Monday, July 20, 2009

This Article Is Not about Disability

wheelchair_fdr This morning’s Denver Post runs the following headline: Lakewood cop helps boy get wheelchair.

When the owners of the [stolen] car, Joel Hidalgo, 31, and his wife, Esmeralda Torres, 29, arrived, Fairbanks greeted them and noticed they had left their young son in the car.

"The mother started crying that the wheelchair had been stolen from the car," Fairbanks recalled. "While she was crying, I looked over at the little boy and it just hit me that he was just the sweetest little kid."

Lt. Fairbanks went out of his way to find someone (Peter Kopp, Kids' Mobility Network) to donate a wheelchair to the family, helping the son to have greater access and mobility again. Fairbanks is a hero, but not exactly for the reasons the article implies.

While Mike McPhee, the author, uses pathos (or emotional appeal, for the non-rhetorically minded) to capture the reader (in the second sentence we learn that Jesus Hidalgo has cerebral palsy; he is described, on sight, as being “the sweetest little kid), the real ugliness of the situation is not that a young wheelchair-user had his wheelchair stolen, but that the cost of a wheelchair is a barrier to many who would otherwise use them to navigate our built environment.

Thus, this story is not exactly about disability, but about the market. Lt. Fairbanks knew the right thing to do was to restore Jesus’ independence and autonomy, so he found someone who would buck the market and give away a wheelchair. Although Jesus is only seven, his situation suggests some realities for the community of people with disabilities.

In 2000, the unemployment rate for adults with disabilities who wanted to work was 9.5 percent (the same rate across the U.S. in July 2009, the very same apoplexy-inducing number) compared to 3.4% for the entire U.S. population, and over 30% of those who did work did so at or below the poverty line1. Now, combine those numbers with the fact that in order to receive any federal benefits, a person with a disability must be unemployed, and you begin to see how the employment gap further disables the disability community.  What do I mean? If a particular wheelchair costs $5,000, and you (an adult PWD (person with a disability)) work yet live at the poverty line, which for a single-person household is (buckle up) $10,400, and your job prevents you from collecting benefits under current federal regulations, you can see spending 50% of your annual income on the device that helps you go from the car or bus to the front door of your place of employment just does not seem tenable.

Ultimately, McPhee builds this story around the concept of charity (which strikes me as a wicked phonetic pun), too long the position dominant culture takes toward people with impairments, and suggests that the lesson to be learned is that we should be charitable to those less fortunate, when in fact we should be trying to insure access, access to spaces and to the tools that enable mobility. In fact, this story is about socio-economic status.

Truly, the Denver Post has told a good story for many reasons—too often we only hear about the bad cops; too often we do not hear about the life experiences of people with disabilities—but when we read these kinds of stories, so often laden with uni-focal pathos, we might read them as instances of overdetermination, situations or identities that are not reducible to one term (disability) but are articulations of many causes that together give rise to the situation presented before us.

1Work in America: M-Z. Carl E. Van Horn, Herbert A. Schaffner.

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