Sunday, October 22, 2017

Trump, disabilty steretypes and suburban traffic

In the midst of the 2016 Presidential Election, stories emerged on the internet that listed the reasons so many people believed Trump would not win the election.  The lists included many of the offensive, inexcusable things the candidate did during the campaign, and things that the public learned during the campaign about his past, from referring to Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists (Full text: Donald Trump announces a presidential bid, Washington Post, June 16, 2015), to the transcript of the conversation in 2005 between Trump and Billy Bush of Access Hollywood…

(Trump:  …and when you are a star, they let you do it. You can do anything

Bush: Whatever you want
Trump: Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.)

But, according to a Bloomberg Poll taken months before Election Day, likely voters said what bothered them most about Trump was the candidate made fun of a disabled reporter, (Donald Trump’s Worst Offense? Mocking Disabled Reporter, Poll Finds, NBC News, August 11, 2016).  Mocking reporter Serge Kovaleski, Trump behaved like a morning shock jock who mines bigotry and prejudice for laughs and for ratings. The behavior is unacceptable but perhaps expected from a shock jock.  From a presidential candidate, the behavior is atrocious and unexpected.

Indeed, many people with disabilities voted against Trump in the Election.  Unlike the results of the Bloomberg Poll, disabled people voted against him not because he acted like an immature jerk in response to a reporter doing his job.  Not because he made fun of a disabled journalist.  They voted against him because he promoted policies that would dismantle supports people with disabilities need to live and be independent.  On Wednesday morning, November 9, 2016, the day after the Election, Ari Ne-eman wrote "For the millions of Americans with disabilities who depend on Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act to access health care and public services that mean basic survival, it is policy -- not personal insult -- that has brought terror and despair in the aftermath of last night's Trump victory, (I'm a disabled American. Trump's policies will be a disaster for people like me, Vox, November 9, 2016).

It makes sense that if asked about disability issues of the 2016 Presidential Campaign, most people in the general public would remember Trump making fun a reporter over anything else.   Personal insults resonate more strongly amongst a large general population than policy does. Personal insults are a stronger news hook than healthcare and the community supports that allow people with disabilities to live and be independent.   

Yet, the Bloomberg Poll reveals more than what the general public regarded as unacceptable behavior from Trump during the campaign. I think the Bloomberg Poll from August of 2016 is an indication of the disconnect between public perception of the disabled population in the United States, and an awareness of how government policy impacts people with disabilities. 

More than 27 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities are still often projected as vulnerable, as people who need to be taken care of, as people who need to overcome their disabilities.  Because the public perceives the disabled population as vulnerable, in need of protection, the public is more offended if a disabled person, compared to a non-disabled person, is the victim of harassment.  This explains the results of the Bloomberg Poll. 

Nevertheless, protection of people with disabilities doesn’t equate to public policy that supports inclusive education, affordable housing, community-based healthcare supports, and accessible transportation. More often, protection equates to support of causes that reinforce the image of people with disabilities as broken, helpless people who need the charity of others to overcome their disability. The problem with this, besides that the fact that traditional disability stigma is reinforced, is that people fail to look for solutions through inclusion policy and advance planning.  They propose solutions that tokenize, patronize, and segregate people with disabilities. 

This past summer, I moved to Oak Park.  A few months after I moved, someone forwarded to me an email.  The email was originally sent to a disability advocate from Pennsylvania.  The email eventually made its way to me because it came from someone in Oak Park who is in some way connected to local planning or government.  The author of the note was looking for advice.  The author wanted catchy slogans about disability that could be posted on traffic signs.  The intent, according to the person who sent the email, was to make the streets and intersections safer for people with disabilities.

As someone who is new to Oak Park, I believe the need is there.  Whether someone is a disabled pedestrian or a non-disabled pedestrian, the streets and intersections in Oak Park are unsafe.  Cars race quickly down residential streets.  Drivers often don’t use turn signals.  For some reason, the walk signals at intersections don’t correspond to green lights.  At some intersections, if not all, the walk signals won’t go on unless a pedestrian pushes the crosswalk button.  This is not helpful at all to disabled people who may not be able to use their arms and hands, or disabled people who may not be able to find the buttons.  I am no city planner.  But issues with the crosswalk signals or not, to me it seems that the pedestrian conditions in Oak Park are unsafe for anyone, disabled and non-disabled alike.

Whoever it was that sent the email to the Pennsylvania disability advocate, his or her approach was wrong.  The approach the traditional stigmatized view of disability.  Signs and banners with slogans that warn drivers about disabled pedestrians may very well help drivers become more alert about the disabled, but they probably won’t fix structural issues regarding traffic and pedestrian issues. Also, the banners and signs would have separated disabled pedestrians from non-disabled ones, a reflection of the traditional norm of segregation when it comes to the disabled.  

While criticism of Trump for making fun of a disabled journalist and banners and signs to raise awareness about disability is well intentioned, on the national level and in Oak Park, the best way to support people with disabilities is ensuring that policy integrates inclusion, integration and access.