One of the things about “The Wall” that I think makes it so powerful is that it highlights oppression, discrimination, and inequality that is far too often not highlighted in our society. It takes lifts the veil from people’s eyes about the role we all play in prejudice, bigotry, and hate. I feel so confident in saying this not only because of the people who have described to me the ways in which the workshop changed their lives, but because my life was changed, my eyes were opened, when Terry Smith, the original creator of The Wall, first asked me to join him in tearing down the walls of hate in my life.
Yet for all of its ability to highlight the struggles of those so often ignored or caste aside in our society, it is incredibly flawed. There is only so much that I can talk about in that time. One thing that I never give quite the airtime that it deserves is the issue of Able-ism, thinking of or treating someone as less than yourself due to their being differently-abled. Well, if there is anything that highlighted the importance of bringing able-ism to light, it was my experience at HOBY South Dakota a few weeks ago. I knew that there would be a lot of new staff at this seminar that I had not met, partially because I had taken a year off from this seminar and partially because I had heard there was an influx of new people working there this year. When I arrived, I was quickly introduced to Kati Seymour. Now, upon meeting Kati, I should have been overwhelmed with excitement about how much she can bring to the table. She was funny and energetic and outgoing. Instead of thinking this way, though, I immediately questioned her ability to facilitate effectively the learning experience of 10 or 11 high school students. I hate admitting this, but I questioned her ability because Kati is in a wheel chair.
After leaving the seminar, I wrote to Kati, asking her permission to write this blog post, and it has taken me a bit of time and reflection to feel ready to write it. You see, I have spent a lot of time working through my own issues of racism and sexism, but I can honestly say that I have not spent nearly enough time thinking about my own able-ism, and meeting Kati really lifted MY veil in the way that I know that the Wall can do for others. Why on earth would I even consider that her being in a wheel chair might make her any less of a facilitator? Frankly, that notion is absurd! If anything, perhaps, as she and I briefly discussed at the seminar, it could be an asset because in addition to the many ways that HOBY encourages young people to think differently, Kati helped those young people think differently about ability. After all, when you travel together and work together at the seminar as a small HOBY family, it likely opens the eyes of many student ambassadors to the realities of having a disability when a member of that family is differently-abled. Kati made me laugh as she relayed how her group suddenly had to change the way they think when the group really wanted to go up a steep grass hill for small group time. Kati told her group, “Sure! We can go up there, but you might need to be prepared to pick my ass up off the ground!” To most of us able-bodied people, we go where we want and do what we want without considering the way that much of our world, frankly, is not accessible to those who are differently-abled!
After all, though Dakota Wesleyan Univerity were gracious, wonderful hosts for the seminar, they were not exactly ADA-compliant and accessible throughout all of the campus. The showers and bathrooms in the dorm where the entire seminar was staying were not accessible. Kati’s wheel chair could not fit through the doors, so Kati had to travel across campus to use the restroom or shower. That, unfortunately, led to her being stranded in the building where the showers she could use were located as a huge rainstorm settled in. These are all things that I never have to think about . . . yet another incredible privilege that I have in my life that I too often take for granted.
Basically, I wanted to use this space to not only acknowledge one way in which I know I need to improve, but I wanted to also thank Kati. I want to thank Kati for being an INCREDIBLE facilitator! I want to thank Kati for jumping right in to the HOBY family! I want to thank Kati for helping to open my eyes to my own able-ism, and I want to thank Kati for being so incredibly supportive as I looked to publicly share my struggle with my own able-ism on this blog.
I will leave you with some words that Kati wrote in an essay she recently wrote about how we still manage to allow able-ism to be socially acceptable when so many other forms of prejudice, bigotry, and hate have become taboo.
The word retarded “destroys the dignity of our most innocent. [It is] the most hateful word in the English language. I don’t understand why we use the word; I don’t think I ever will. In such an era of political correctness, why is retard still ok? Why do we allow it? Why don’t we stop it?
Maybe people can’t handle stopping. I bet most of you would throw a fit if the word faggot, nigger, even Negro heard in public, but how many of you just accept the word retard?
No matter what I achieve in life, I will always be the butt of some immature kid’s jokes. I will always be the butt of some mature kids jokes; I will always be the butt of some adults joke. By no fault of my own, I will spend my entire life being stared at and judged.
People with disabilities are every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. It is the one minority group that you can join in a split second and as the population ages the group grows exponentially every year. So, how do you include everyone? Change your attitude; change your vernacular.
Attitudes are often bigger barriers to creating inclusive communities than physical barriers. I understand that to my Grandma Edyth, I will always be a cripple. To my Dad, I’ll be handicapped. Those labels are generational. So, technically I don’t care what exactly you attach to my wheelchair usage. Just call me Kati, and see me as a person. A person who like ALL others deserves to be respected for positively contributing to making the world a better place.”
I ask you to join Kati and me in not only eliminating “retarded” from my vocabulary, but I ask you to join us in seeing our differently-abled brothers and sisters as just that . . . our brothers and sisters in this beautiful struggle for justice.
Peace be the Journey