmatization of disability in the community.
In the discussion among the panelists they all developed the stigma as a theme that opposed the progress of Disability Pride. Humor was one method that society has for reducing stigma and Bérubé suggested that disability comedy would help to reduce social stigmas.
One question from the audience was about access for people who are deaf. The questioner pointed out that the CWA would cost her $500 a day for access with American Sign Language Interpreters. She also said that disability groups, many who are non-profits do not readily pay for access to their events.
The panel was united that the CWA should provide interpreters at all sessions. But they explained some of the limitations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Michael Bérubé said that at the time, during the administration of George H.W. Bush, one aspect of the ADA to make it more bipartisan was the goal to “get people off government assistance.” This aspect has made paying for access problematic over the years and has left many people out including the Deaf.
Another obvious weakness of the ADA is that it was not followed by universal healthcare. This unbalanced governmental program draws a line between healthy workers and non-workers rather than providing ways for everyone to be involved in the workforce. Social Security defines disability as being unable to work, while the ADA defines disability functionally and requires reasonable accommodations.
Guidotti’s advice was to transition anger into advocacy and persistence. He said when you find yourself settling everyday you must be the one to tell yourself to stop compromising. “You stop and say: ‘I am not going to compromise.’”
The panelists used another question to deal with the r-word. Many in the disability community had opposed the movie Tropic Thunder because of the use of the r-word in a satirical format. Bérubé made the case that the movie had worked with the NAACP to assure that the African-American community would not reject a white actor in blackface. But for the disability community the joke was not good and the satire was not clear.
“Retarded is back in vogue, the Black Eyed Peas big hit ‘Let’s Get It Started;’ was originally titled ‘Let’s Get Retarded,’” Michael Bérubé, a professor at Penn State said. “While ‘retarded’ can be fashionable, the word ‘retard’ is personal.”
There were also topics at the CWA on PTSD, Alzheimers and Dementia that related to disability; but I did not have a chance to attend those conversations. I attended sessions on healthcare, social media, homelessness and addiction that can relate to disability and I like the chance to consider the many ideas on these topics.
But as I return to meetings and work-groups that get together to get things done, I hope that everybody I work with will take time to think about the “big picture” of what we are ultimately trying to do. I hope that our determining the best course of action to take will not lead to an endless loop of contemplation, but we will balance the thought with thoughtful action to really make a difference for people with disabilities in our community.