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Rudolph: A Tale of Disability Justice, or Oppression?

Even as a Jewish kid, I always liked the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Each year, we ponder the life of one creature who was set apart from his peers by a highly visible difference, a lone red nose. It’s a tale of coping at first with exclusion (“They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games)” followed by vindication when Santa realized that Rudolph’s red nose was actually an asset for his team. At that point, Rudolph was not only included, but celebrated as a valued leader who “will go down in history” forever.

The tale carries obvious motifs that are relevant to the disability experience. Many of us have risen from exclusion to success and celebration when others in power recognized the gifts that we bring, not just despite our differences, but because of them.

However, I’ve recently seen a critique of Rudolph’s tale that is worth considering. To some disability justice advocates, Rudolph was only successful because he was productive. His red nose provided the team with an advantage in efficiently delivering presents. If Rudolph had carried some other visible difference that did not advantage the team, would he still have received love and appreciation from the other reindeer? What if it hadn’t been a foggy night and the shine of his nose had not been necessary to advance the team’s mission?

When we talk about inclusion, we often focus on workplace inclusion. We like to extol the benefits of hiring employees with disabilities, who despite appearances, end up being loyal, dependable, highly generative employees with special gifts for problem-solving and morale-building. It can be tempting to focus our attentions on the “super-disabled” athletes or high academic performers who shatter our expectations for what disability is about. But in the midst of this, the “average” disabled person can be overlooked. We might unintentionally devalue the life of the disabled person who cannot hold a conventional job, or one who doesn’t appear to be overcoming their disability hard enough. Everyone brings something good to the table, whether or not that thing is valued in our capitalistic system.

During this most unusual holiday season, let’s consider how we can truly appreciate every person we encounter, regardless of what we think they will be able to contribute in the conventional sense. Let us strive toward a world where all human beings are equally valued, not despite our differences but because of them. Best wishes for a warm, peaceful holiday season and a joyful transition into 2021.

Hearing Faces: Reading Emojis While Blind

A few months ago, I upgraded the screen reader on my PC. I now have access to the full landscape of emojis that everyone seems to be using these days, in texts, emails, and on social media. Someone has apparently written a library of descriptions to accompany each emoji, which are programmed into the dictionaries for the screen readers I use on my PC and my iPhone.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having full access to these symbols. But it’s interesting to consider how my experience, listening to emoji descriptions being read aloud, must be so different from how they appear to a sighted reader. Especially since I’ve never seen a face in my life.

So, I have a few questions about these emoji things. (Note: I don’t really expect answers to these questions. I’m mainly posing them for humorous purposes, though it might give you an insight into how a totally-blind-from-birth person processes these things). Here are my questions:

*There’s one called “face with tears of joy.” I’ve heard it used in both happy and sad contexts. So is this a happy face or a sad face? And, how does it differ from “crying face” or “loudly crying face?”

*I hear lots of smiling faces. Some of them have smiling eyes. How do eyes smile?

*People use red hearts, blue hearts, purple hearts, growing hearts, beating hearts, and sparkling hearts. Which heart is the best one?

*What’s a “thinking face” exactly? How about a “persevering face?”

*There’s a face without mouth emoji. What’s up with that one? Do I even want to ask?

*Why do some people use the same emoji over and over? When my phone says “face with open mouth vomiting” eight times in a row, is that like eight times as gross as just the one? And, who’s going to clean up all that vomit?

People with Rare Diseases Need Better Social Support [Repost]

“There are more than 7,000 different rare disorders. Combined, 1 in 10 Americans has a rare disorder,

so the experience of rare is actually common.”

Although the experience of rare may be common, it can also be lonely to know few others who look, feel, or experience life like we do. Researchers at Oregon State University found that, for people with rare disorders, emotional support and social belonging are more important for happiness than tangible supports. They also found that the link between social support and happiness holds up regardless of how much stress people are feeling in their lives.

Read About The Study Here

Let’s Slow It Down

On Tuesday morning, I saw a post from one of my favorite parent bloggers, Jess from Diary of a Mom. The post really resonated with my emotional state at the time, and still this morning.

Jess writes about how hard it can be, in a state of anxiety, to be told things like “it’s going to be OK” or “don’t worry” because, sometimes, it’s not all OK and there are in fact things to worry about.

Instead Jess suggests saying, “Let’s slow it down.”

