Ableism in the Human Rights Committee- Part III

The retreat was held on a Saturday, and Andy and I left before the meeting began.  Later that day “Gilroy,” a comittee member, emailed a suggested recruiting poster to the listserve, The proposed  poster featured “Clarence”, waving a peace sign, in a tie dyed Bob Marley t-shirt, with the text “I want you to join the UTLA Human Rights Committee.”
Andy responds that perhaps there are other recruiting messages, than an older while male, since we need to recruit younger teachers from diverse backgrounds.
“Gilroy” responds:
“I was just trying to have some fun from the great retreat yesterday.  _I captured a moment and turned it into something that I thought was  _fun and hip and enticing.
Everybody being so serious and glum about it is kind of strange imho.
And how many people of color even attend our  _meetings…one…two…maybe three…sometimes?!
Maybe we should try to figure that one out rather than make any  _recruitment attempt into a discussion loaded with PC accusations.
I think I have already proven my motivations by the work I have done  _in the past…sorry I will be more uncreative in the future._G”
–without any recognition that Andy, the former Chair of the Committee, (not to mention, I)  felt compelled to leave early due specifically due to “Clarence’s” bigoted behavior, or that any problems existed at the retreat or within the Committee.
Then, Gilroy reminds “Bob Marley btw is a person of color, and is the most noticeable image in the color pic!” .
(We don’t have people of color on our committee but we do have pictures of them!!?! –amazing!)
Committee members weigh in on either side of the discussion of the proposed poster, some agreeing with Andy, others accusing him of “political correctness.” A term I really don’t understand, except as an attempt to marginalize debate about language and policies of inclusion.
Ethel posts”
“Gilroy”  took the initiative to take the picture right then and there and if I don’t say so myself it’s a great photo.  I see nothing wrong with using it as one of the outreach tools.  But as I said as the meeting- the best pitch is the work we do,  and that demonstrating value.  If we focus on the 3 themes we discussed (privatization of education, militarism in the schools and environmental global warming and justice) and lead the union in them, I am sure younger and all age teachers will be drawn to HRC.”
What follows are three emails between Ethel and me that I eventually post to the list but identify “Ethel” as “W,” since her email was sent to me personally.   At this point I am just assuming that people just didn’t know what happened or didn’t understand the significance of “Clarence’s” behavior and the impact on me, such a poster will provoke.  The animosity and ill will that follows had no precedent.  There was no indication that this level of bitterness or disdain for my work existed among Committee members.  At no point during the school year, did anyone ever enter a motion or raise a concern about my methodology in planning the last two conferences, or in the presentation of my disability.  There was one person on the Committee who seemed outwardly uncomfortable with me, expressing her discontent in passive aggressive behaviors such as refusing to provide workshop descriptions or bios to proposals she had made for the conference, making it difficult to implement her ideas without holding up the process of conference planning.  Nonetheless, we did incorporate her ideas and she lead plenaries at one conference and workshops at both.  So either the animosities and “reactions to Emma” that “Ethel” refers to are reactions to my blow up at” Clarence.” Or they are part of a deep seated  resentments that have gone unaddressed for quite some time, behind smiles and air kisses.

<>——– Original Message ——–_Subject:     Re: [utla-hrc-discussion] recruitment poster_Date:     Sun, 16 Jul 2006 21:06:08 -0700_From:     Emma Rosenthal <emmarosenthal@earthlink.net_Reply-To:     emmarosenthal@earthlink.net_Organization:     earthlink
“ethel,”_i’m preparing a letter to the group, but between you and me, i am shocked by the dialogue on line that came out of this retreat.  from the moment i arrived “Clarence” relentlessly made disparaging, bigoted and provocative comments to me regarding, among other things, my disability and what i could say or do at the retreat. the fact that this was his house does not give him that right, if it does, we have no business meeting there. (the lack of handicapped accessibility should also have precluded meeting at this location.)  that i got so little support from the other members of the committee and that i had to leave (or sit silently) while my rights were violated to have THIS photo come out of the retreat casts disparagement to all that i have done for and on behalf of this committee.  That “Clarence” was so profoundly received, while andy and i felt it necessary to leave early is an outrage.  i am so deeply hurt that the rest of you didn’t intervene or even question what it was that would have distressed me so thoroughly that i would have needed to get that upset and felt that the only dignified response was to leave.
