DAMn. #MeToo [Repost]

“While I think we spent a lot of time thinking about how we educate people outside the little person community to treat us with a modicum of respect, I also think we need to have a real critical conversation about and within our community as it relates to our own #MeToo moments.”

Recent events in U.S. politics have forced us to reflect on the painful realities of sexual assault. Disabled people face a heightened risk of all kinds of abuse-physical, sexual, emotional and financial. Much of that abuse comes at the hands of nondisabled people, including family members and caregivers. But we must also work within our own disability communities to create a culture of respect and safety for all. Organizations like Little People of America (LPA) can offer valuable safe havens from the ableism that we encounter in the wider world. But the frustration that people may carry into these communities, if we aren’t careful, can lead to abuse. In this article, Rebecca Cokley reflects on her own experiences in LPA, and what she is teaching her children about respect and consent. Rebecca Cokley is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

DAMn. #MeToo

Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons [Repost]

“Still, we mustn’t get complacent. Paratransit has many deeply-rooted problems, and since it fills service gaps for so many people, we need to fix what we have rather than tearing it all down in a fit of cynicism, or dismissing those who still use it.”

One of the greatest challenges disability can bring is the inability to drive. Public transit is a viable alternative for some of us, but public transit in its current state carries a number of limitations making it an impractical option for many. For example, people whose disabilities limit how far they can walk, how long they can stand or sit outdoors, or how well they can orient in unfamiliar environments may find that public transit doesn’t meet their needs.

“Paratransit” is a door-to-door transit alternative available in many urban areas, designed for seniors and people with disabilities. Customers can get door-to-door transportation at a cost only slightly higher than the cost of the public bus or train. Many of us depend on paratransit to get to work, school, shopping, important appointments, or social outings. As this post illustrates, though, many paratransit systems have multiple problems that can cause significant hardship for customers-earning such unaffectionate nicknames as “para-stranded” or “Dial-a-Wait.” While some of the problems may result from systems not having enough money to go around, others may be fixed with better training and a change in philosophy.
Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons

How to Quit the Disability Blame Game

In centuries past, disabilities were often blamed on supernatural beings. It was thought that a child’s disability was bestowed as punishment for the parent’s sins, that an adult’s disability was punishment for their own sins, or that deities used disability as a way to test one’s faith.

In the 21st century, such theories have fallen out of favor in the western world. However, the tendency to blame someone or something for disability is stronger than ever. Too often, parents blame themselves for their child’s disability: They blame themselves for contributing “bad” genes (even if they didn’t know they carried such genes); and mothers may blame themselves for pregnancy or birth complications that led to a child’s disability. Tragically, such self-blaming is often reinforced by the reactions of others, fixating on what caused a child’s disability, sometimes implying or even stating that a mother must have “done something” to cause it. Other groups of people blame disabilities on environmental agents: “anti-vaxers” blame vaccines for autism; childhood learning or behavioral impairments may be blamed on omnipresent substances like gluten, food additives, or airborne toxins. And, when adults develop chronic health conditions or disabilities, they are sometimes blamed by others for becoming disabled through poor health choices, or for not doing enough to manage their own impairments.

Why are we, as a society, so obsessed with finding someone or something to blame for disability?

Blaming is actually an important aspect of human behavior. When we search for the cause of an event, we gain the ability to predict and control that event. As a species, our survival depends on how accurately we can control our environment to promote desirable phenomena and prevent undesirable phenomena. When disability is so often seen as an undesirable phenomenon, we can become driven toward finding its causes in order to control it.

Furthermore, disability blaming helps us manage our own fears of the unknown, the uncontrollable, the possibility that we may be touched by new disabilities at any moment. As long as we can pin disability on something someone else did, we can feel confident that the same thing will not happen to us or our children. Or, if we pin disability on something measurable and avoidable in the environment, like a vaccine, we can feel confident that as long as we or our children avoid that thing, disability will not touch us.

So, disability blaming can be functional. But it is also clearly harmful. Disability self-blaming creates emotional turmoil for parents, and can distract them from the important work of equipping their children with tools and self-confidence. Blaming others for their own disabilities leads to stigma and exclusion. And when disability is erroneously blamed on an environmental factor, such as autism being inaccurately blamed on vaccines, the consequences for society can be destructive. Vaccine avoidance harms not only the autistic community, but also those who are no longer protected by herd immunity. Or, families may fall victim to unproven quack theories about the origins of disability, when peddlers of such quacks take advantage of a parent’s need to predict and control disability in their child.

