Thursday, November 8, 2018

The vegetarian special

       Years ago, while biking home, I stopped at a Burger King.  The marquee outside the fast-food restaurant advertised $1 Whoopers.  At the cash register, I bought three and stuffed them into my backpack.  Turning toward the exit, I came face to face with two close friends.  One of them was vegan, and a vigilant animal-rights activist. The other was a vegetarian.  In the previous few years, when eating food with the vegan, I had never eaten meat.  Several times, under her influence and that of others, I had tried to become vegetarian.  At least once, I managed to go a few months without eating meat. But when holidays like Thanksgiving came around, I'd eat some turkey then tumble hard off the no meat wagon. I never told my friends about my attempts to become vegetarian.  I never told them that I ate meat.  But around them, especially the vegan, I tried to act like a vegetarian. 
           "What are you doing here?" I asked, defensively holding my backpack. We were at least two miles away from either of our homes.  I knew they hadn't stopped for the Whoopers.
           "To use the bathroom," the vegan said.  Neither of them asked me why I was there.  We talked for a few minutes, then I left for home, wondering if they knew what was in my backpack.     
          Sometime later, I confessed to the vegan that I was embarrassed to see her at the Burger King.
          "Why?" the vegan asked.
          "Because I had Whoopers in my bag.  I thought you believed I was a vegetarian."
          "I know you eat meat," the vegan laughed. "I never thought you were vegetarian."  I was relieved, but also perplexed that my efforts to act like a vegetarian didn't convince. 
          I don't often listen to the radio program "This American Life," but a few years later, I heard what has always been my favorite "This American Life" segment. The theme of the episode had something to do with pretending to be who you are not. One segment was about a young man going off to college.  One night while hanging out with about a dozen other students in a dorm room, he spontaneously created this persona for himself.  When offered a slice of pizza with meat on it, he declined, explaining that his parents were vegetarian and that he had never in his life tasted meat.  He spent his first semester convincing his skeptical peers that he had never tasted a Big Mac. In the segment, the college freshman shared stories about he and his father buying Arby's Roast Beef Sandwiches in bulk, then storing them in his freezer: and stories about the time he panicked when his mother and father came to visit over Parents Weekend.  To avoid the chance of any of his new college friends witnessing his mother or father eat meat, he took his parents to a vegetarian restaurant.
         I loved the story. The college freshman was ridiculous and he reminded me of myself.  His efforts to create a new persona reflected my own failed attempts to life a certain lifestyle and to convince others I lived that life style.  
        Nearly 20 years have passed since the day I bumped into my two friends at the Burger King.   For the last 12 years or so, instead of trying to become a vegetarian, I've put myself on a five days off, two days on cycle. Monday through Friday I don't eat meat. Saturday and Sunday, I do.   I can't call myself a vegetarian, but I kind of like the routine because no one else I know follows it, and because the routine works for me. 
       I listen to radio even less now than I did when I first heard the "This American Life" story.  But just last weekend, Chicago Public Radio replayed the segment about the pretend vegetarian at college.  I heard the story while driving home from the grocery store.  At first, I wasn't positive it was the same story.  After parking the car, I kept listening to the segment.  Then the story came to the part of the young man hoarding Arby's Roast Beef Sandwiches.  I smirked with delight, knowing it was the same story.  The title of the story replayed last weekend was, "The Sun Never Sets on the Moosewood Restaurant," under the theme, "Hoaxing Yourself." 
      A lot has changed since I ran into my friends at the Burger King so long ago.  I can't remember if I've been to a Burger King since then, (why would I go? The best I've seen them offer on a marque is two Whoopers for $5).  But hearing the story for a second time helped remind me that I'm not much different from who I was so long ago.  We don't see each other nearly as often now, my two friends and I.  But when I do see the vegan, I still won't eat meat around her, even if it's a Saturday.

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.