what is even more outrageous is that you sat next to me for most (though not all) of  “clarence’s” insults (there are a few choice comments of his that you weren’t privy too) that no one supported me or followed me the two times i left the room or tried to make it possible for me to stay makes this a profound betrayal. that no one has tried to reach either andy or myself to try to resolve this situation, it is as if our absence was meaningless to the group and “clarence’s” annual burger flip, worthy of poster recognition.
Emma

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In her reply below, note that 1. “Clarence’s” behavior is understandable because of the way I have presented my disability.  2.  The problem with my personality is related to how I present my disability.
——– Original Message ——–_Subject:     (no subject)_Date:     Mon, 17 Jul 2006 00:48:14 EDT
Emma,_I appreciate your sharing your feelings about the situation yesterday with me.  When you said I didn’t say anything to support you, it was because I felt “Clarence” was just joking with you.  I could see you didn’t take it that way, and it so quickly escalated.  I was more in shock than anything, and was quite speechless.  But let’s look at it again.
First of all, what “Clarence” said was not funny in my opinion, but he stated that he was joking and he set aside the ice.  What’s funny to him, may not be funny to you, or me.  But you did get very angry and didn’t share your feelings (such as what we teach the kids- take a breath and state what bothers you).  You attacked him, and he teased you.  Emma, in my opinion this interaction wasn’t about your disability- but a real communication breakdown.  And you didn’t stay, so it couldn’t be resolved._   It made me think that you weren’t feeling well when you came there, and therefore “Clarence’s” comment was what you focused on with all your anger. In my opinion it was out of proportion Emma.  You could have told him that you took his comment as insensitive and that it hurt- which if he then said something negative, that would have been totally uncaring and insensitive on his part.
For your information I did speak with “Clarence” after you left about his being aware and sensitive towards others.  He said that he’s seen you fly up the stairs before and I told him that a disability such as yours is day to day, and that he doesn’t know what you are feeling or capable of that day. I don’t think he is very open to hearing how your disability affects how you are, which is what Andy was talking with him about.  In my humble opinion, I think there are two things going on and you may hate me for saying so- but it’s your disability and personality.  Most of us do not know your pain and discomfort and you are commended for how you continue on in a positive way._At other times, such as with the HRC conference, you come across as a victim when you say that no one is helping you, etc.  It comes across as complaining and chases persons away.  I never knew you before, so I don’t know if you are different, but this part seems more like a personality issue.  It’s different to share your feelings about what you are able to do and how you need support, and to come across as complaining about the situation.  So I believe that persons such as “Clarence” react to you as being self centered (what he said) without understanding the nature of your illness.  I can say that I don’t know or understand, but feel comfortable with not knowing. I just need to be open.
It is quite tragic that the incident couldn’t be talked out and you felt that you had to leave.
“Ethel”

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Almost a month later, about the same time that Andy posts “Why I Left the Retreat” message, I write back to “Ethel.”

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Subject:     Re: your email_Date:     Fri, 11 Aug 2006 20:57:03 -0700_From:     Emma Rosenthal <emmarosenthal@earthlink.net_Reply-To:     emmarosenthal@earthlink.net_Organization:     earthlink_To:     “Ethel” Inouye <Aginouye@aol.com_References:     <52b.4029af8.31ec708e@aol.com
“Ethel”,
It has been several weeks since you wrote me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what happened at the retreat and what you said in your email to me.  And Andy and I have discussed the whole issue quite thoroughly.  I have also spoken with Steve and he has posted his position on this situation,  to the  list.
I do wish you had taken more time to reflect on your position before writing what I feel quite clearly was a sad expose of your intolerance of people with disabilities in general (apparently justified by your  long standing dislike of me — I had no idea!)  as well as a real lack of understanding of the issues of access as an essential human right.  You state that you are comfortable not understanding.  The only reason you can be comfortable not understanding disability is because of the comfort afforded you by privilege.
