Subject: Important Letter re Disability Access at the ANSWER Office
Date: April 19, 2007 12:20:18 PM PDT
To: AndyCA6@aol.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, LAFSPRW6@aol.comand 44 more…
This is a letter to Ian of the ANSWER Coalition. This is not an open letter, but we are sending it to a few groups and leaders within the human rights community because, as Ian points out in his email (scroll down) this issue is not simply a problem for ANSWER, but for the much of the left. Please join this discussion by replying to all. If your organization is also in violation of these issues, then please, open yourselves to the possibility of dialogue, change and full access. If you have found creative ways to address these obstacles to full inclusion please share your solutions in what we hope will be a productive and healing dialogue that will serve to strengthen our collective efforts in building a more just and humane society. The U.S. left is too small to exclude anyone, and in that exclusion we discredit all our work, for if we cannot be examples of upholders of the rights of all, then how can we begin to demand justice for anyone?
Emma Rosenthal and Andy Griggs
Andy forwarded me your email (see below.) I did in fact send you two emails: one in response to a post on the Changelinks list and one to you personally, with “Attn Ian” in the subject line. First of all, I appreciate your concern for me, personally, but the issue is not about me and my accessibility, but the larger issue of discrimination, access and justice.
You point out that other human rights groups are also in violation of these basic human rights, and that’s true, but most of those organizations don’t hold their events in their inaccessible halls, they rent halls for large events. (Of course that still means that they don’t hire disabled employees and volunteers and it means that the employees and volunteers they do have would not be able to continue working there, were they to become disabled– and this is still unacceptable.) Your announcement of your new venue specifically says that this move will allow you to accommodate more people. but the truth is, that an entire sector, for whom accommodations are (at least theoretically) guaranteed by hard won civil rights law, cannot safely and freely access your establishment.
Furthermore, with so many human rights groups in direct violation of these basic human rights, how can any of you then speak to the greater issues of access and justice when providing no model, set of demands or leadership in this very area. In this sense you are all either unwilling, uninterested or unable to be allies in the fight for full inclusion as you are also is in violation of these statutes.
For this reason I have decided to send this correspondence to the other community leaders, because as you point out, this is part of a larger social problem and an issue the entire LA left must address. Having spoken with other disability rights activists. this issue is not new, that many groups have simply refused to hold meetings that are open to all, in direct violation of the American Disabilities Act, which requires events open to the public to be in full compliance with accessibility.
Additionally, the lexicon of disability rights needs to be fully infused into the human rights dialogue which cannot be done if we cannot even get our feet in the door. The awareness of what disability rights are, comes with the same diligent study as other forms of oppression and marginalization and must be informed by people with those disabilities.
But beyond that, ANSWER is special. It is the largest anti-war mobilizing organization in the area, perhaps in the country, attempting (and to its credit, for the most part, succeeding) to build broad based coalitions, but by having an inaccessible venue, you are explicitly not working (on equal footing) with disability rights groups. furthermore, as a coalition, you force other groups working with you, to take into account your lack of access when determining which of their members to send to your meetings.
When I called your office I was NOT told that there were efforts being made to make the hall accessible, only that people would carry disabled people up the stairs. This sincere though unacceptable offer of assistance should never have been made. It is degrading, humiliating and dangerous, and while individual disabled people may be willing to undergo such humiliation, as a policy it is unacceptable. It is even more degrading for women, as most, if not all of the people doing the carrying are men. Trusting untrained people with one’s safety, not to mention the safety of expensive medical equipment (much of which is not covered by insurance or medicare policies!) is not acceptable. The suggestion is rude and patronizing. (If you can’t afford an accessible space, how can you afford the liability of injury to someone lifted up a flight of stairs by untrained strangers –or the cost of lawsuits for not providing access to public events?)
The person I spoke to in your office also justified this policy based on cost. But cost is never an excuse for violation of rights, discrimination or unsafe conditions. You would not have, for cost effectiveness, (one would hope) rented a space that required activists to walk through a strip club, and when women complained that it was unsafe and humiliating, that they could be carried or escorted by men, or provided blindfolds to avoid observing the offending events. You would not have accepted bargain prices at the cost of renting space next to an INS office or a Minuteman hangout, or, rented space in a sunset town, where people of color were expected to be off the streets by nightfall, offering some minimal guarantees of protection while requiring that the activist attempting to attend take the greater risk and suffer humiliation at your hands even before the meeting began.
