Why We Can’t All Agree (but we can try to get along)

Anyone who has been following U.S. politics, at least a little bit, undoubtedly knows how partisan and polarized our discourse has become. In the halls of Congress, in the televised debates, and even among rank-and-file Americans, both major parties paint each other in shades of criticism and mistrust. Bipartisan policies are becoming almost a thing of the past.
This partisanship is not unique to national politics, and the disability world is just as guilty. People with one disability tell me they feel unwelcomed by people with a different disability. Two consumer groups, based around the same disability, deride one another in their national newsletters. Tensions arise between activists and researchers, or between researchers from different universities. And relations between disabled and nondisabled people, as collectives, have an unmistakable “us vs. them” character. Too often, one member of either group is seen as an ambassador for them all.
I’m an independent consultant, so I have a professional interest in getting along with everybody. I also prefer harmony in my personal life. And, both professionally and personally, I tend to be a pragmatist. I like to get things done, and it’s impossible to accomplish anything when two groups do nothing but sabotage each other. So, all this partisan bickering gets under my skin. Yet I recognize that it’s an inextricable part of the human condition.
Although I’m certainly no expert in conflict resolution, I do want to share three insights that, I think, could help us all cooperate a little better during these tense times.

1. Practice mindful acceptance.
Intergroup conflict is, ironically, critical to our survival as a species. After all, we are social animals who once lived in tribes sharing limited resources. Our ancestors who could secure food for our families, while warding off intruders, successfully passed their genes on to us. Humans are evolved to quickly distinguish kin from stranger, friend from foe, and to act in the best interest of their own tribe.
Along with this, groups tend to splinter along all kinds of dividing lines. Although this phenomenon breeds conflict, it also breeds innovation from a diversity of ideas. I am certainly grateful to have more than one political party in my country’s government. I also appreciate a choice of more than one organization to join, and more than one way to effect change. Perhaps cooperation begins with accepting the fact that partisan divides are inevitable, and if we handle them appropriately, they can enhance progress rather than impede it.
This can be easier said than done. I have trouble “agreeing to disagree” at times. It’s threatening to me when a person I like says things I don’t like. However, sometimes the beliefs I initially dislike can give me a new perspective on an issue. Other times, they give me a deeper understanding of that person’s life experiences, which can strengthen our relationship. It takes work sometimes, but I try to make peace with the disagreement, and to be mindfully accepting of my own emotional reactions so I can get past them.

2. Look for the third side of the story.
When I was in college, I read quite a bit about theories of conflict resolution, compromise, and negotiation. To be quite honest, I remember little of what I read. The one lesson I still recall to this day was not acquired in a classroom, but during a random late-night phone call with a friend.
“You know there’’s three sides to every story,” he said.
“Three sides? Not two?” I asked.
“Yeah, three. There’s what you think happened. There’s what they think happened. And then, there’s what really happened.”

Too often, we assume our side is right, and their side is wrong. We may hear a story and assume our friend is telling the truth, and our enemy is lying. However, it’s rarely that black-and-white. Usually, the reality of a story is somewhere in the middle between two opposing accounts. Two people may present different facts in their stories. Or, two people may interpret the same set of facts very differently. The third side of the triangle appears only when both participants have had a chance to tell their full account without interruptions or attacks. At that point, places of agreement become apparent between the two accounts, along with possible resolutions. Looking for the third side of the conflict triangle involves acknowledging that both parties bear responsibility for the conflict as well as the resolution.
As an advocate, when I hear about instances of discrimination, my first impulse is to ask what the second side of the story is. This is not to invalidate the experience of the person who encountered discrimination. Rather, it is to understand the motives behind the discrimination so that we can find the third side of the story, where resolution can occur. I believe that most people who discriminate against us are not bad people. They generally believe that their behavior is justified, whether by safety concerns, by a lack of understanding of disability, or by a belief that making things accessible is beyond their means. Only by understanding these motives can we find a solution that gives the disabled person opportunity while also addressing the other entity’s concerns or fears.

