Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Opposites attract

Empowerment can be found in many different corners of reality. It can be found in a 12' by 12' ring in a place called "J.J. Baja's" restaurant in Georgia, where wrestlers of short stature hurl insults at the crowd, egging on the audience to yell things like, "They're amazingly funny, who doesn't like midgets?" Some may be offended by the term midget, but not these wrestlers, who call their outfit The Micro Wrestling Federation and explain, "It's not sports exploitation, it's capitalization." A statement, spoken by the same man who said, "We didn't go to LPA (Little People of America) meetings. Everything that was small to us, like a bottle of soda . . . my dad pushed that on to me and said, 'Hey, look at that midget.'"
LPA is no saviour, and may not always be an empowerment zone, but if somebody can find self esteem by reclaiming an antiquated, objectifying term, and by earning money at a show no different than one put on by PT Barnum, I hope it's not called empowerment. Because whatever self esteem they have, hasn't been earned. It's been kidnapped from other people of short stature who still today are forced to confront prejudice in social and professional environments.
Of course, there are many more opportunities for people of short stature today than there were two or three generations ago, and the barriers that still exist today can not be directly linked to entertainment like the microwrestlers who encourage the public to think of them as objects rather than people. But when it comes to role models, I'll take mine in the form of people like Serge Rush, a high school wrestler who, instead of inviting audiences to gawk, wrestles. While he may not make a living as a wrestler, he's done more for integration, independence and acceptance than the microwrestlers could ever hope. Instead of a object, Rush is, "a teamate."

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Last week, congress held the confirmation hearing of Representative Hilda Solis for Secretary of Labor.

Throughout the process of administration appointments, leaders in the disability community have lobbied for disability representation. While, with the list of appointments so far, the disability community has not received appointments for which it is hoping, the community still works to earn commitments to represent disability concerns from prospective cabinet members. Appointment hearings are one avenue to receive the commitments.

At the appointment hearing on Friday, January 9, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said the national unemployment rate of people with disabilities (according to the latest statistics -- 63 percent), is “true blot on the American character.” Harkin then asked Solis what the Labor Department could do to address the unemployment problem. Evidently, Solis said she would "focus on programs to help military veterans returning from combat who suffered injuries." While the unemployment rate of people with disabilities goes much deeper than veterans with disabilities, and the issue has been around for much longer than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm glad Harkin raised the question and I am glad disability is on the radar of the Labor Department.

Let's hope Harkin and other legislators continue to push on disability, including at the confirmation hearing for the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, on Tuesday, January 13th.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

New Law, similar bias

In September of 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the ADA Amendments Act. The law just recently went into affect. The new legislation strengthens the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed in 1990 by George H.W. Bush.

While the original ADA was a civil rights milestone for people with disabilities, the law has failed to live up to the intent of its authors and congress. Though the law intended to give people with disabilities a tool to navigate through physical and social barriers to employment, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is a staggering 70%. The law was intended to give people with disabilities a tool with which to protect themselves in court when there was a violation of civil rights. But a string of Supreme Court decisions have severely narrowed the scope of the law, fundamentally weakening the protections of many people with disabilities.
In 2004, plaintiffs lost 97% of ADA employment cases that went to trial.

The ADA Amendments Act overturns the four Supreme Court decisions that have inappropriately narrowed the protections of the ADA. The new law restores the promise and intent of the original legislation. According to Marca Bristo, the President at Access Living, “These amendments will restore to many people with disabilities their rights. The law will level the playing field, allowing people with disabilities the tools to pursue the same opportunities as others in employment and other important areas.”

Though the ADA Amendments Act is a wonderful civil rights achievement for the disability community, it is interesting to observe members of the media treat the passage not as an achievement, but rather as a potential burden to businesses. Instead of highlighting the fact that this law could strenghten the economy by bringing more people back into the workforce, or underscoring the importance of an inclusive, diverse community that this law supports, a number of publications run leads such as "Expansion of ADA law expected to cause a windfall of claims," (The Arizona Capitol Times), or "Watch for more lawsuits alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act," (The Chicago Tribune).

In these days and times, it's understandable that media outlets would stress an economic message, but it's unfortunate that some outlets failed to highlight the positive economic outcomes that will result when more businesses recognize the intent of the ADA, and tap into the pool of workers with disabilities.