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Monday, April 17, 2006

Fight the Power!

I’ve heard complaints from blind people about the lack of political activism, too much activism and almost any point on the spectrum between these two points.  Some folks take a radical, Malcolm X approach, others a more moderate Martin Luther King view and still others a “work within the system” Thurgood Marshall set of tactics to affecting civil rights improvements for people with vision impairments.  I still don’t know if the BPP is real or a hoax so there might even exist a group even more radical than the Malcolm types.  

I’m not sure where I fall on the spectrum.  I like to think of creative ways of protest like purchasing a few shares of stock in a business that has a horrible accessibility record (Intuit comes to mind) and then showing up with a bunch of loud mouthed blinks at their annual stockholders meeting.  I sort of like the “Hall of Shame” that the Jodi awards people have started to list really offending inaccessible web sites but, on other days, I feel that blame and shame might just cause organizations to take a defensive stance rather than taking action to make improvements.  One thing, of which I am absolutely certain, though, is that Thurgood Marshall was able to use existing law to win Brown v. Board of Education and, throughout the fifties, more and more Constitutional matters were settled in the courts.  Then, in the sixties, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had the will to enforce the laws on the books and, in spite of Governors like George Wallace of Alabama (“segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,”) and Lester Maddox of Georgia, public institutions started to open up to minorities.

For people with disabilities, the story changes quite a lot.  As a group, we with disabilities do not have full Constitutional rights.  Officially, we have had our Fifth Amendment right to due process taken away and, unlike any other minority group, cannot, in many cases, take legal action to fight discrimination.  While many states have passed and enforce ADA and 508 like legislation, others do not.  Alabama, for instance, sued the Federal government stating that ADA does not apply to state agencies as it takes away one of the state’s rights.  About 146 years ago, Alabama took more radical action because they saw human bondage as a state’s right so things haven’t changed much deep in the heart of Dixie.

Now, we have a President who either lacks the courage of Kennedy and Johnson to enforce laws like ADA, 255 and 508 or, perhaps courage isn’t the issue, maybe he and his Justice Department prefer working against the rights of people with disabilities.  The Ashcroft/Gonzalez track record certainly suggests that the latter holds true as, in their five plus years in office, the US Attorney General’s office has, in cases which it chose to participate, supported the defendant in all ADA cases.  Justice O’s record on the Federal Circuit Court in cases involving people with disabilities is even worse so I doubt this administration will do much for us anytime soon so, perhaps, more creative measures will be required to achieve our goals.

In early March, in a land far, far away, blind people took to the streets to demand their rights.  The March 5 edition of the Katmandu based Nepal News ran an article titled, “Over 100 arrested from visually-impaired persons' rally in Katmandu, Nepal.”  If this headline suggested that 100 anarchists were arrested in Seattle, 100 migrants were arrested in San Antonio or 100 peace activists were arrested in London, I’d not have thought twice about the matter.  Anarchists, migrants and peace activists have historically rallied to their causes and, on many occasions, have spent time in jailhouses for their actions.  Blind people, though, may act and talk angry but never seem to have the will, even here in the land of the free and home of the brave, to participate in direct, civilly disobedient actions.  Nepal, a nation known for having an oppressive royal family that kills demonstrators seems even less likely a location for such an event to occur.

The article starts, “More than 100 visually-impaired persons were arrested and several others injured as police intervened into their protest rally, demanding employment, in Katmandu on Sunday.”

“The group has been demanding that the government offer jobs to 500 visually-impaired persons at the earliest and provide a monthly 'unemployment allowance' of Rs.2000 to others.”  I can’t even remember the name of the Nepalese currency but I can’t imagine this even approaches a lot of money.  Also, in today’s Nepal, begging and prostitution are the most likely professions for blind people so any kind of job that can take them off of the streets or pension that can let them live with dignity will be a major step forward.
  
I can only imagine the courage these people must have as the article continues, “Police ruthlessly beat up the demonstrators, injuring a number of participants. Two injured persons - Bhakta Gautam and Pratibha Lama - have been taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.”  I am more neurotic than most but I know that many blind people, including me, grow highly anxious when a crowded situation gets overly chaotic. Now, imagine being surrounded by your blind brethren in a huge crowd as police reminiscent of those Martin faced in Alabama swam into the crowd, swung sticks and beat your comrades.  Would you have returned the following day?

The March 7 edition of The Himalayan Times, also English language and based in Nepal’s capital city, featured an article, “Visually impaired hold rally” that simply states, “Blind people, protesting against the recent police intervention in the capital, staged a plate rally in Pokhara on Tuesday. The rally, organized by Blind Unemployed Struggle Committee (Kaski), started from the gate of Prithvi Narayan College and converged into a corner assembly at Mahendrapul chowk.”  To me, this demonstrates a level of dedication to a cause that, in the US, I’ve only witnessed as a child when Martin and Malcolm still led their movement and, as an adult, among the pro-life people fighting to end abortion.  I have difficulty imagining a large crowd of blinks gathering in Washington to rally for our civil rights and I find it beyond any reasonable fantasy that American blinks, after getting beaten down by the boys in blue, would gather again two days later to continue their calls for employment, civil rights and dignity.