How do we walk away from the blame game?

We can start by examining what we do know about the causes of disabilities. Most disabilities are simply nobody’s fault. I will repeat this because it is so important: Most disabilities are nobody’s fault. Genetic disabilities appear when DNA randomly changes during the process of replication. This has been happening since the beginning of time. When a sperm and egg line up that happen to bear the same DNA mutation, or when one parent contributes a “dominant” genetic mutation, then a child is born with a new trait. Sometimes that trait is brown eyes instead of blue; other times, it’s a disability. Sometimes, acquired disability arises from an accident or illness; in most cases, this, too, is nobody’s fault. Occasionally a disability can truly be blamed on a specific individual (as in the case of disabilities caused by abuse or neglect). Even in those cases, though, focusing on blame for a deed that cannot be undone distracts us from moving forward and accepting the “new normal” of disability.

So, perhaps we need a better phrase in our language to capture the concept of “nobody’s fault.” Then, when we need to pin disability on something, we can simply pin it on “nobody’s fault.” But, that doesn’t completely solve the problem, because “nobody’s fault” is something we cannot predict or control. We need to find a way to overcome our fear of the uncertain and the uncontrollable. Anyone who knows me well will be surprised to see me giving this advice, because I’ve always struggled with uncertainty. It’s gotten easier as I’ve aged, but even today an unanswered email or an ambiguous conversation can fill me with anxiety. Heck, I’ve even previewed the ending of a book more than once because I just couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting another 20 chapters to find out what happens. In fact, I went into the field of psychology because I was so attracted to the idea of being able to predict and control human behavior through science, and to get reasonable clarity on the causes of puzzling human actions.

But, in order to relinquish our obsession with blame and accept disability as a natural part of the human condition, we must find a way to accept the uncertainty and unpredictability of human difference. The fact is that disability can touch any of us at any time. When it comes, it can bring some unwanted consequences. But ability differences also enrich the diversity of our species. Disabilities can lead to unexpected discoveries and connections. We may not be able to control the arrival of disability, but we can control our response to it. If we can learn to embrace the chaos of disability, or at least to tolerate it, perhaps we can find our way from blame to acceptance.
Related reading:
Let’s Not Play the Blame Game: Parenting, Disability and Social Stigma

I can’t hear the whispers? Breaking down the barriers of Deafblindness [Guest Post]

This week’s guest post comes from Marsha Drenth. Marsha is the manager of Pennsylvania’s DeafBlind Living Well Services program (DBLWS) through the Center for Independent Living of Central Pennsylvania (CILCP). Deafblindness has been Marsha’s passion since losing her vision in 2004 and beginning to lose her hearing in 2007. Now totally blind and profoundly hard-of-hearing, Marsha uses numerous methods of communication, including Tactual Signed English, Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids, and numerous other technologies to live independently. In addition to her fulltime job as a statewide program manager, Marsha is highly involved in the deafblind, hard of hearing and blind communities both in Pennsylvania and around the country.

In addition to serving and helping persons who have disabilities, Marsha is also a wife, a mother of three adult children, and a graduate of Temple University, where she earned her Social Work degree. She lives north of Philadelphia with her husband, Joseph, and her service animal. She is passionate about empowering persons who are deafblind, hard-of-hearing, deaf, blind and disabled to receive the services they need for engaging their culture, becoming productive members of society, interacting with their environments, and expressing their own voice to influence their future.

I can’t hear the whispers? Breaking down the barriers of Deafblindness.

First, you’re probably asking what Deafblindness is. And how does it apply to me? First the medical version, for the purposes of this article, according to the Helen Keller National Center, Deafblindness is any combined hearing and vision loss that impacts a person’s ability to communicate effectively. This is the short definition, as I could get much more technical but won’t for now. It means that a person has both a vision and hearing loss, and the combination of both causes difficulty in communication, independent living, orientation and mobility, social interactions, education, and obtaining employment. In most cases, there are two different communities in which a DeafBlind person could originate from; the blind community and the deaf/hard of hearing communities. In other cases, some persons obtain both a hearing and vision loss over time or suddenly for various reasons. DeafBlind persons have a wide variety of hearing and vision loss, communication methods for expressive and receptive language, education, orientation and mobility, support systems, involvement, experiences, and exposure. The combination of hearing loss and vision loss can happen at any point in a person’s life and effects all races, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, gender, income level, and any disability. So now to why does this effect the greater disability community? As blind persons use their hearing to navigate and understand the world; not supersonic hearing, not hearing better than others, but using that hearing in the best way possible. For example, when walking down the street, blind persons are able to hear buildings, doorways, trees, people walking by and traffic. As blind people, we are taught to listen for traffic to make sure that it’s safe to cross the street. As blind persons, we use our hearing to locate other people and objects within our environment. These are just a few examples of how persons who are blind use their hearing in the best way possible. Unfortunately, this is where I think the blind community has ignored and denied the DeafBlind community up until now. Blind persons cannot imagine losing their hearing. They think the world will be over if they do lose their hearing. Many times people will say, that will never be me, my hearing will always be good. And a million other reasons for ignoring the fact that they could lose their hearing at any point in their life. How do I know all of this, because I was once one of those blind persons who said those things! I am now DeafBlind. Yes, it can happen to anyone, at anytime, anywhere, for no reason.