I wish, before writing to me that you had reflected on what you already know about human rights and affirmative action.  For what is disability access, if not essentially an affirmative action program?  Where affirmative action attempts to break down social barriers imposed upon people on the basis or race or sex or class, for disabled people we must also disassemble and rebuild real structural barriers as well.  Every time you see stairs, understand, the institution or home you are entering either intentionally or unintentionally is barring access to disabled people.  When that same institution has a handicapped entrance around the back, special seating, special facilities, it is practicing a policy of se”Gilroy”ation.  Separate but  (in) equal seems to be the the most we can hope for.  For, with the exception of parking spaces (often in places inaccessible to many autos, or blocked by service vehicles!) few accommodations for us are equal or allow us full access to the social function we attempt to attend.
After the retreat, I took the time to write to you personally because I mistakenly assumed that  you would be concerned with the underlying issues to the event that occurred and the rights of the disabled to fully participate in what was a public, not a private event.  I thought you might be an ally in pursuit of full inclusion. It was the high esteem I had for you as a human rights activist, and now I am shocked that you could respond to my concerns in the way that you have.  In reading your response to my email it is hard to believe that you even read what I wrote to you, disregarding real events  to fit your own rationalization for what transpired.  It is as if you don’t understand the issue of disability access to be a human rights issue that this committee is obligated to address along with all other human rights issues.  Women, ethnic groups are frequently accused of playing victim, of not having a sense of humor, of poor communication, of misplaced anger, of bringing discrimination on themselves, of being uppity, too demanding, rude and of having difficult personalities.  (What effective human rights activist isn’t difficult when the situation calls for it?)
What you have totally disregarded is that there were several comments (not just one, as you state)  made by “Clarence” to me (including his response to  previous requests for ice to be set aside) in which he made abusive, offensive statements in reference to my body, weight and health.   Imagine, please if a Muslim or Jewish member of the group had requested to have pork separated from the other foods and someone repeatedly made disparaging comments that he insisted were jokes, as she became increasingly upset he began to wave pork sausages in her face and finding the whole situation deliciously amusing, laughed, and felt it was his place to determine the veracity of the need or the legitimacy of the request.
From your comments it is apparent that you have harbored ill feelings towards me and my expression of my disability and rights, for some time.  While we all would like to be liked all the time by everyone, there are more important considerations than popularity and personality.  Even if I am a difficult person, and even if “Clarence” expressed a resentment growing in the group towards me,  I have the right to request, even demand, accommodation.  It isn’t a favor the group provides to me individually, but actually a legally binding obligation, not just of this committee, but of the union as a whole.  The handicapped accommodations mandated by hard won civil rights activists, such as accessible rest rooms, elevators, parking spaces as they pertain to the UTLA building, extend by law, and  by right, to all activities of the union.  Had this been a private gathering at “Clarence”’s house he would be free to discriminate to his delight and if he could find disabled people willing to volunteer (or be paid) for the humiliation we get all too accustomed to, that would also be their decision.  But I should never have to decide between participation and humiliation and inaccessibility.  It should never be a personal issue.
We are all at fault for having this event at a venue that does not allow access to the disabled.  You are right.  I wasn’t feeling well.  I had just climbed up a flight of stairs and was anticipating a day in the sun in 100 degree heat.   Just getting to the event was very difficult. and many disabled people simply would not have been able to attend.  (I  do know of one other disabled person who did not attend for these reasons.)  Though it was difficult, unlike many, I was able to climb the stairs.   I carefully planned ways to deal with the heat and the stairs. I brought a scarf that I could soak with water and wear to keep cool, planned to drink cold water and to go inside if the weather became too hot or if I needed to lie down.  I tried to address my needs in advance,  without subjecting the group to my situation, and planned, when necessary to ask for help. But “Clarence’s” constant ridicule, which began before I even said “hello” and continued until I left, along with his mis-use of power as host to disallow me to use the strategies I had planned to use,  was absolutely unacceptable, and had  his statements been based directly on gender or race, rather than disability, (I hope) would have never been tolerated,  and my reaction would have been much more understandable.  (Fat jokes and comments about a woman’s body and the bullying nature of his behavior were in my opinion, also sexist, as well as ableist. though less blatantly so.)