Helping me into the hall is not sufficient. Truth be told, I could probably manage the steps, but the last time I allowed “comrades” to help me upstairs was at the UTLA Human Rights Committee retreat where I found myself in a humiliation and dangerous situation when one of the “comrades” (who was hosting the event in his house) repeatedly ridiculed my disability while much of the rest of the group refused or was unable to contradict the host and defend my rights. (Later the entire debate revolved around how I had offended him and couldn’t take a joke!!!) When I wanted to leave, I could not without waiting for assistance from the very people who were finding my entire predicament either amusing, bewildering or were offended at my assertion of my rights. (For a more detailed description, go to my blog!http://inbedwithfridakahlo.blogsource.com/?tag_text=human%20rights%20committee) — It is also why the Human Rights Committee was so unable to fend off Zionist pressure to cancel a BDS meeting. The UTLA leadership in order to ensure their popularity in upcoming elections, when letter after letter came in attacking the Human Rights Committee’s affiliation with (my organization) Cafe Intifada, used the divisions within the Committee to capitulate to that pressure, and some members of the Committee, bitterly resentful of disability rights even to the extent that they denied that my disability existed, were more than willing to capitulate because it provided them with an opportunity to shut me out. I found that I was no longer able to defend Palestinian rights or the larger human rights agenda because of the pervasive resentment of my assertion of my rights as a disabled person.
I had hoped when I became disabled to continue the work I was doing; to essentially, be a human rights activist with a disability, but the pervasive limited access, the bitter, hateful and fearful (or at best, patronizing) reaction to disability rights within the greater human rights movement, has made my former activism impossible. The attitudes, prejudices and barriers of an ablest society are much more disabling to me than my disability itself. That I have to fight to get my foot in the door (as you point out) of so many human rights groups in the city is demoralizing and marginalizing. What are disabled activists to do? Shrug our shoulders and say, “We understand, we’ll wait until after the revolution”? Should we allow ourselves to be pushed to the sidelines while the rest of you carry the fight? Would you ask that of any other group? (Actually, that was the excuse given by otherwise progressives within UTLA when we were told by President Duffy not to discuss Palestinian human rights because it would offend so many other union members ; that Palestinian rights were too costly an issue to address in the union hall. It is the argument of many anti-war activists, that we shouldn’t take up the issue of Palestinian human rights, that it’s too too controversial, too divisive that it prevents us from reaching more people. But we cannot fight for human rights without fighting for everyone’s rights. To exclude any group is to deny us our full humanity!)
It is hard to explain to able bodied people how pervasive disability discrimination is. Personally, and I am hardly unique: It cost me a job of 18 years. It cost me my place in my union hall. Often people with disabilities cannot access public transportation, most restaurants or stores. An ordinary event like grocery shopping often turns out to be humiliating and impossible. Although it may be difficult to understand or believe, it is not uncommon for store clerks, when seeing me or any other disabled person, in scooter, or with a walker or wheelchair, to put obstacles in our path. Some clerks are bold enough to do this in full view and to the amusement of their employer or supervisor. To add insult to injury, many of L.A.’s dog parks are not accessible to wheelchairs or scooters!!!!! The walking trails at Elysian Park are blocked to wheelchairs; that is, the terrain is accessible but the entrance is not. There is one off leash trail in Los Angeles. It is not accessible. It is easier to find dog accessible facilities on most city web pages, than to find which facilities offer disability access. The rest room at the park near the Westwood Federal Building is not wheelchair accessible, and once inside, the stalls are not accessible either. (Disabled demonstrators must go several blocks to find a bathroom, often having to pass through hostile counter demonstrations to do so.) Even the sidewalk in front of my house is not accessible. These are daily indignities. I am writing you this letter, which takes hours of thought and craft. It replaces the hundreds of other letters I could just as easily be writing to other businesses, programs and events to which my access is barred on a daily basis. It is rare for me to leave the house without encountering some obstacle to access of services most people take for granted or for enduring some humiliation when my vulnerable status provokes bullying and ridicule.