3. Find a more inclusive “us.”
One of the most interesting experiments on intergroup conflict was done at a boy scout camp in Robbers Cave, Oklahoma, in the 1950’s. Twenty-two preteen boys, who didn’t know each other, were randomly divided into two groups. Each group was brought to camp, unaware of the other group’s existence. Both groups engaged in team bonding activities and chose names for themselves, the Eagles and the Rattlers. After a few days, the two groups were brought into the same camp space. The researchers contrived a series of competitive games where only one group could win a prize. After only a few days, members of both groups began taunting each other, throwing food, and raiding each other’s cabins. At one point the two groups had to be physically separated so they wouldn’t hurt each other.
Then, the researchers tested peacemaking strategies. They first tried bringing the groups together for shared, noncompetitive events like watching a movie. This didn’t work to lessen the conflict. So, they devised a series of problems that required members of both groups to work together in order to solve, such as staging a bus breakdown and a water pipe failure. The boys from both groups found themselves working together to solve these common problems, first out of necessity, and eventually by choice. By the end of the camp session, the two groups were intentionally sitting together and even pooled their money to buy a shared treat.
It is not surprising that the groups with the most intense conflicts are often in close proximity. After all, we call it sibling rivalry, not third-cousin rivalry; and college sports fans most eagerly anticipate the showdown between two teams from the same state. Groups in close proximity have more resources to fight over, both physical and social in nature. However, such groups are also in a great position to discover identities and goals that they share in common. We can short-circuit our evolved tendency to pit “us” against “them” by generating a more inclusive “us” The social psychologists refer to this as “superordinate identities.”
However, just expanding the definition of “us” isn’t quite enough. After all, reminding Democrats and Republicans how much they love their country could only intensify tensions. It is further necessary to come up with shared goals, and strategies that rely on input from both groups. Disability groups focused on different impairments may benefit by collaborating on cross-impairment issues. Activists and researchers can pool their complementary expertise to conduct participatory community research on important social problems. And so on.
The above recommendations are not meant to be a panacea for all conflicts. Certainly just bringing people together to work on common projects can’t undo conflicts that are decades or centuries old. I do hope that the concepts of accepting disagreement, looking for the third side of the story, and finding a more inclusive “us” can help stretch our thinking when we find ourselves in a difficult situation. Although we can’t (and shouldn’t) all agree, I believe we are capable of giving each other the respect that moves us closer to achieving joint progress.

Oh, Gnats!

In May 2010, a young couple welcomed the birth of their first baby girl. As Mom prepared to nurse baby for the first time, she struggled to position baby correctly on her breast. For a moment, her breast blocked baby’s nose, and baby began to turn blue. Mom called her nurse, who helped reposition baby, assuring Mom that it’s common for new mothers to need a little help getting the hang of nursing, and all was well.

But a few hours later, a social worker was contacted. Concerns were raised about the parents’ abilities to care for a newborn. Two days after her birth, baby was placed in a foster home, where she would stay until she was nearly two months old.

Why would a brief nursing mishap lead to the removal of a newborn from her parents? Especially when Mom was responsible enough to ask for help?

Because, you guessed it-Mom and Dad are both blind.

When the social worker first arrived, she bombarded the new parents with questions about how they would feed, change, transport and care for an infant. Mom and Dad, despite sure exhaustion from the birth process, answered the questions capably. Even so, the social worker ultimately stated that “I just can’t, in good conscience, send this baby home with two people who are blind.” For the next 57 days, Mom and Dad could only visit their newborn baby three times per week. Baby missed out on her mother’s milk, while her parents missed the feel of her first snuggles and the sound of her first giggles.
Click here to read more about this case

This story of Erica Johnson, Blake Sinnett, and their daughter Mikaela rocked the blind advocate community, especially the young adults like me. But thousands of disabled parents have their own stories, variations on this similar theme. Their disability becomes tied up in questions about their fitness as parents, and once the child welfare system becomes involved, proving their fitness can be an uphill battle. And the threat doesn’t end once parents take their newborns home from the hospital; well-meaning neighbors, strangers on a bus, even relatives may call the child welfare agency in at any time. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects disabled parents’ rights, but many states still have outdated child welfare laws allowing social services to consider a parent’s disability as an automatic strike against their parental fitness. The consequences of this presumption can be tragic for families. Baby Mikaela got to come home to her parents, but too many cases end in the termination of the disabled parent’s rights.
According to a National Council on Disability report, disabled parents may be more than three times as likely as nondisabled parents to have their parental rights terminated. The removal of children from disabled parents is perhaps one of the most serious instances in which good intentions, combined with a fundamental misunderstanding of disability, lead to grave harm for both the parents and their children.

