Daily Archives: August 23, 2006

Ableism in the Human Rights Committee- Part I

 Three Stories

Prelude to an Exposition

(a study in group intolerance and identification with power and dominance.)
I wasn’t an easy child to have in a classroom. I had a creative mind and was easily bored with the tedium which most of the other students seemed to find comfortable.  Much of the curriculum seemed obvious to me.  My divergent mind and active spirit always wanted to take the teacher’s ideas and, instead of following them exactly, change them, just a litte, take  inspiration, create something a bit different than what she had in mind.  It was the 1960’s and resistance and rebellion were reestablishing themselves as part of the social fabric, but in the elementary schools, girls still had to wear dresses and female teachers were identified by marital status.  “No” still meant “maybe” and it was generally accepted that “boys will be boys” and girls must be ladies.  The women’s movement was still several years away.  All this, coupled with unaddressed emotional issues, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, the stresses of the U.S. educational system, and the difficult working conditions imposed on teachers, along with the prevailing hegemony and dominant paradigm put me at odds with the social structures of the classroom.
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher sat me at a cluster of desks with five other girls who tormented me constantly. The leaders of this clique were “Carley Silverstein” and “Audry Hellman”.   On the playground they played coutie tag, and I was their appointed coutie. One girl would hit me, then touch her friend and scream, “you have couties!”  That girl would touch another friend, screaming the same insult, and so on, and so on, until they had played that out, and then they would start all over again.  I suppose the main difference between these girls and me, was economic class and the education levels of our parents. Their homes had money.  My home had brains.   They had better clothes, larger homes, their parents drove showier cars, their moms all stayed at home. Their dads were businessmen.  My parents were educated workers;  my mother,  a bio-chemist, research scientist, my father,  a computer engineer.  My parents were older than these girls’ parents.  While other women my mother’s age were making babies, my mom was getting her M.S. from Bryn Mawr and her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.  My father got his PhD later, when I was twelve.   Everyday I would be teased for my Sears catalog wardrobe, while my classmates paraded around in clothes from Lord and Taylor.  But when the book orders came in, while most students bought one or two books, I had purchased every book on the form.  My mom didn’t see any reason to spend money on showy cars, vacations in Florida or expensive clothes, but there was always money for books, and while we had a strict bedtime, we were allowed (in what was one of the most brilliant of my mother’s insights) to read as late as we wanted.  So, while I suffered the tedium of Sally, Dick and Jane and never did understand what a schwa was, I learned to read by flashlight under a tent of sheets, while floating on a bunk bed boat on a carpet sea.
But school was hell.  “Carley” , “Audrey” and their friends would steal my things, destroy my work, get me in trouble and set me up.  One day, while a group of us were at the teacher’s desk waiting to get help on our work, “Audrey” began to kick me subversively, hidden by the desk, in front of but out of sight of the teacher.  After one very painful kick in the shins, I screamed in pain, raised my knee, and bringing down my foot, slammed her instep.  “Audrey” grabbed her foot and hopping with exaggeration like a cartoon character on Saturday mornings, screamed.  The teacher called a parent conference and explained the situation as she understood it.  As my mother relayed the story to me, “Miss Plotkins” exclaimed; “You should have seen the look on that girl’s face.  Emma seems very unhappy and is very disruptive and I don’t understand why.  I put her with the nicest girls in the class.”
Two years later, in sixth grade, “Stanley Hoffman”, one of the few boys who was actually bigger than the girls his same age, began the day  by punching me in the arm.  He continued this behavior all day, until finally, at the end of the day, from the back of a silent classroom,  I screamed “Stanley, stop it!”
The teacher, “Miss Smyth” began to admonish me my protestation, but I insisted! “No!”  I said to her, and then, screaming from the back row,  told her that he had been hitting me all day.
Unlike “Miss Plotkins,” “Miss Smyth” heard me and “Stanley” was busted.  He stayed after school and I was able to walk home safely.
Four years later I was at summer camp.  We were swimming in a murky lake, that only the year before had taken the life of a young boy.  While I didn’t know the boy, the impact of his death was very heavy upon me.  This year while we were swimming, someone grabbed my leg under water.  I  couldn’t see who it was, but as I was being pulled under, I kicked, apparently hitting my attacker in the groin.  Out of the water emerged a wounded boy nicknamed “Bear, ”  because of his height and girth.  He told the counselor I had kicked him, who beached me for defending myself, adding the admonition, “”No matter what, you never kick a guy there.”  No matter what!!??  This trite answer always seems to be accompanied with such brilliant insights as “He only does that because he likes you.” “What did you do to bring this down upon yourself?”  “What did you expect?” or “You over reacted.”
It’s been a repeated theme in my life, unusual is the “Stanley Hoffman” story, where the perpetrator is held accountable for his or her actions.  I still get in trouble for standing up for my rights and defending myself, or for defending the rights of others.  I think the initial attention is brought on by my outspokenness and my ability to articulate ideas well, which seems to be threatening to people, unaccustomed, even in the 21st century, to women who speak their mind.   And truth be told, sometimes I can be abrupt, distracted and dismissive, which puts people off, though hardly raises an eyebrow when similar behavior is exhibited by men.  I think situations escalate because I stay longer than most.  While many people might just leave quietly after the first affront, I tend to hold my ground, leaving me open to accusations of being divisive or self-centered.  But I do believe that process is an important product of any group and that the internal politics are as important as the external impositions.  If we can’t be the change we wish to create, then who are we to raise these issues of justice in the first place?