As a small business (which includes non profits) you are obligated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make sure that all services are fully available to all sectors of the public. I would hope that the left would never consider having an event that was not a model of accessibility, consulting with disability rights activists in all phases of the planning. The left should not only be abiding by existing law, but demanding though word and deed, greater access and rights. You have a moral obligation to exceed the legal requirements when it comes to any issue of human rights.
Furthermore, in your announcement of your open house, you do not even recognize the difficulty that your venue imposes on people with disabilities. Do you expect us to call every establishment we wish to frequent? Would it have been unreasonable, having had access to your previous venue, to assume that you were providing similar facilities (especially when you state that this new venue will allow you to accommodate more people) or to assume that you were not in violation of the law in having an open house that was not fully accessible? Is our time of so little value that we could spend an evening attempting to attend an event only to be faced with the daunting options of exclusion or humiliation? Or are we, simply invisible, until some uppity gimp has the audacity to bring the issue to your attention?
Discrimination is profitable, fighting discrimination is costly. The rationalization that real estate is expensive only uses the market to further justify daily humiliations and marginalization. It is important that we go beyond the medical model of disability rights that sees us as client and patients relegated to our homes and hospital beds, and embraces the civil rights model of full access. We need to be seen as more than just clients, but rather participants in design and accommodation. This is what was also wrong with my conversation with your office. The person I spoke with never attempted to include me in the problem solving, merely told me he understood but all that he could offer was that I would be carried into and out of the hall. (We never did get to discuss if the bathrooms were accessible and what humiliating options that might pose!)
I wish you had raised this as a public concern, welcoming the input of disability rights activists while you were searching for space, before you took on the encumbrances of a lease. We could have perhaps found many solutions. Those of us with disabilities face daily the cost issues of access and housing, while simultaneously facing employment and income limitations imposed by not only our own physical condition but by bigotry and discrimination. We have found solutions through necessity that you may have overlooked with privilege. Now you are limited to finding solutions within the building you have made a commitment to (unless your commitment to full human rights could over ride that.)
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss ways to make this building accessible. Anything else would mean capitulating to a criteria that is substandard to what is minimally required by legal statutes that themselves are insufficient.
One place to start is with your obligations under the ADA. I think your choice of words here is most interesting; that you have appealed to the landlord. we don’t appeal for rights. We demand them. The landlord has an obligation (if not by law then by right) to allow you to provide whatever access you deem necessary. (And it is a full tax write off for him if he shoulders the expense!) We need the same revolutionary spirit in this arena as in all others. I fight not only for my rights, but for yours too. Any one of us can become disabled. Think about how you will have to reorganize your life, not only around the limits imposed by the disability, but by those imposed by the society at large were you become disabled, a transformation that can come at a moment’ notice and happens to everyone, if they live long enough. (Perhaps this is one key reason why the non-disabled would rather not have to see us, it is too big a reminder of their own vulnerability; why their most compassionate response to disability is assisted suicide and not humane treatment and full social access.)
Please let me know how I, and other disability rights activists can work with you to solve this problem in a way that is fully cognizant of our fullest humanity, our rights and our inclusion.
In solidarity, and with the greatest respect for the important work that you do,
I haven’t seen an email from Emma to email@example.com. Did she email this address or just reply to our posting on Changelinks or Dopex? She did call the office and spoke to Carlos today though. He said she seemed very upset. That is really too bad.
Unfortunately, this building has no elevator, but it has two sets of stairs–front and back. It certainly is not ideal, but it is the best we could get with our limited budget and time pressures for moving. With March 17 and then April 7, we had almost no time or resources left to find an office.
And with prices in LA, we were almost priced out of the city. Like nearly every other grassroots organization with a very limited donor base, we had to make due with this. It isn’t perfect or what we strive for, but it is what we could get.
We’re sorry about any inconvenience it causes you or Emma. We assure you that we will make every effort to accommodate disabled people who wish to attend meetings at our office. I’m sure this problem pops up elsewhere–like the Peace Center, the IAC office, and many other office building–but it is something we have tried hard to avoid.
We have appealed to the landlords to try to rectify the situation, but we can’t make any promises.
Thanks for your support and understanding.