Of course, human anxiety is an extension of our primal stress response. As animals, we are wired to respond with an elevated heart rate, muscle tension, and other responses when confronting impending danger. When we respond to short-term threats by “speeding it up,” we tend to prevail.

But sometimes, as it has been this week for many Americans, the threat is in the waiting. We don’t know if, or when, a beast might emerge, or what it will look like. We might be torn between hoping for a desired outcome and fearing the worst outcome possible. We feel compelled to prepare ourselves, but don’t know how to do so.

Perhaps it would do us all some good to stop and acknowledge that this is indeed an unusual time, building on the unusual of the past eight months. It is OK not to be OK. We don’t need to keep rushing around trying to live our ordinary lives with an extra layer of political or existential stress piled on.

This weekend, let’s be sure to take care of ourselves, engaging the slower “rest and digest” self-care processes that can take a backseat during times of high stress. Let’s be sure to treat our bodies well, to engage our minds, and to tend to our important relationships. While we wait, let’s take some time to slow things down.

#CripTheVote! Making Our Voices Heard

Last week, my husband Jason and I went to our nearest early voting location. We arrived 20 minutes before the doors were scheduled to open, and found a line of people spanning the length of a full city block. Some folks had even set up chairs and must have been waiting a while. It was like nothing we had ever seen on an election day, much less two weeks prior.

The first time I ever voted, when I was 19, I used a brailled absentee ballot in Arizona. That was my favorite way to vote, but it hasn’t been available in any of the other states where I have lived. Subsequently, I have always gone to the polls to vote, usually early, and usually alone, to use the talking voting machine.

As I waited in line, I pondered how unusual this election season is, for so many reasons. But at the same time, I reflected on all the historic steps that have led up to my fulfilling my basic right to vote.

Just a hundred years ago, women in the United States were given the right to vote. Before that, my husband would have been expected to vote for both of us. And I would have been expected to …. Stay home and take care of a bunch of kids? Without reliable birth control, probably.

But then I remembered that I’m not just a woman, I am a blind woman, and during, say, the 1916 election, blind women didn’t have too many opportunities to integrate into society. I probably would have still gotten a basic education at the school for the blind, but after that? Would I have had opportunities to go to college, to marry, or to learn the skills needed to become a good housewife? It’s doubtful.

Several laws have been passed protecting the disabled citizen’s right to vote, beginning with Section 208 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allows disabled voters to cast a ballot with human assistance. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed just before I reached the age of majority, requires every polling location in the United States to have at least one electronic voting machine. Such machines have assistive technology enabling people who cannot read print, as well as people who cannot handwrite or use a punch card, to cast an independent, secret ballot.

As we reach the front of the voting line, a well-intended woman tells us that next time we can vote curbside. She points to a sign advertising curbside access for “handicapped and elderly” voters. It’s intended for people who can use paper ballots but who cannot stand in the long lines due to physical disability or health risks. I calmly inform the woman that curbside voting wouldn’t really work for people like me, who need to use the talking machines inside the voting booth. It’s a textbook example of disability spread, reminding me how much work still needs to be done.

We finally make it inside the government center. Jason completes the brief identification forms for both of us, so naturally, the poll workers think he will be helping me vote. I can feel the power in my voice as I tell them, projecting through my mask: “I’d like to use the talking voting machine, please.” I momentarily consider the number of letter-writing campaigns, call-ins and congressional meetings, drafts and amendments to legislation that happened before I reached voting age, enabling me to utter those words and have my request honored.

After a very brief discussion between poll workers, I am escorted to the machine and my ballot is loaded. I put on the headset and turn up the volume just in time to hear the name of my preferred presidential candidate being read. I press the button labeled with a braille S, for select, then arrow forward to the next contest. Within just a couple of minutes, I’m done with my electronic ballot. Jason and I insert our ballots into the box and head out, our civic duty completed.

A great deal of work has been done that enabled me to cast an independent, secret ballot last week. But much more work still needs to be done. There are disabled people who have been disenfranchised because they have been placed under guardianship. Others cannot vote because they lack government-issued identification cards. Absentee ballots are still inaccessible to people with print disabilities in many states, and many of these same individuals cannot access transportation to get to the polls. And, despite the HAVA, some polling locations are still inaccessible to wheelchair users. Removal of these barriers would greatly amplify the participation of disabled voters in our democratic process.

This election is indeed unlike any other. If you are able, please exercise your right to vote, and please join me in working toward a future where every one of our citizens can make their voices heard.