Here is my story, in 2007, after being blind for several years at this point, I had begun to become lost in the most familiar environments in which I frequented on a daily basis. An O&M instructor friend suggested that I have my hearing tested. So I made the appointment, telling myself that I was just having a lot of issues lately and nothing was wrong. So I am sitting in the chair getting my hearing tested, and the audiologist comes in and says, yes you have a slight hearing loss. Of course my first reaction was that there is no way, not me. It was true, and I was fitted for hearing aids. I didn’t wear the aids, because I didn’t like the way they made me hear, or fit into my ears, and the fact that I was in pure denial. After being stubborn and in denial, I did begin to notice that I could not hear voices in loud places and I could no longer hear for the openings of doorways. Fast forward a bit, in 2011, my hearing took a sharp decline, not being able to hear people in the same room speaking loudly, understanding when a person was sitting next to me, hearing traffic, and using Jaws on my computer. Finally with much negative emotions I took those hearing aids out and began to wear them; although I still hated the idea, the reason for wearing the aids, how they felt, and how sound was distorted. Through 2011 to 2013, I went from a mild hearing loss to profoundly deaf. In the spring of 2012, I enrolled as a student at Temple University to finish my degree as a social worker. In the fall semester of 2012 and the spring semester of 2013, dealing with a major hearing loss and attending classes at a major university became overwhelming. I could no longer function with hearing aids and listening devices which increased my anxiety and stress; fearing that one day I would not hear traffic for example in the busy streets of Philadelphia.

During the summer of 2013, I was at a cross roads, knowing that going back to school would be much of the same, but also realizing that I no longer had the skills to function. So I made the very difficult decision to take a Leave of Absence from my education and attend the Helen Keller National Center for deafblind adults and Youth. HKNC is very similar to other centers, where you learn independent living skills, technology, orientation and mobility, and job readiness skills. The two areas in which HKNC is different from other centers, is that HKNC offers communication skills, like learning ASL or writing skills. The Orientation and mobility is targeted directly at teaching skills for DeafBlind persons to be independent. HKNC is a center in which other DeafBlind people attend for the same training, forcing everyone there to face the reality of hearing and vision loss. Looking back, being away from home, family, church and life was not exactly what I wanted to do, but spending the 10 months there was by far the best possible situation that could have happened for me.

Once I completed my training at HKNC, I re-enrolled at the University for my senior year. This last year of my undergrad career was going to be challenging as I now needed to use sign language interpreters to help with communication, to use Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), and a Support Service Provider (SSP). Now instead of listening to Jaws, I needed to use my braille display to read my textbooks. For both the fall and spring semester, I took 17 credit hours, with an additional 200 hour a semester internship. In May of 2015, I graduated with my bachelors of social work degree. I am now employed as the Program Manager for the Pennsylvania Deafblind Living Well Services Support Service Provider Program.

I have summarized my story of hearing loss, not to make myself sound inspiring but to help people understand how hearing loss can effect a person and the different barriers faced when hearing loss becomes a factor. I am now wearing the most powerful hearing aids on the market, but still struggle to hear speech and environmental sounds. I am one of the many deafblind persons who has one foot in two different communities, I belong to the blind community and the deaf community. For large meetings, I use a tactual English interpreter. For one-on-one interactions in a quiet environment I can use a Bluetooth microphone system that feeds directly into my hearing aids. To cross the street I use a street crossing card that asks the public for the assistance to tell me when its safe. When I am out alone needing to communicate with people, I use communication cards. I am at this point able to verbally express myself. I no longer talk on the phone because the telephone distorts the sound of a person’s voice too much. I now use non-auditory non-visual techniques to prepare and cook meals. I continue to enjoy listening to music, but unless I have heard the song before I can not hear the lyrics. As before I still enjoy community, social, organization, religious events with help from others.