—– Original Message —-
From: “AndyCA6@aol.com” <AndyCA6@aol.com>
Sent: Monday, April 16, 2007 12:34:14 AM
Subject: Re: Next ANSWER Meeting – Tues, April 24, 7pm
Would love to attend–but as Emma inquired, is there an elevator and parking close enough to accomodate accessibility for the handicapped?
From Naomi Jaffe:
Naomi Jaffe probably needs no introduction. She was a member of the Weather Underground and has dedicated her life to social justice and human rights. (You can catch her in the film.) I included her in this dialogue because of discussions I have had with her on this specific issue and felt that she could give important input into this very real dilemma.
Thank you so much for your contribution to this discussion, especially your correction regarding of the status of people of color and women within the left. We don’t disagree. In fact I have found that sexism and ableism are very close companions, with expectations of feminine decorum and invisibility even higher when requesting accommodation. I agree that the struggles against racism and sexism are hardly resolved. But in looking for parallels to access I was stymied. It is hard to imagine a situation within the LA left where women or people of color couldn’t even get their foot in the door; where requests for mere access were met with solutions that were dangerous or humiliating. Most (though not all) events in Los Angeles allow entry to everyone regardless of lack of funds, and there is at least enough awareness of the rights of immigrants, women and people of color that a venue that prohibited their entry without humiliating or dangerous solutions would be hard to imagine and would raise a flurry of controversy. It’s why my examples (a strip club, INS office etc) seem ridiculous. It would never happen, (as I stated; one would hope!)
Although, as I mentioned, the response to Palestinian human rights seems to meet with at least as much resistance as disability rights and has resulted in the exclusion and vilification of those who attempt to raise the issue, which was the only step-child issue I could find within the political dialogue in Los Angeles. (Though Sonali will point out that Afghanistan is pretty much ignored; no one is marginalized for raising the issue.) In this sense, inclusion can mean complicity with a status quo that is decidedly opportunistic and racist.
ANSWER is especially sensitive to issues of race and gender. Their events reflect an unusual attention to diversity of cultures, values, politics, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, etc. I hope that they will reflect on this issue and embrace it with the same vigilance and determination.
The opposite of access for everyone is collusion with the culture of inequality.
Emma, you have said most of it better than I can. But just as racism is a problem of white people, and we white people are responsible for seeing, understanding, and overturning it, disability rights are a problem of and for the non-disabled, to recognize, educate ourselves and others about, and combat. In both (and all other) cases of oppression, we do this not out of compassion or generosity, but because we cannot do the work of changing the evils we confront in the world any other way. We cannot survive any other way.
Nobody said it was going to be easy. Every issue of inclusion is a case of swimming upstream against a dominant culture of segregation and the utter failure of our society to value anyone’s life and dignity. If we are not building our social change movements in a way that overturns those deadly values, we might as well give up and join the ranks of the oppressor, where we would have a much easier time, not having to struggle constantly against internal and external racism, sexism, heterosexism and all the other isms. Why not just swim with the current? If we are not about valuing all the components of our precious universe, what are we about?
THE MASTER’S TOOLS WILL NEVER DISMANTLE THE MASTER’S HOUSE. (Audre Lorde)
Emma, the only place I disagree with you is when you imply that progressive groups would not be as careless about the rights of women or people of color as they are about disability rights. None of these battles have been won yet. One can still find left forums where four or five white males constitute the range of expert analysis; feminist publications with a token woman of color; anti-war groups where tackling racism and homophobia is considered a distraction from the business at hand; and conferences too costly for people with limited economic resources. Some advances in consciousness have been made on all these fronts, and different organizations have very different levels of awareness and practice, but the gains are still spotty. I agree that despite some changes hard-won by disability rights activists, our movements are even more backward on disability awareness than on other issues. I once went to a conference on inclusion with a friend who uses a wheelchair, only to find that we couldn’t get into the conference center! (This actually happened: they were thinking of race and sex, not disability.) One particularly dismaying way we lag is the absence of non-disabled voices reminding us that disability access is not a distraction from our work, it IS our work, just as every other fight for total equality is our work.
