Thursday, January 31, 2013

Seven Ten Split

Yesterday, I wrote about Professor Lennard Davis, who lectured on January 29 about the exclusion of disability from the diversity continuum.   According to Davis, disability is actually too different on the scale of otherness and therefore does not fall within what society embraces as diversity.  On the outside looking in, the disability community does not enjoy the benefits that fall within the diversity umbrella.  One significant benefit is acceptance. 

Drilling deeper into Davis' theory may give some explanation for why events such as midget wrestling and midget bowling are promoted in bars across the United States.  If one were to take a community that is embraced along the diversity spectrum, a bar owner couldn't get away with a bowling or wrestling event featuring that community.  I could only imagine the reception that a marquee with the sign "African American Bowling," "Latino Bowling," or "Hindu Bowling" might receive.  Some people may scratch their heads in curiosity and wander inside, but once they saw a black man or Hindu being thrown down the alley, curiosity may turn to disgust.   Disgust would only be elevated if the terms African American, Latino and Hindu were replaced with slurs, just as dwarf is replaced with midget.  Nevertheless, a quick search of the internet uncovers wrestling and bowling events that feature people of short stature, promoted as "midgets," in states around the country.  Earlier this month, the House of Blues in Chicago hosted Midget Wrestling.   Just last weekend, a place called Jesse Oaks in Gages Lake, Illinois hosted midget bowling.  It would be one thing if people of short stature were participating in these events alongside people of typical stature.  But in these cases, the "midgets" are the entertainment. 

With the Jesse Oaks event, a number of people from the District Six Chapter of Little People of America wrote to the bar, expressing their concern.  The responses District Six members heard back varied, but the typical response defended the event by claiming the participate was expressing his own free will.  That response circles back to the point I think Davis was trying to make.  The managers of Jesse Oaks, and bar owners across the country that host wrestling and bowling events with people of short stature, fail to see dwarfism as a community.  They fail to see dwarfism as part of the diversity spectrum.  If we were recognized as part of the spectrum, bar owners would realize that their own actions, and the actions of the few people of short stature who participate, are an insult to the entire community, and damage the entire community.   Instead they see people of short stature as individuals who are different from the norm.  In an attempt to respect them as individuals, they hire them to participate in an activity that disrespects the entire community.  Obviously, money is a factor as well as respect.  But the situation reminds me somewhat of someone who is homophobic.  Let's say the homophobic man befriends a man named Steve.  Steve happens to be gay.  The bigoted man grows close to Steve and respects Steve, but continues to be bigoted toward the gay community.  The bigoted man fails to extend the humanity he applies to Steve to the entire gay community. 

After 20 years in Chicago, I am frustrated the city continues to host events that demoralize and degrade the dwarfism community.  But as my dentist said on Tuesday when referring to my gum line, "it is what it is."  And as Davis said on Tuesday night, we just have to keep on doing what we are doing  (raising awareness, promoting disability culture and pride). Hopefully, one day, things will change. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What is so normal about diversity?

 On January 28, after work, I traveled over to the University of Illinois at Chicago Campus for a lecture by Professor Lennard Davis.  On the UIC Campus, listening to Professor Davis speak, I was reminded of the best, and the most frustrating, academic memories from my days as an undergraduate at Beloit College.  Davis peppered the lecture with enlightening comments.  The words seemed so simple and clear, yet they captured an idea that helped me look at things in a whole new way, as if they opened up a door of understanding that previously had been closed.  But sandwiched around all of the enlightening thoughts was commentary I struggled to follow.  At first, I reminded myself that I hadn't taken a college level course in nearly 15 years.  But then I remembered my days at Beloit and at Northeastern in Chicago, and the many times I sat in a classroom, paying close attention to what the professor said, but comprehending none of it.  After the lecture last night, when talking to some other members of audience, I was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only one who felt ill-prepared to process what Davis presented.  Nevertheless, what I did understand made the trip worthwhile. 

Davis gave a lecture titled "The end of normal: disability and diversity."  Through the lecture, Davis presented the relationship between diversity and disability.  He traced the evolution of what society values.  Historically, society emphasized and valued what is normal (when compared to what is abnormal or not normal).  Over time, society has come to embrace diversity.  When normal was valued by society, disability was on the abnormal side of the spectrum. This evolution would lead one to believe that as society began to embrace and celebrate differences, disability would find a place on the diversity spectrum and therefore disability would be embraced by society.  This was the question at the heart of Davis' presentation.  What place is there for disability within diversity?  From what I understood, the answer is that disability indeed does not have a place on the diversity spectrum. 

My explanation for why this is so probably won't mesh exactly with what Professor Davis would say.  But that is not because I disagree with what Davis said.  Rather, it is because I didn't really understand everything he said.  But that fact reinforces what I think is great about academic education.  Even if you don't process everything, one can extract nuggets of information that can be applied to different situations in order to open new doors of understanding on an individual level and new perspectives on an individual level.  In any case, from my perspective, I understood Davis to say a number of things.

First of all, though how we label what is of value has evolved from normal to diversity, much of what we actually value hasn't changed.  We find diversity within what was once considered normal.  Because disability originally fell outside the spectrum of normal, it is not on the continuum of diversity.  Davis pointed to an advertisement campaign of Dove Soap to illustrate this point.  Dove purportedly celebrated diversity by producing a commercial that included women whose bodies weren't "perfect."  Yet, Dove's idea of imperfect was a few freckles on a chest, a wrinkly knee, a set of eyes that weren't perfectly symmetric, a crooked smile.  If perfect were a tree, the women in the commercial didn't fall far from it. They were certainly close enough to enjoy the shade.  In the commercial, there were no obese women, there were no anorexic women, and there were no disabled women.  These types of bodies fell outside the accepted spectrum of diversity, or imperfection. 

Secondly, disability falls outside the spectrum of diversity because much of society believes disability to be a medical diagnosis.  While people celebrate different races, different ethnicity's, different genders, and different orientations, people don't celebrate medical impairments.  Since the 1960's and 1970's, the disability community has transitioned from the medical model to the social model.  Among many other things, this means that people don't identify within the context of a medical diagnosis that suggests one needs to be fixed or cured, but rather identify within the context of a cultural identity that is to be embraced, studied, and celebrated.  Though this idea has inspired and shaped progress in the form of the Americans with Disabilities Act and many other cultural advancements, many Americans still view disabled people as people defined by medical needs and medical treatment, not people who deserve cultural recognition.

When asked what can be done to bridge the gap between disability and the diversity spectrum, Davis sounded hopeful.  He said the community needs to keep doing what it has been doing.  It needs to keep raising awareness about cultural identity.  This is done throughout the country with disability pride parades, ADA Celebrations, and events celebrating artistic achievements within the community.  Yet, Davis cautioned that we shouldn't be content with finding a place on the diversity spectrum.  Because if the methodology behind the spectrum isn't changed, even if disability finds a place, there will always be groups that are left out.  The goal should be changing what society means by diversity.