To make this about personality gets you, “Clarence” and the committee off the hook.  I knew when I disturbed “the peace.”  It was just before I asked for help in securing ice.  “Clarence” had made it quite clear multiple times that I was not getting ice.  I thought to myself; “This is his house, his rules.”  But then I realized that this was not his event, it was an official event of the Human Rights Committee and UTLA.  He was not paying for the food, the union was. He didn’t have the right to marginalize me, that at the very least, this was an abuse of power.   It was at that point that I decided not to sit silently while my rights were violated, and to speak up. I was scared when I asked for support, but what were my options; sit quietly, leave, or defend myself while risking more ridicule and condemnation.   His continued ridicule and the lack of real support was devastating and isolating.  Your assertion that he was merely insensitive but that  I needed to be more accommodating and tolerant of his unusual sense of humor,  turns all civil and human rights logic on its end.
Yes, I wasn’t feeling well when I arrived. I  am disabled and have chronic pain and fatigue. Should I stay home?  Is that my “place?”  I find it hard to conduct the most banal of activities without running into daily humiliating and degrading situations.  DAILY!  and right now my fuse is very short.  It isn’t the illness that is so overwhelming, it’s the marginalization, ridicule and humiliation that I have to address constantly.  I have had store clerks put carts in my way, block aisles, talk to me as if I were three years old (check the tone of your email,) refuse me service, laugh at me.  I try to calmly present my concerns and needs, but the number of indignities wears me down.  I didn’t blow up on “Clarence’s” first offense, but well after his fifth or sixth comment and denial of accommodation and the refusal of the group to adequately defend my rights even after I asked for help.    It is hard to be a diplomat every day, every second, bombarded with obstacles and ridicule constantly.  — and to be sick at the same time it is often impossible.  Perhaps it is your position, it certainly can be implied by your statements, that I should simply not impose this on the group, that I should have stayed home if I wasn’t up to the climb up the hill, that I shouldn’t have “taken my anger out on “Clarence”,” that it was misplaced.  I wish I had had the ability to express my outrage more peacefully, but I also wish that “Clarence” had understood that this was not his event, but an official Committee meeting,  compelling him to act on behalf of the Union at all times so that everyone entitled to attend, could, and that  the rest  of you hadn’t been so unwilling to intervene on my behalf and the greater good,  before the situation escalated to the point where it was unredeemable.  As for your patronizing suggestion: I did try to decompress, and left the patio (twice!).  Andy came in to talk to me, and he did (as you suggest in your email), on my behalf, tell “Clarence” that his comments were insensitive and inappropriate. Aside from Andy, the only one to follow me into the house was “Clarence”,  making more incendiary comments and taking the opportunity to further limit my ability to take care of myself, by telling me that  the retreat was outside not inside, essentially coming after me to escalate the situation and essentially NOT allowing me to “take a breath.”  and get some distance.
I thought I was safe with this group, and most of the time I get a lot of help and I have expressed my gratitude for that repeatedly.  (It’s even on my blog.)  You condemn me for not staying to work this out, but I did ask for help, and beyond people insisting that “Clarence” set aside ice, none was provided.  (It should be noted that he had clearly refused to set ice aside up until this point.)   Without the structure for process, the willingness of the group to discuss difficult issues and address uncomfortable situations, I would have been, I was, on my own.  This was obvious when no one except Andy tried to diffuse the situation, confront “Clarence” in his abuse or ask me what was wrong on either of the two occasions when I left the patio and went inside to sit.
It is my right to be a member of this committee, and the obligation of the Committee to accommodate, not ridicule me or allow the ridicule of my condition or my request.  If “Clarence” was merely joking, then he would have stopped when he got no humored response, well before my outburst.  Sarcasm, ridicule, teasing and humiliation are not acceptable forms of humor.  When directed at protected classes (race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, disability) they are hate speech.  When they block access, they are discriminatory.  But humor was only a later defense, as you point out, and as Andy explains as well; “Clarence’s”  first defense was quite direct; he didn’t believe that I was really disabled and he resented how “self centered” I am.  This to him, and perhaps to you as well, are acceptable explanations for his behavior.  In essence he was merely putting me in his place.