Often the response is summed up in the expression and the expectation that “boys will be boy,” where men assert their authority and hegemony and women act as the enforcers of the status quo, insisting on ladylike behavior under the most adverse situations. I don’t know what it is, the breaking of the illusion of peace, the fear of a new paradigm, the identification with power that encourages otherwise reasonable people to observe and ignore the violent behavior of the perpetrator and blame the victim for bringing the attack upon herself, but it seems much work must be done to deconstruct the dominant paradigm that allows for this identification of the perpetrator to go on, subconsciously and to such dangerous detriment.
This year at the UTLA Human Rights Committee’s annual retreat, one of the members of the Committee, who is also a member of the UTLA Board of Directors, took it upon himself to marginalize, ridicule and humiliate me and my disability.
I had tried to appeal to his good will, attempted to gain support from the Committee members present,  left the room twice to cool down, only to have him follow me out of the room, taunting me and ridiculing me, and I lost it and before storming away, yelled vulgarities that would have offended a truck driver.
Andy left the retreat with me, but no one, except Andy,  tried to intervene at any point in the conflict, nor did anyone contact either of us in the days after the retreat.  As a final blow, to add insult to injury, one member of the committee submitted to the Committee list serve, a proposed recruiting poster, featuring, as the poster boy for Human Rights, the man who had so offensively attacked me and my rights.
I can accept that we were all caught by surprise, that no one knew what to do, but why continue the campaign after that? Why support the perpetrator in his abuse while ostracizing me for my protest.  Clearly none of us handled the moment well, but in attempting to address the issues since then, the response has been disastrously illuminating.
It isn’t just me.  This is typical of groups in which a lone woman takes on a group patriarch, and her response to him is seen as an attack while he gets cast as the victim,  after she, in an outburst of emotion, after weathering silently a litany of abuse, explodes.  Her behavior is seen as the problem.  The illusion of peace, shattered by her exposure of the underlying patterns, abuses and assumptions of privilege.
Even among seasoned activists, the decision to take pity on the perpetrator and to ostracize the victim for her avenues of self defense, came as second nature to a small but cohesive group of activists within the Committee, who have continued to carry out this campaign against me even to the detriment of the human rights work I know they are dedicated to.
This matter may in fact tear this Committee apart and has deep repercussions throughout the Union.  I don’t know how it will play out, but I offer it up as one more example of the outrageous fear and widespread tolerance of bigotry directed at disabled people as well as women.
I offer these exchanges as documentation of the widespread animosity towards disabled people, that I started this blog, among other reasons, to document.  Like the situation in Target, demonstrated in an earlier post, prior to becoming disabled, I have never been subjected to the daily indignities that apparently come with disability.  That people, seeing the wheelchair, or in response to my request for accommodations, feel justified in ridiculing and marginalizing me, hasn’t yet become normal to me, though these indignities happen faster than I can write about them.
I am on personal retreat right now, at a resort, to write, study and meditate.  As I was checking into the resort, seeing a long cue, I went to the front desk and let the clerk know that I couldn’t stand in line, but that I would be waiting my turn in a seat in the lobby.  A woman, who I assumed was another guest checking in,  glared disapprovingly at me.  When my turn came up and I was called to the desk by one of the clerks, this same woman signaled to me to come to the desk, by bending her index finger towards herself.  Ignoring her, I suggested to the clerk that someone come and help me where I was seated, that I had trouble standing.  The same woman told me that they couldn’t come to me, that I had to come up to the counter. She seemed surprised and offended that I didn’t adhere to her authority.   I asked her, “do you work here?”  She said she did not but that she did work with the handicapped.  Amazing!
The hotel took care of me appropriately, and I am now comfortably writing at 4 am in my room. But I wonder; What gave her the sense of authority to tell me what to do?  Why did she feel that it was appropriate for her to intervene in this situation?  Where did she get off treating me like an insolent child? And that’s the rub, the assumption that the disabled are children, and need to be treated as such.  That we aren’t to speak up or speak out, that we need to learn to paint with our toes, ski on one leg, rise up from adversity and never impose our needs on society no matter how much we contribute, because the prevailing assumption is that we don’t contribute at all, and even in the light of massive evidence to the contrary, our work will be dismissed and disparaged, much as mine has by a few members of my beloved Committee.
While I have, except when indicated, changed the names of those involved, I want to stress that some of the people quoted here are among some of the most well respected activists in Los Angeles.    It is important to add that no one I am close to within this Committee saw this coming.  There was no overt indication that anyone had any problem with my work or contributions to this Committee, which included chairing the conference subcommittee for the last two years, establishing and maintaining the list serve and setting up our webpage.  One member of the Committee, close to those members whose messages I will be posting, but who has remained silent on this entire discussion has been clearly uncomfortable with me, moving the agenda in the middle of a presentation, refusing to provide vital information so that we could implement the portion of the Conference she herself had proposed, waiting until any one other than I requested the information from her.  Aside from that, there was no indication that there was any undercurrent of hostility or dissatisfaction, leading me to believe that ether gossip and character assassination has been going on for some time, silently, or that my outburst at the retreat was so offensive as to eradicate anything I had done for or with the Committee, that members of the Committee would turn against me so cohesively in their outrage, referred to by one member when she said, in reference to my blow up that there was “no excuse for that.”
“No excuse for that” resonates with the camp counselor’s admonition that I never was to kick a boy in the groin “No matter what!”
no matter what, we should fight for people’s rights, all rights, all the time.
If we don’t, well, then, there’s ‘no excuse for that”.
Special thanks to committee members, Andy Griggs, Chair, Steve Seal, Michael Novick and Linda Baughn for their support and clarity, and for their permission to post their emails to this blog with full attribution.