On March 10, in an article titled, “Protests by visually impaired continue,” The Himalayan Times reported, “After an inconclusive meeting between the State Minister for Labour and Transportation Rabindra Khanal and the joint front of the Nepal Association of the Blind (NAB) and National Self-Help Organization of the Blind yesterday, the visually impaired groups continued their protest programmes today.”  I cannot count the number of times that I’ve heard about one or another group of US citizens with disabilities holding “high level talks” with government agencies, corporate leaders and transportation departments only to walk away and lamely state, “Well, at least they listened to our issues.”  

Let’s recap: This is the United States, a nation which rarely injures protestors and almost never kills one.  The people in Nepal, a few days after being brutally attacked by the police, sat down with a government official and, unsatisfied with his response, took to the streets again in a country where the police will shoot live ammunition into a crowd.  Is Nepal truly the home of the brave and are we US based blinks, with a few minor exceptions, a bunch of cowards?

Reminding me of the demonstrations against the Viet Nam War the article continues, “Protest programmes included a rally from Baneshwore to Maiti Ghar, burning of the Disability certificates issued to them by the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.”  Americans have burned draft cards, ostensibly have burned bras and, on the nasty side of our country, have burned crosses but have you ever heard of a blind person burning his social security card in protest over the 70% unemployment rate among blind people in the US?

The article concludes, “They demanded the government fulfill their demands regarding employment and urged human right activists, National Human Rights Commission, journalists, teachers, civil society, professionals, political parties to back them. Protest will continue till March 12.”

I go through every article posted on the Blind News (link above) list every day.  This means up to twenty articles about all topics related to blindness and vision impairment from all around the globe.  Most of the articles from US publications describe heart warming stories about how some blink got a new guide dog who is now his best friend or how some blind person inspired an audience by playing the piano nicely.  These articles sometimes can be so sweet that you want to puke.  My role in this life is not to make sighted people feel warm and fuzzy and say things like, “Look at BlindChristian, he can play blues harmonica and is working toward a PhD at the same time.”  I’m inspired by these highly impoverished Nepalese blinks tossing safety to the wind in order to stand up for their rights and of the other blind people in Nepal who didn’t come to the rally.  I’m doubly inspired that they didn’t walk away smiling after a bogus meeting with a government official.  

About two years ago, the RERC on Wireless Communication at Georgia Tech. featured a short speech and question and answer period with some schmuck from the FCC.  I sat beside two friends from the AFB and, when the questions started, Janina, who the previous day sat on a panel with me, jumped straight in and asked why, after the law has been on the books for a number of years that the FCC, then chaired by “Fat Boy” Powell Jr., had done absolutely no enforcement of Section 255.  This was, after all, a disability and rehabilitation conference so the FCC spokesman should have been ready for the question.

He replied with the most condescending voice tone stating that they had done a lot of research into the matter and would take action when appropriate at some undisclosed time in the future.  Janina, not a person to take lightly, fired back, “Then how come you were so quick to react to Janet Jackson’s tit?”

Unscathed, the bureaucrat responded, “We had over 250,000 calls about the unfortunate Super Bowl incident.”

Janina, “What about the more than a million people who cannot properly access cell phones, caller ID and most features of home and office telephony devices?”

FCC:  “As I said, we are researching the accessibility issues.  The Super Bowl had a greater sense of urgency.”  He then moved onto another, friendlier, questioner.

During the coffee break after the FCC fellow gave his bogus presentation, I asked him if he knew how long Janet Jackson’s breast had been on the screens of the beer swilling, loudmouth, American football fans who have never before seen that portion of a woman’s anatomy?  He said he didn’t know.  Then I asked him to the name the performer who came on two acts before Ms Jackson.  He said he couldn’t.  I can’t remember the performer’s name either but I can say that he is a gangster rapper who refers to himself as, “The greatest white pimp in America.”  I asked him if he felt that a couple of seconds of a breast is more harmful to family values than a three minute internationally broadcasted hip hop tune by a guy who does rhymes about selling women and killing people.  He walked away.

Thus, I got to talk to an FCC official, state my position supporting Janina’s line of questioning and, like the rest of we soft Americans, I felt a bit of anger and returned to Florida, went to work the next day and let it slide.  If blinks in Nepal have the courage to stand up to a dictatorship, why don’t I have the wherewithal to try to organize a rally at the FCC, Department of Transportation, Justice Department or any other government agency that is charged with enforcing laws and regulations to protect my rights and those of other people with disabilities?  Beyond that, why do so few people in advocacy roles ever call for such action, I’m a nerd, not an organizer or leader.

Afterward

Sometime today, I am going to disable anonymous comments on Blind Confidential.  At first, I had it set to entirely unmoderated and started receiving spam posts.  Then, I switched to moderated but continued permitting anonymous posts.  Yesterday, I finally got to the point that I had received more emails from spammers trying to post to this blog than about anything else, something like fifty or so.  I can’t dismiss the anonymous posts automatically without throwing away actual comments that people want to post anonymously.  Fortunately, few real comments are made anonymously so I think we can live with this new rule.  Of course, anyone can create a Blogger name whenever they like with near total anonymity so this shouldn’t prevent anyone from making a statement they don’t want attributed to them.






2 Comments:

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