Below is a personal essay from Jo Pinto, a novelist and mom to a 9-year-old girl. Jo is blind. From her writings on parenting, it is clear that she is a good, responsible, involved mom. Yet she recounts the continual fear of child welfare’s involvement in her family life, and how an innocent misfortune like some gnats in her daughter’s lunchbox can trigger a cascade of worry. Yet she persists and prevails with confidence. This is what she says:

Oh, Gnats!

My nine-year-old daughter Sarah burst through the front door and shoved her soft-sided lunchbox into my lap full force, right on top of the braille book I was proofreading. “Mom! Bugs flew out at me! I opened the zipper, and a cloud of bugs just poofed out at me!”

“What? Wait, what?” I set aside my work, took the lunchbox, and like any respectable mom, shifted immediately into sleuth mode. “Start from the beginning. Bugs flew out of your lunchbox? What did the bugs look like? What did you do?”

“Tiny black bugs. They were disgusting. I screamed—eeeww! Then my friend Lily saw them and she screamed, and this boy Darien saw them and he screamed, too. The lunch lady ran over, and she thought the bugs were gross. so she got the custodian to clean out my lunchbox. And I didn’t want to eat the food, so I got another lunch.”

I kept calm on the outside, but I felt a familiar terror gripping my heart, mercilessly, like a cruel, crushing hand. The hand let go of my heart as my thoughts whirled; then it slid upward to my throat, digging viciously into my windpipe, cutting off my breath.

Who else had seen those bugs fly out of my daughter’s lunchbox? Surely everybody had noticed, especially since Sarah had been such a drama queen about it. What if the custodian or the cafeteria supervisor decided Sarah’s blind mom couldn’t keep a clean kitchen, since she sent her little girl to school with bugs in her lunchbox? I was almost sure the bugs were harmless. They were probably just common house gnats, but still. EEEWW!

“I’m sorry about the bugs.” I forced myself to speak calmly, although I was fighting like mad to keep from hyperventilating. “That must have been embarrassing. But gnats are harmless. They’re just annoying little critters that eat fruit. They probably stowed away on the pineapple or the bananas we bought last night. I’ll make sure your lunchbox is nice and clean for tomorrow.”

I washed the lunchbox out with antibacterial soap, and when Sarah’s dad came home from work that night, he flushed the kitchen and bathroom drains out with vinegar and hot water, just in case.

“Drink up, boys!” he said cheerfully. “That should take care of the gnats for a while.”

But it would take a lot more than vinegar and water to wash my fears away. Blind parents are three to four times more likely to be referred to Child Protective Services (CPS) than their sighted peers are. I couldn’t keep from wondering if the gnats in Sarah’s lunchbox would be the next issue that prompted some well-meaning school official to pick up the phone.

The first time I had to face down CPS, someone had called me in because I had a “big black mean-looking dog”—and you never know, a dog might harm a crawling baby if her mom couldn’t keep watch on the situation every moment. Ballad, my second guide dog, would never have hurt a fly. Sarah used to sit on her head now and then, and Ballad would hardly wake up from her nap to shrug off the annoyance. The case was closed, unfounded.

The second time a social worker and a police officer appeared on my porch, I had brought home some groceries on a sweltering summer day. I was trying to unlock my front door, juggling a guide dog, a cranky toddler, a heavy backpack, a sack of canned goods, and a gallon of milk. Something had to go. What went was the gallon of milk, which was the reason I had gone to the store in the first place. Splat! All over the front porch. I cursed. My daughter cried. The dog began lapping up the milk, which ran like a river over my feet and down the porch steps. I dropped the bag of canned goods in the puddle. It was my turn to cry as I rushed into the house. An hour later, I had a police officer and a social worker on my still milky doorstep, informing me that an anonymous caller said “the blind lady wasn’t coping well.” I told them I would have coped a whole lot better if the anonymous caller had come to my aid, mop and bucket in hand, maybe with a listening ear besides, instead of calling the social workers and the police. The case was closed, unfounded.