As for the practical difficulties facing any organization in implementing disability access, they are formidable, but without uncompromising commitment as the first step, we will never get to step two, implementation. As you say, Emma, people living with disabilities have a mountain of useful experience, gained the hard way, that they will be more than willing to share once the commitment is there. Albany, New York, where I live, is an old town with a lot of pre-access architecture. Our organizations that have a commitment to use accessible spaces know the few venues we can use (mostly church halls) and we plan around their availability. In the old buildings that belong to our alternative institutions, we arrange their use so we have meeting space on the first floor and we use it. None of us can remotely afford full elevators, and so far our attempts to finance them with grants, fund-raising and arrangements with construction unions have not borne fruit. But one institution, housed in a very common style of old Albany building where none of the floors are at street level, put in one of those small outdoor lifts to access the basement, and converted space there to public meeting space. And yes, there are organizations that continue to ignore the issue and go on trying to operate progressive organizations in spaces that scream exclusion and inequality.
The practice of inequality, injustice, and hierarchy will fatally weaken our movements for change morally, intellectually, and practically. This is what Audre Lorde means when she says the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Equality, real equality, universal equality, is the most radical concept we have. It is the only weapon strong enough to take on the massive forces of greed and violence which now dominate and threaten to extinguish our world.
From Sonali Kolhatkar:
Dear Emma, Andy, Ian, et al,
Thank you Emma and Andy for bringing up this very important issue. Personally,
I am indebted to Emma for helping me understand my own ignorance when it came
to issues of disability and access. I am ashamed to admit that I rarely thought
about such issues and I suppose few of us do because we feel it doesn't or won't
affect us. But that's not true. Just like racism and sexism affects us all,
so does prejudice, conscious or unconscious, against the disabled.
KPFK is not exempt either. We have a two story building without an elevator.
This impact if felt greatest with respect to the Pacifica Archives, which are
exclusively housed upstairs (while KPFK has most facilities on both floors).
It is an issue that must be tackled.
We need a sea-change in the way we think about access. We must all become
as sensitized to it, as we are to racism, sexism, and other insidious -isms.
We must all make the effort particularly by example. Perhaps ANSWER will
consider, as a first step, holding all public events in accessible arenas
(although that doesn't address the issue of access to disabled volunteers
and members - but it would be a start). Thank you Emma and Andy for raising
such an important issue.
From Michael Novick
Anti-Racist Action-LA supports disabled access and believes that "progressive" organizations
must be much more self-critical and do a much better job about accessibility. We make every
effort to hold our events and meetings at accessible venues such as the YJC Chuco Justice
Center, the Southern CA Library, etc. Our awareness on this issue goes back to a Martin
Luther King Day activity we held jointly with the Valley Interfaith Council in the late
1980's, when we were rightly criticized for neither reaching out to the disabled community
(whose members have been the victims of hate crimes and bigoted violence, as well as state
repression) nor making efforts to have our event be accessible to disabled speakers or
protesters. We were able to successfully rectify our program and our site prior to the
actual rally, and the participation of a disabled speaker and of disabled protesters was
acknowledged and appreciated by everyone involved -- and noted for its rarity. As an anti-
fascist organization, we have exposed and opposed the racism and sexism of fascist groups
that have blatantly advocated the liquidation of the disabled and the roots of Hitler's
genocide in US eugenics proponents who advocated and made government policy the forced
sterilization of many disabled people. Over the years we have printed articles from the
disability rights movement (such as a sharp critique of Million Dollar baby and it
euthanasia theme), worked with blind comrades in the Puerto Rican independence movement,
Mexicano movement and the prisoner solidarity movement, as well as with many PWAs, and
others with medical disabilities and debilitating conditions, and seen first hand that
physical disabilities and medical conditions are no barrier in and of themselves to the
ability to provide insightful leadership and challenging examples of commitment, struggle
and solidarity -- that it is only the obtuseness and patronizing attitudes and
unwillingness of "movement activists" to take the necessary steps and actions that makes
the movement inaccessible and exclusionary. This is extremely short-sighted and self-
defeating and is rooted in racism and sexism, and denial. How can we build our movement
without making it accessible to GIs and vets who have been disabled by the imperial war
machine, to prisoners, ex-cons, homeless and other poor people disabled by denial of
access to medical care, to immigrant and other poor workers and youth who have been
disabled by backbreaking labor, deadly chemicals, malnutrition and grinding poverty
and exploitation? Obviously we cannot and must not. The time for lame excuses is over.