Sunday, September 20, 2009

People with Disabilities are PEOPLE

I had heard horror stories in the news about West Indian nurses and caretakers that take on jobs looking after people with mental and physical disabilities. I chalked up the stories to racism, xenophobia, and generalizations. While I will not play the game of generalizing the behavior of one person out to the an entire group of people, today I came face to face with a black West Indian woman that I wanted to grind into the ground.

I am no saint. God in Heaven knows I have made fucked up jokes about people with disabilities. I have laughed at times when I knew laughing was wrong and in fact reinforced ableism. I knew full well what I did participating in those moments was no less wrong and evil than when white folks tell nigger jokes amongst themselves or make comments about spics and gooks when they think no one from those communities are listening or watching. There is no excuse for it. I live with a permanent disability, so I should know better, but my disability is invisible, so I don't have to outwardly carry the burden of it on a day to day basis. I commit myself today to being a better person and intervening in those moments and spaces when ableism is brought to play.

Today, I participated as a volunteer with the Oxfam Human Countdown in Central Park. Members of the community were gathered to take part in a mass action around global warming. More than 2,000 people showed up today to form the shape of the Earth inside of a giant hour glass. In a choreographed moment the Earth trickled through the hour glass like grains of sand and settled in the bottom to spell the words TCK TCK TCK. I was in the park for more than eight hours and for most of that time I was amazed at the people that took so much time out of their day to participate. Check your local news listings and the Internet, there were participants and media from around the globe present.

There was one moment when I noticed a woman with a disability in the wheel chair being brought down the ramp. She was being pushed by her caretaker. The sun was brilliant and hot. More than one person had asked to sit in the shade or for sunscreen. But this woman in the wheel chair, Carol, wanted to be in the sun. She wanted to participate in the event. Her caretaker did not.

Her caretaker, from the moment she arrived, complained loudly to anyone that would hear that she had no interest in being in the sun. She could care less what Carol wanted. Her caretaker bitched and moaned and hollered finally leaving Carol in the sun to go and sit some 100 to 200 yards away where she continued her bitching to anyone that would listen.

So I decided to talk to Carol. Turns out that though Carol's body was not under her control (I was to find out later that she is fighting a disease that is hardening all her bones and joints), Carol's mind was sharp and her eyes were bright. She introduced herself to me with difficulty. I shook her hand, and she started to cry. I asked her if she needed anything, and she said no, just to sit in the sun and that she wanted to participate. I asked her if she wanted me to get her caretaker, and to that she had an emphatic no.

Her caretaker ultimately returned and at one point, as Carol attempted to move herself slightly closer to the area where the performers were practicing the moves for the event, her caretaker smiled at us, the volunteers, and laughed at Carol's attempts to participate on her own.

I wanted to harm that able bodied black woman. Even after I spoke with her and found out that she is a recent breast cancer survivor and had a legitimate reason to want to rest, I still wanted to scream at her. Her job was her job and she spent all of her time complaining. She had just beaten a horrible disease but the woman she was being paid to caretake was going to, eventually, die from hers. All Carol wanted was to be a part of the group. She cared about Global Warming. SHE CAME TO THE EVENT TO PARTICIPATE, and yet her paid caretaker could do nothing but moan.

So I spoke to her. Calmly and gently. I said that I could see clearly that Carol was going to be heart broken if she had to leave. We, as volunteers, could not take her into the crowd as there was no liability insurance for us. I explained that. I also explained that if the caretaker was not going to help Carol participate then she was going to have to remove her from the walkway, as it was not going to be safe for Carol there with thousands of people moving back and forth around her. The caretaker continued to try and make excuses, and I was kind but firm.

Indeed a participant standing by said that I was very compassionate and very skilled in dealing with the woman. If she knew how angry I was or if she could have read my thoughts, she would have been less inclined to praise my calmness. The only reason I didn't scream at the caretaker was that I was unsure of how it would affect Carol.

I walked away from the caretaker and brought Carol a cup of water. She thanked me, and I thanked her for being there. She smiled and shook my hand again.

In the end kindness won.

Not only did the caretaker take Carol out into the performance piece, she stayed there with her until almost the very end (which means that Carol was filmed by no less than nine different media outlets as part of the event).

I am so not a perfect person. I have done some fucked up shit in my life. But this was one of those obvious moments. This was not a morally grey situation. This was one where the right and just thing to do was to be legs for the woman that could not walk. It was right to help her participate in something she could not do for herself. God help me for judging the caretaker, as I know what it is like to be judged and judged harshly. But today I failed at being greater than my shortcomings. I judged and I judged hard.

But I can only hope that her reason, in the end, for taking Carol out in the crowd was that no one around her, none of the other volunteers or the people with whom she was attempting to bond, were willing to laugh at her inappropriateness or keep silent when they saw that a person with a disability was being treated poorly.


  1. If we could all find the courage not to stay mute... it would be a better world. Thanks.

  2. Thanks K. These are the stories that are hardest to write. While I am proud of myself for not staying silent, I didn't write the story for accolades or pats on the back. I want people to know that even when you spend most of your life (as I have) being silent when you shouldn't have, that one moment of discomfort (aka courage) can make all the difference to someone else. It didn't cost me anything other than getting through a little fear to talk to both Carol and her caretaker. But it was palpable to ANYONE that was watching how much Carol wanted to participate. I don't know if yesterday will sit high in her memory or be forgotten. I am not sure what the eventual impact of her disease will do to her mental facilities, but I do know that yesterday, she was a very happy woman for a time. I wish I could have known her at another time as well, and maybe I will get to know her in the next life to come.

  3. A writer I admire pointed out that poverty, oppression and hardship don't actually, contrary to the stereotype, ennoble people: suffering tends to make the sufferer brutal, cruel and stupid. The more harshly someone has been done unto, the more likely they are to do the same unto others. I think it's a supreme and difficult spiritual practice not to pass your own pain on to the people around you ...

    Kai in NYC

  4. Brandon - you should also think about the fact that you probably made an impact on the caretaker, herself, by controlling your anger and engaging her constructively, that will hopefully extend to her future interactions with the woman she's taking care of. If she really didn't give a damn, she would have just blown you off completely, rather than eventually yielding to your efforts.

    Compassion wins out over anger, more often than not. Something we should all keep in mind.

    We can't all be good, all the time, but every time we are, it makes the world a better place.

  5. Kai: There is nothing ennobling about abject poverty, nor anything glorious and upraising about hunger. As someone that was raised with next to nothing, I have seen first hand that poverty and want most often breeds anger and violence.

    Thomas: Let's hope so. Kisses.

  6. You may have judged the caretaker, but in the end you just held her accountable. You were holding her accountable, as a person and a caregiver. Your actions held me accountable as well. As I watched you kneel down and talk to Carol, I had to put myself in check. I was so frustrated with the caretaker that I did not “see” Carol.

    I disagree, and I think Carol would agree with me – you were greater than your shortcomings.


  7. Hey Terry:

    First of all, it was fantastic to meet you this last weekend! Next time you are out here, you betta look me up. And, however did you find my little piece of the web?

    Thank you for your kind words. I am just glad that Carol got to do what she wanted to do. The day was already a good day (a LONG day but a good day), and knowing that she got to participate made it better.

    Thanks for being there and helping keep me from exploding. It's hard to show your ass around new folks ;-), and your presence and the presence of the rest of Team Julio helped me break out of my own silence.


  8. Brandon, what you did is the embodiment of equanimity. Blessings.

  9. Kim Ford it is only that I have had teachers such as yourself that I have been able, from time to time, do the right thing.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and insights. And thank you for reading!