Next, a nosy neighbor had threatened to call CPS because I regularly took my little girl to the swimming pool by myself at the condo complex where we lived.

“Some of the other moms and I, we’ve been talking,” she told me. “We think it’s dangerous for you and Sarah to be at the pool alone.”

Instead of asking her why she and the other moms didn’t come hang out with us at the pool—which, in hindsight, might have been a really good question—I assured her that my daughter had worn flotation devices since infancy, that I’d been a competitive swimmer in high school and was competent in the water, that I stayed right next to Sarah as she swam and kept in verbal and physical touch with her at all times, and that I wasn’t about to let the fears of the neighborhood moms limit my little girl by keeping her home from the pool I helped pay for with my HOA dues. I believed that learning to swim, at least enough to save herself from drowning, was not only a great opportunity for my daughter but also an important precaution I needed to take for her safety. So if the neighborhood moms felt the need to call CPS, they could do what they had to do and I’d take on that battle when it landed in my lap. I never heard another word about it.

Nevertheless, as a blind mom, the nagging worry about CPS lurks constantly in the back of my mind. When my daughter gets a new teacher at school or joins a different Sunday school class at church, I feel happy for the opportunity. Then she inevitably does something goofy—and perfectly normal—like wear a raggedy old jacket that’s two sizes too small. You know, the kind of jacket you thought you threw in the box of cleaning rags under the kitchen sink. And the worry in the back of my mind flares up into a hot flame of fear. What if the new teacher thinks I can’t dress my daughter properly? What if she decides to make the dreaded phone call? Fortunately, the teacher laughs off the incident when I explain that my kid has a very unconventional fashion sense and that she’s a hoarder in training. and the flame of fear dies down to a nagging worry once again—till next time.

Thankfully, the gnats disappeared easily from my kitchen, and nobody from the school made a big deal about them. But raising kids in a fishbowl is a sad reality for disabled moms in our society. We have set incredibly narrow standards of what motherhood should look like. When people see moms who deviate from those standards, suspicion and judgment tend to be their first reactions. Most people soften their views with familiarity and education, but blind moms and those with other disabilities unfortunately get used to parenting under pressure as their children grow up and navigate the normal scrapes and scuffles of life. The good news is, I’ve found that most of the issues my daughter and I face are no different than the ones sighted parents and their children deal with every day. I know I’m a good mom, so in spite of the nagging worry about CPS that lingers in my mind and flares up into full-blown fear now and then, I have the confidence as a parent to face down any obstacles that come my way. Be they gnats or nosy neighbors or unknown trials of the future, I’ll prevail against them one by one.
[Reprinted from Blind Motherhood]
Click here to read about blind parents raising their children


When I was a child, probably around the time I started elementary school, I was taught a few basic lessons about how to get along with my fellow humans. My family and school were fairly typical of my culture, so I believe that most of my peers were taught similar things. These lessons included:

  1. Keep your hands to yourself. In other words, don’t touch people without a good reason, and without their permission.
  2. If somebody touches you and it doesn’t feel good, tell them to stop. If they won’t stop, tell Mom or Dad.
  3. No means no. If somebody says “no” or “stop” to you, about literally anything, you must stop. It doesn’t matter if that person is older or younger than you, and it doesn’t matter if they’re saying no to a tickle fight, playing your favorite game, or sharing personal information, you must listen up.
  4. Don’t tape-record people without asking if it’s OK first. If you tape-record somebody without permission and they find out, you could get in really big trouble.

**Note that like many blind kids in the ‘90’s, I loved to carry around my little micro cassette recorder taping my conversations. When I got older and stopped doing that, I learned that this rule also applies to photos and videos.**

So, these were the childhood lessons on which most of us were socialized. We learned about the importance of boundaries, respect, and consent for ourselves and for others. Obeying these rules becomes so ingrained we rarely think about it.