So here is where I come to my topic in a roundabout way. Support Service Providers for persons who are deafblind. An SSP is the ears and eyes for a person who has a dual sensory loss. SSP’s help with human guiding, facilitating communication and providing environmental information. An SSP is absolutely not a personal care attendant, a care taker, or a nurse; SSP’s do not help with personal grooming, bathing, toileting, feeding, or hygiene needs. SSP’s work with adults who can self-determine with their own finances, and other personal matters. SSP’s are trained specifically to facilitate, not to do for the person, but instead to empower. SSps are not interpreters, and vice versa. Interpreters help bridge the language barrier and are used for legal, medical, financial and educational needs. Sometimes interpreters can also be trained as SSP’s, but not all SSP’s know sign language. I have used SSP’s for personal, professional and educational needs. For example, for social events I will employ an SSP to help with providing environmental information, navigating the surroundings, and facilitating communication. As a student in my senior year, I used an SSP for my one-on-one case management social work intake visits. In this case, an SSP would help with environmental information of our surroundings and of the customer’s non-verbal communication. In an educational setting, I have used an SSP for giving presentations, to provide me with the nonverbal and verbal communication of my audience. As a blind person, I would have never imagined needing or wanting to use an SSP. Now an SSP is absolutely vital to how I function in life.

Only about 30 states in the United States have SSP programs where the SSP’s are paid trained individuals. As you would imagine, the deafblind population is very small. Here is where I would like to ask for your help. What I am asking is several things. Acceptance; we are DeafBlind, there is a National Federation of the Blind DeafBlind division. We might do things differently than you, or as other blind persons, or even differently than other persons with disabilities; but we, deafblind persons do them in a way that works for us. Independence is in the eye of the beholder, we deafblind persons achieve independence as much or more than blind persons. Our independence is no less or more than others. We do not expect that you will understand what it’s like, but we do desire to be a part of the greater community and accepted within the fold. If you meet someone who is not like you, who might be lost, who might need help, that person could have a hearing loss, have a cognitive disability, mental illness, or numerous other disabilities. That person is not asking for a hand out, but the help or assistance as everyone needs from time to time. Deafblind persons are asking for the collaboration of everyone. When legislation, policies, restrictions effect the blind or deaf community, those same things will affect the DeafBlind community too. In other words, not only are you paving the way for the blind, but for the DeafBlind, or the Deaf, and the disability community as a whole. We are asking that you don’t forget to fight for us too, as I am sure we will fight for you when the same situation would come along. But further, when legislation, policies, regulations come along that are very specific to the DeafBlind community, do not bash, tear down, hinder the efforts to change even if you do not understand. It is this greater understanding that as a deafblind person I have gained from losing my hearing. No, I don’t understand what it means to be a person with other disabilities; but their fight is my fight. They understand the struggles, I understand the struggles, and we all should work together. There is power in numbers, so please walk aside me as a deafblind person, walk aside all people with disabilities for our right to be equal.

RISE Up! and Fan the Flames of Change

One day about a week before starting my first year of college, I shared a paratransit ride with a middle-aged woman who had become disabled from a brain tumor. She told me that she had been employed as a social worker, but after losing some vision and motor function on one side from the brain tumor, she had lost her job and was unemployed for the past six years.

That night in my diary, I wrote with shock and concern about her unemployment. I was confident that she could find work if she just believed in it enough. I said I wanted to be a professional who could support blind and other disabled people to reach their potential. I wrote that “no blind person will be on Social Security if my dream comes true.” But then, I wrote that I didn’t want to work within a bureaucratic system because “bureaucracy will only slow me down.” The diary entry concluded with a clear vision, but no clear plan of execution.

At that moment I had little awareness of the systemic barriers that keep disabled people unemployed, nor did I understand the complex intersections between disability, socioeconomic status, race, gender, and other social categories. I had just graduated from one of the most privileged public high schools in my city, with plans to study biology and become a doctor or a biomedical researcher. I believed that a disabled person could do anything they wanted to do, if they thought it was possible. Employment barriers seemed entirely artificial to me. Yet even then, I recognized that a change agent was necessary to bring down those barriers.

The drive to be a change agent was what guided me through four years of college and six years of grad school. I got involved in the National Federation of the Blind, where I learned how to make change by mentoring and being mentored, through legislative action and public persuasion. In that organization I met many blind people from all walks of life who struggled against low expectations and negative public perceptions. At the same time, I learned that there was an academic discipline devoted to studying, among many other things, how negative public perceptions of groups originate and how to change them. As a scientific thinker, I was intrigued by big questions. Eventually I chose the Ph.D. path, and four years ago Wednesday I defended my dissertation in social psychology.