If it wasn’t about disability then he wouldn’t have defended himself  by essentially accusing me of “faking it”  –as if I have some strange desire to accumulate expensive ambulatory devices.  Nor would you have confronted him on this insensitivity to disability if you felt that it wasn’t a key factor in the conflict.  I shouldn’t have to convince anyone of my condition anymore than women or people of color should need “Clarence’s” approval or recognition.  His arrogant assertion that I’m not really disabled is a very bigoted statement.  That neither of you feel that I act the way a disabled person is supposed to act is a sadder reflection on your own intolerance than on my presentation of my condition or my personality.  I am not responsible to the able bodied to fit their prescribed notion of a person with a disability. In the presence of a profound injustice, the correction of that injustice is a social and communal requisite and can’t be brushed aside because you don’t like my manners!
That you see him as the victim is more commentary on your desire for comfort than justice.  He tried repeatedly to limit my participation and to provoke me and made repeated disparaging remarks about my physical condition.  Then he told me where I could sit, and later, what I could say; what words I could use. This is not mere insensitivity, but a violation of my rights as a disabled person.  It is hate speech no less than if he had waved a confederate flag or handed out pornography as a joke, and offending a member of the community, continued to wave it and make disparaging remarks.  Had one of the women or an African American participant responded (when more measured responses failed)  with the same rage  I did, I hope you would not be so quick to blame the victim (while condemning her for being one, at the same time!) and I would hope that you would have been quicker to have offered more assertive support.
Strange, all I asked for was ice!  And it wasn’t for me alone.  We don’t know that there weren’t other people with compromised immune systems also in attendance who, fearing the treatment I received, or more deferential to formalities and niceties than I, might have chosen to remain silent.  Or perhaps they had a health condition that carries more stigma than my noncontagious condition, (the only stigma being;” funny, you don’t look disabled!”)  Instead, I was humiliated for my disability, which for you apparently isn’t even on the radar screen of the human rights agenda: the right of people with compromised immune systems not to be ridiculed for wanting food not contaminated by the hands of those with healthy systems.
I don’t hate you for what you have said, but do see it as a poor reflection on your own privilege and your inability, at least at this time, to see your perception in the context of the greater human rights framework.  You say you are comfortable “not understanding” but this is not enough.  Are you comfortable “not understanding” racism? sexism? To be a human rights activist (and a teacher!) you must understand the larger issues of access, accommodation and equality.   My own self determination entitles me, in the context of human rights, to decide which barriers I can surmount on any given day.  It is your obligation as a privileged, able bodied person to advocate for my full inclusion, personalities aside, for the greater good of human rights. That you don’t like the way I ask for help could be alleviated by assuring universal access regardless of personality so that the need to ask is removed from the disabled person.
“Clarence” has since provided me with a rather strange apology but then quickly established that he would continue to have the event at his home, that he and others were invested in this.  Why?  Why have the event at a place where the host was so insensitive to key human rights issues, to the extent that his actions barred access?  Why force anyone to decide to return to a venue that was inaccessible, humiliating and traumatic or to have to decide not to participate in an important function of the Committee?  Why decide between “the way we have always done things” (like a group of good ole boys,)  and the greater good, a greater understanding of social justice and a policy that would allow greater inclusion?  What use is an apology if it isn’t followed by real change  and amendment (amends) in behavior?  If it only serves the greater agenda (in this case, the continued privilege of hosting this event) of the person making the apology?
I won’t relent on this issue, as I wouldn’t back down on any human rights issue.  The side of the issue you choose to take is up to you.  I hope you reconsider your position on this matter, deeply reexamining the underlying assumptions that contributed to your reply and your interpretation of events.
Peace with Justice,
Emma

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One response to “Ableism in the Human Rights Committee- Part III

  1. Pingback: Ableism in the Human Rights Community: Part X « In Bed With Frida Kahlo

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