And yet, I have noticed that for many of us with visible disabilities, these rules get broken on a routine basis. Strangers often seem to have no qualms about touching, grabbing, pulling or steering our bodies or our mobility aids. Sometimes this is done in an attempt to help us with real or imagined needs related to our disabilities. Other times, the uninvited touching is used as a means of communication-as with the kindly meant, but patronizing, shoulder pat. Often there is no ill intent behind this behavior, but it is easy to imagine why an unexpected pull on one’s arm, briefcase, guide dog harness, or wheelchair might not “feel good”. Outside an intimate relationship, these touches often feel disorienting, threatening, even painful. However, if we assert boundaries, either through our words (“please let go of me”) or through our body language (pulling away or flinching), our “no” signal may be met with resistance or even anger. Somehow, if we’re disabled, the rules don’t apply.

And, as for the rule about recording people without permission? Recently there have been several occasions in which bystanders photographed interactions between disabled and nondisabled people and posted the photos on social media as a form ofinspiration porn. For example, in a recent incident, a restaurant server assisted a disabled customer with eating at her request. A bystander snapped a picture of the pair and posted it online as a way to recognize the server’s good deed, without consulting with either party. The post went viral. This individual kept the picture online, even after admitting that she just “didn’t think about” getting consent first, and even after dozens of other disabled individuals expressed concern about the woman’s privacy. This is not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern.

Boundaries are integral to our well-being. On the most basic level, our physical and sexual boundaries protect us from bodily harm. We put boundaries around our property to safeguard it from theft. And, on the highest level, boundaries define our identity, give us control over our public selves, and afford us a sense of human dignity. Consent is the process by which we open or close those boundaries at will. We choose who to let in, when to let them in, and how far to let them go. People of all ages and abilities have a right to basic consent. Even the newborn baby who accepts the nipple when he is hungry, or pulls away when he is full, is exercising a primal form of consent. Respecting each other’s boundaries and consent signals is essential for peace and harmony within a society.

But, too often, consent gets forgotten when disabilities are involved. Sometimes people get caught up in their own rush of emotions, their desire to help, or the warm glow of inspiration, and in their emotional chaos they just forget about consent. Other times, the motivation is much less kind. Disabled children and adults worldwide have much higher abuse rates than nondisabled people,and a hallmark of abuse is a breach of basic consent.

Facing someone with a disability can be emotionally overwhelming. Sometimes when we are emotionally overwhelmed, we can remember only the simplest rules of conduct. Around the time that I learned about boundaries and consent, I also learned about fire safety. “Stop, drop, and roll” is something I will remember even if my clothes are on fire and I’m freaking out.

So, I want to introduce a simple maxim you can keep in mind while interacting with someone who is disabled, if you are feeling unsure what to do.

Stop. Ask. Listen.

  1. STOP. Instead of immediately jumping in to help someone, or to share their inspiring story, stop, take a breath, and let your emotions settle.
  2. ASK. This is like ringing your friend’s doorbell instead of breaking down the door. Questions like “would you like my help?” or, even better, “how can I help you?” “Is it OK if I pet your service dog?” “I think it’s really sweet seeing you play with your daughter. Would it be OK if I take a photo?” All of these open up an inquiry about their boundaries.
  3. LISTEN. This is the most important part. If you ring your friend’s doorbell and she doesn’t answer, you wouldn’t break down the door. In the same way, if the person says no to any of your requests, it’s time to back away. Is the person nonverbal or doesn’t speak your language? Watch their body language instead. Do they welcome your approach or do they recoil? Do they look happy, or pained? If you aren’t sure, try to find out what communication they use. Above all, trust that any person you meet gets the final say-so over their own boundaries.

Don’t “Dis” Us (Reblog)

Disability is a complex story that must be told through multiple voices. From time to time I will feature another disability insider’s words on this blog to offer a new perspective.

Today, I am sharing a blog post by Qudsiya Naqui. Qudsiya Naqui is a lawyer based in Washington DC, focusing on immigration law and policy. She is also author of the blog otherwiseenabled, where she explores and challenges the concept of “disability.” In this post, she explores how language can unintentionally divide us rather than unifying us. Her words underscore the Disability Wisdom idea that disability rights (and immigrant rights, and gender and race equality) are human rights.

Don’t “Dis” Us

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