Thursday, February 26, 2009

to the right of them, . . . to the left of them . . .

In fairness to republicans and the republican party, offense comes from all sides, no matter how politically enlightened I believe a person, or party, to be. Days after Michael Steele verbally launched his party's outreach campaign, the democrats, and the left, began to attack the campaign. Given Steele's comment regarding the "one-armed midget," I should have known that people of short stature would be caught in the middle.

On Tuesday night, Ana Marie Cox, a new correspondent with Air America, appeared on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show. Talking about Steele, the Republican Party, and the party's recruitment of new members, Cox said something to the affect of, "one-armed midgets . . . He can have them."

Common thought among many people of short stature around my age range and older is that we will continue to hear and read offensive language until we die. We will employ systemic outreach to stem the tide of the language, so that one day certain language will be off limits in every corner. But until then, we are forced to let some offenses go, otherwise we'd spend all our time writing emails, sending letters, and making phone calls. The choice was made to respond to Steele because of the potential influence and power he carries. My only hope is that Steele has not opened a door that welcomes m-word jokes; a door that will take a lot of effort to close.

On the bright side, Cox (unlike Steele who still hasn't responded to a note I sent his office last Friday) replied to my email within 30 minutes. After I sent her a note expressing my concerns, here is what she said:

---Original Message-----
From: on behalf of Ana Marie Cox
Sent: Wed 2/25/2009 10:10 AM
To: Gary Arnold
Subject: Re: appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show

I did, indeed, mean to mock Steele, and I apologize sincerely for the way that my mocking came out. I was trying to mock his weird specificity, and his lack of any concrete ideas about what being how party that included "one armed midgets" might be different from the one he currently leads.

I regretted the joke almost as soon as it was out of my mouth and, quite frankly, I am glad to have an opportunity to apologize directly to someone who represents that group, and who understands the real problems Republicans have in appealing to underrepresented groups.

I know I can't apologize to everyone who might have been hurt by my words, but I hope you'll accept this one.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Now I know why I don't vote Republican

A friend of mine said that comedians, after several punchlines have dissolved within an impatient audience, will pull out the midget jokes as a last resort. Last week, Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele pulled out the midget jokes. In an address to publicize a public relations strategy designed to energize the party, Steele said he doesn't want to leave anyone out of the party's outreach efforts, including "one-armed midgets,"(New York Times).

In a mere three words, he has not only left-out, he has alienated the majority of people of short stature. Though, at least in my case, the adage names will never hurt me is not true, I understand that within certain circles, the word midget is still in heavy circulation. A few morning disc jockeys, a few people of short stature who pretend to wrestle, some bloggers, and some tired comedians, all continue to wear-out the word. But I try not to spend much energy on the people who use the word. Because in 2009, people who use the word are not trying to build bridges that will create a more tolerant, inclusive, unified society. I take it for granted that people who strive toward inclusivity, acceptance and diversity know the power of language and will not speak words before understanding the impact. Which is why what Steele said on February 19 is so difficult to bear. Here a man charged with rebuilding an organization uses the one word that represents generations of stigma, objectification and isolation for people of short stature.

There are only two explanations for Steele's comment. Either he doesn't know the history behind the word midget, or he doesn't care. Whatever the reason, what Steele said caused damage. In response to his remark, Little People of America sent this statement:

I question the sincerity of a political leader who uses such a poor choice of words to joke about his party’s efforts to outreach to people with disabilities, a group that traditionally has been marginalized in terms of opportunity and participation. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele used antiquated language that is considered objectifying and contemptible by the largest organization that represents people of short stature in the United States. His supposed joke, “We need to uptick on our image, including one-armed midgets,” trivializes the interests and concerns of people with disabilities.

In the future, rather than craft “off the hook,” public relations efforts, my hope is that the Republican Party engage in genuine dialogue with the communities it purports to represent.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


A lot changed since the February 8 post. By the middle of the week, I nearly gave up tracking progress of the Economic Stimulus Package. Through the course of each day last week, we'd receive different reports from Washington, some people reporting that money for Independent Living, Education, and Vocational Rehabilitation had been cut, then a report two hours later that said the money was secure. It's not that any of the reports were erroneous; the situation was just changing dramatically on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. On Thursday, a troubling report came in that said money for IDEA was secure, but that the Chicago School District would have leverage to cut its special education budget up to the amount of local IDEA funding. In other words, if Chicago Public Schools received $10 million federal, then it could have cut $10 from the special education budget. In my opinion, this would defeat the purpose of the stimulus. But by Friday afternoon, somehow, a frantic, confusing, busy week and stimulus drama concluded on a positive note. News of a package agreed upon by both the House and the Senate included from $87 million to $130 million for Independent Living, $550 million for Vocational Rehabilitation and $15 billion for IDEA.
Despite all the work done by the disability community, the good news was quite startling, if not shocking. It's almost as if I was expecting the disability measures to be sacrificed, which explains the February 8 entry. When news filtered through out the office, and people actually started to believe the stimulus had reached a happy conclusion, a few organizers huddled around my desk, reflecting on what had happened. We speculated who it might have been from the House or the Senate who championed disability when it appeared to be against the ropes. While we can only speculate, we can also ask, "could times be changing for the better?"

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What Stimulus?

Leading up to the Election of Barack Obama, between the November 4 Election and January 20 when the President-Elect took office, and since Obama's administration took office, the disability community has been organizing furiously to impact positive choices on disability policy within the White House.

Though Obama developed and trumpeted an important disability platform for his campaign, he was not the first president to incorporate disability into his campaign. But all presidents have struggled, or have failed, to trumpet disability from within the White House.

There are clear indicators that President Obama will establish a different record. First of all, Obama appointed Paul Miller and Kareem Dale, both people with disabilities who have a disability agenda, to high level disability posts. And, a coalition that includes diverse disability representation from around the country is working closely with Miller and Dale, and with others in Washington, to continue to push a disability agenda within the White House.

Though disability may have made some progress in the White House, news about the Stimulus Package reveals that disability could have suffered a set back in Washington this weekend. The package originally included millions of dollars for Independent Living Services, Vocational Rehabilitation Services and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funding. The disability funds were included in the version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives. It has not been confirmed, but it appears that the disability money was stripped from the version the Senate will vote on this week.

Stripping of the disability funds is more the work of a partisan congress and Senators who refused to agree with anything that didn't directly relate to tax breaks and jobs (though why they can't make a connection between Vocational Rehab, Independent Living and jobs I don't know), it's hard not to lose some of the enthusiam the disability community felt when the new President took office. Just like so many other years in Washington, the stimulus is an indicator that disability, though it is roven directly into the fabric of each of our lives, and disability rights, often take a back seat to other issues.