I was always torn between wanting to make change at the level of the individual, one person at a time, and wanting to make change at the level of the entire social system through research and policy. I struggled with the threat of bureaucracy slowing me down on both levels. On one hand, I feared that if I just worked with individuals (as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for example), my impact would be constrained by the problems embedded in our service systems. On the other hand, if I confined my activities to researching and writing from the ivory tower, I feared that those discoveries would only reach other academics and never make their way down to the individuals who needed them most.

Ultimately, I figured that a doctoral degree would give me the most clout to make change. So, I weathered the storms of the doctoral journey. I fell in love, then turned down a near-perfect professor job offer in a small town where my then-fiancee feared he wouldn’t be able to find work. After graduation, I took a postdoc fellowship that broadened my knowledge and skill set, and competed unsuccessfully for a handful of academic jobs, none of them ideal. Eventually my husband found a federal job, and I created Disability Wisdom Consulting in the spring of 2016. Over the past two years, in partnership with some dynamic clients, I have had the pleasure of generating social-scientific knowledge about disability issues and bringing it to the people and groups with the most capacity to implement it-through my research, training, and knowledge translation services

Then, just two months ago, my professional life took an exciting turn. I became the deputy coordinator for a new pre-employment transition program for blind youth ages 14-21 in northern Virginia. I serve in this role approximately half-time, while still maintaining my Disability Wisdom Consulting operations.

We call the program Project RISE (Resilience, Independence, Self-advocacy, and Employment). Modeled after similar programs in a handful of states, we hold monthly meetings where students learn about a range of career-related topics from blind professionals. They also learn independence skills like cooking, budgeting and using public transportation. Notably, our program is unique from other pre-employment transition programs in that all our core staff are blind and the students receive group and individual mentoring from actually-blind people who demonstrate what is possible for them and can truly relate to their experiences.

One of my roles as deputy coordinator is to compile student progress reports. Due to my natural affinity for data, I love doing this. In fact my boss teased me because I seemed more excited about the reports than about the actual meetings! In the current round of reports, we are compiling the results of students’ career exploration activities. Our students want to become doctors and lawyers, teachers and engineers, programmers and musicians, writers and chefs. Most have multiple interests. And no career aspiration is written off because of disability.

As deputy coordinator I get a chance to help develop the program at a high level. But I also enjoy opportunities to mentor individual students. I gave one student feedback on his resume and shared internship referrals with another. I discussed careers in the psychology field with a third student, chatted about the challenges of dating as a blind person with a fourth, and connected several with blind professionals working in their fields of interest. It is a treat to share my own life experience with young people who are eager to apply it in their own lives.

Then one day last week, I was invited to call into a student’s transition meeting. I remembered how disempowering it could feel to sit at a table of professionals talking about me, but rarely including me in the conversation. I called the student before the meeting and we discussed ways he could participate. During the meeting, I invited him to share what he had been learning in our program. He was reticent at first, but gathered confidence, and eventually spoke proudly about his experience using a cane for the first time. He discovered that his voice mattered. At the very end of the meeting, he spontaneously told everyone that when he gets a little older, he wants to go around and give public speeches. As the others in the room were packing up to leave, I heard him say he wants to change the world.

After I hung up the phone, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was struck by the flame of passion that burst forth when a young man discovered his voice and the confidence to use it. Just like me at his age, he expressed a clear vision without a clear plan of execution. But, plans of execution will only slow us down.

As a society, we need our young people to drive change. As the recent teen walkouts suggest, youth are not just our future, but our present too. We need to nurture the small flames of passion and inspiration that ignite in young people’s minds-whether it happens in a paratransit van, in bed at 3 a.m., or at the very end of a transition meeting. These flames come from people who have not yet become jaded or “burned out” by the negative realities of our society. We must never extinguish these flames in the name of realism. Instead, we must offer the benefit of our life experience to feed those individual flames and bring them together into a massive fire. Only then can we build the cultural shift that will break down misconceptions keeping us from our dreams.

After 15 years, I now have a better understanding of the complex factors keeping people with disabilities from full participation in the workforce. Removing those barriers will require change on multiple levels. But there is still power in the idealistic belief that it will happen. While I have no idea where I will be standing in another 15 years, nor where our students will stand, I am glad to be standing in the fire with them.