Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Open Letter to Obama

President-Elect Obama,

I was among the millions stirred by your victory speech the night of November 4, heartened by your call for the contributions of every American, including the "disabled and the not disabled." I was so excited that I immediately blogged about it.

Since then, I've been thinking about your invitation. It wasn't specific, which is entirely appropriate since you have no way of knowing what each individual may be able to bring to the table. What can I do, what special insight might I have? More generally, what can disabled people offer a country that often thinks of disabled folks as nothing more than an unfortunate expense? Now, since your bizarre and inappropriate selection of Rick Warren to give the prayer at your inauguration, I have a better idea of what we can bring: a sense of what inclusion actually means.

I have been disappointed in the Democratic Party for several years now. Back in 2004, at my county convention, I put forth a proposal to support the strengthening of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the wake of the Supreme Courts undermining of that important civil rights legislation. All the time, I hear "oh, no one is against the disabled." Well, you'd have had a hard time proving it that day, as person after person, with increasing vehemenence denounced any such bill. And what justification did they give? To a person, they each stated that they were against "special rights."

"Special rights." What are special rights? Apparently, (here I'm judging from the comments made by fellow Democrats) the right to a fair chance at employment, the right to housing, the right to visit the homes of friends, the right to access public buildings and businesses. There is a further context, the right to the body, the right to sexuality, the right to marry. The tradition of denying people with disability reproductive rights is not just a sorry history painfully recorded as a warning to the present. Instead, it is an ever-present reality. As the Ashley X case made clear, public support for even the violation of body integrity is widespread, with sexuality being considered a burden for the disabled rather than a natural function. While law has changed to permit marriages for people with intellectual disabilities, social sentiment has little budged, and practice continues to deny people with disabilities full rights to control over personal sexuality.

What other group in the United States currently faces similar restrictions against their sexuality, their employment, their right to housing? Who else is told that access to the same rights as everyone is "special rights"? That would be everyone considered homosexual, the group you have chosen to single out as expendable in your choice of Rick Warren to offer an inaugural prayer. Rick Warren, who actively campaigned for California's Prop. 8, and who embraces only "ex-gays." This is a wholly unnecessary slap in the face to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. And it is an insult to those of us who are straight and count among our friends and family non-heterosexuals. We have seen their pain, their isolation, their hardship, and see how the inherent difficulties of being a member of a minority group are magnified by legal discrimination. Rick Warren wants to continue to make life as difficult as possible for non-straight people, justifying his discrimination with "love the sinner, hate the sin," and calling for non-straight people to change rather than society to change. This is as preposterous a stand as demanding that people with disabilities stop being disabled before being included in society. And, yes, people do make that argument,that people with disabilities aren't being excluded, that it is the disability at fault rather than society, and once we get "cured," we'll be welcome. Such an invitation to fellowship rings hollow whomever you are.

You can't distance yourself from Warren's small minded hatred. You didn't need to have a prayer offered at all, and as a supporter of the separation of church and state, I'd argue that you shouldn't be having one at an official government event. But you obviously want to make some kind of public statement, to present a particular type of image, by having a prayer said for you. And thus, your choice of Rick Warren has indeed made a statement. It is a statement that your support for civil rights for disenfranchised minorities doesn't run any deeper than campaign rhetoric. 

Your public distancing of yourself from gay and lesbian supporters isn't the only rejection going on right now, either. In the name of "security," the inaugural welcome of those of us with disabilities has also been rescinded. No chairs at the parade route, insist security officials. What about walkers, canes, wheelchairs? The latest I read is that security is still "thinking" about that. Thinking about it? Thinking about clearly violating the ADA? Sadly, it won't be the first time, since "homeland security" has been allowed to trump civil rights at every turn.

So, I am telling you now, as a person with disabilities, that what you need to do, what you need to make uppermost in your priorities as president, is embrace full civil rights for us all, not just those who already hold positions of power and privilege in our nation. You remember us, right? If you don't, then all your beautiful words about hope and change are meaningless. Full civil rights undergirds everything we in the disability community have been campaigning for. To live in communities, in our own homes, rather than warehoused in nursing homes and institutions. To be employed based on what we can do, rather than idled based on fears of what we can't do. To have mature sexual relationships, to have children or not depending on our own decisions, to have the right to adopt, to marry and form families. These are not "special rights" of only privileged groups. These are among the rights of all Americans. 


One Sick Mother said...

Excellent, excellent post, Yanub.

Very well said.


yanub said...

Thanks! I've been thinking and thinking about this matter for some time. I still believe that Obama's administration will be more progressive and favorable to universal civil and human rights than Bush's had been, but that's a pretty low bar.

william Peace said...

What a wonderful entry. I am hopeful Obama will help change many policies that needlessly place obstacles in front of disabled people. However, Obama is off to a rocky start and he is not yet in office. See BA Haller and her blog Media and Disability and reference to the fact the inauguration has presented access barriers that will be difficult to get around.

yanub said...

Yeah, William, I am holding my breath. It's one thing to get the rhetoric right, and another thing to believe the rhetoric is right. Clinton was also very good at always saying the right thing, but that silver-tongued liar was a brilliant con artist, adept at appeasing his targets while selling them out. Still, I have to hope for good, hope that at least a change of window dressing will let in some light, that some light will reveal what needs to change, and that good changes will be made.