Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

Disability Advocacy and Politics

Some Progress, but Wrong Priority

I just read this —

As a cultural worker, I’m excited to see the White House promoting accessibility to the arts. But I wish they’d get real, and give this high a profile to the issue of community-based long-term services and supports! If you are stuck in a nursing home, or don’t have help to get out of bed in the morning, it’s awfully hard to paint a picture or attend a symphony concert.

Maybe we need to start a movement of Disabled Artists for Community Choice! Would the administration start listening then?

Presidential Appointment Puzzle

Like most disability advocates and arts advocates, I’m not sure what to make of President Obama’s decision to appoint Chicago attorney Kareem Dale to two key positions. After the election, Dale was named to be the President’s special assistant for disability policy. Now, according to news reports, Dale has been chosen to head a White House initiative on arts and culture. No one seems to be sure whether he will be expected to carry both responsibilities, or whether someone else will be given the disability portfolio.

Should we be worried about Dale’s double duty? Does this mean that both arts and disability will get only .5 FTE worth of attention? Are the disability community and the arts community — both big supporters of Barack Obama during the campaign — getting short shrift?

Perhaps. But could there be another, more hopeful, possibility? Maybe this signals a new, high-level recognition of disability arts and culture. Maybe the dual appointment represents a view of these two issues as not only important, but somehow linked.

What might come from a White House-led boost for both disability rights and art? Here are a few possibilities —

  • A nationally-televised literary festival at the Lincoln Center featuring poets and writers like Petra Kuppers, Neil Marcus, Leroy Moore, Anne Finger, Eli Clare, Stephen Kuusisto, and others.
  • A major exhibit of the art of Riva Lehrer at the National Portrait Gallery.
  • Generous National Endowment for the Arts funding for performance groups such as AXIS Dance Company, Sins Invalid, and The GIMP Project.
  • We can hope, right?

    Cheney’s Villainy — Nothing to Do with His Wheelchair

    I never thought I’d be sticking up for Dick Cheney. But his appearance at the Inauguration today, riding in a wheelchair pushed by several Marines, has elicited so many nasty, disabiliphobic comments, that I find myself… well, not exactly defending Cheney, but at least defending the dignity of wheelchair use.

    Cheney apparently pulled a back muscle, and has to stay off his feet for a few days. Granted, with his clunky chair and his scowling countenance, he’s not exactly the model of the hip, sexy crip. Too many commentators, however, have turned the wheelchair into a mark of shame. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said, “The Vice President in that wheelchair… is a metaphor for the low esteem with which he’s held in this country. His numbers are pathetically low.” (Is Matthews aware of the fact that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the most effective and most popular presidents, governed from a wheelchair?)

    Around the Internet, I’ve seen numerous gleeful references to the image of Cheney in a wheelchair. Several compared him to Dr. Strangelove, the maniacal nuclear scientist in Stanley Kubrick’s film. Others invoke Mr. Potter, that mean old banker in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

    We don’t need another villain in a wheelchair. A villain he may be, with shared responsibility for torture, repression, and all kinds of other crimes against humanity. But the wheelchair has nothing to do with it.

    Jerry Lewis, Oscar-sanctioned “humanitarian”

    The news broke on December 10 that Jerry Lewis will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscar Award ceremony on February 22. Since Lewis’ primary, highest-profile, and as far as I know, only “humanitarian” effort is his many decades of hosting the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, I can only conclude that the Motion Picture Academy is rewarding Lewis specifically for perpetuating negative stereotypes of disabled people, whom he has referred to as “half persons.”

    As word has spread around the disability activist community, the tone of the e-mails has evolved quickly from disbelief, to anger, to determination. This award provides further evidence that Hollywood, and by extension mainstream America itself, still has no clue — or doesn’t care — about the disability rights movement’s analyses of the discriminatory attitudes and actions that we face.

    Jerry Lewis didn’t create those discriminatory attitudes, but he has helped fuel them. In 1990, he wrote that if he had muscular dystrophy and had to use a wheelchair, he would “just have to learn to try to be good at being a half a person.” During the 1992 Telethon, he said that people with MD, whom he always insists on calling “my kids,” “cannot go into the workplace. There’s nothing they can do.” That’s just the kind of thinking that has contributed to disabled people’s extremely high unemployment rate.

    Comments like these have led disability activists and our allies to protest against Jerry Lewis, and against the Telethon. We’ve argued that the Telethon promotes pity, a counterproductive emotion which undermines our social equality. Here’s how Lewis responded to the Telethon protesters during a 2001 television interview: “Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!”

    On February 22, 2009, we won’t be staying in our houses watching the Academy Awards. We’ll be publicly objecting to this award. We’ll be defending our own humanity against this so-called “humanitarian.” Stay tuned…

    For more information about the history of the Telethon protest, go to

    What the Obama Victory Means to Me

    The election of Barack Obama has so many different meanings. Around the world, millions of people watched yesterday as Obama declared victory, and each one experienced her or his own particular mix of emotions. Some, of course, were reacting to the changes ahead with dismay, anger, even fear. But a large majority were clearly moved by feelings of joy, relief, anticipation, astonishment, expectation, healing and — that word that has rung across the land throughout this campaign — hope.

    I see his triumph from a variety of perspectives.

    As a Coloradan, I’m elated that our state went so blue! Even though Obama had already reached the requisite 270 electoral votes before Colorado’s ballots were counted, I certainly feel more at home here in my home state than I ever have before. (And I’m proud of all the hours that my sister-in-law Lynn Marie, and my nephews Henry and Daniel, put into canvassing Denver neighborhoods for the Obama campaign.)

    As a person with a disability, I felt a powerful sense of belonging when Obama, during his victory speech, acknowledged the diversity and inclusiveness of the United States — “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled…” During his campaign, Obama convened some very smart disability policy advisers, and crafted a thoughtful, progressive disability issues platform. Nevertheless, his election night speech was the first time that I had heard Obama implicitly tell the whole nation that disabled people are an integral part of our society.

    As an activist, I’m excited about the possibilities for grassroots advocacy and change from the bottom up. During the formative years of his career, Obama worked as a community organizer, and I believe he still respects and values that process. Throughout his campaign, he has challenged us as citizens to engage in our communities, to work proactively for the changes we want. I am confident that he was referring to more than just getting him elected. For activists, just as for the President-elect, the real work is just beginning.

    Palin Opposes Amendment 51

    It didn’t take Sarah Palin long to show her true colors, and to betray those families to whom she had promised to advocate for “special needs.”

    During a campaign stop in Colorado today, Palin expressed strong opposition to Amendment 51, a citizens’ initiative aiming to expand developmental disabilities services to those who are currently languishing on the state’s waiting list. That’s more than 12,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities who need support such as in-home assistance, job training, therapies, and other critical services.

    These services are designed to enable developmentally disabled people to live more independently and to integrate into their communities. But the “slots” for these services are limited, a major barrier to health, opportunity, and quality of life for those who are still on the waiting list.

    Why would Palin oppose such an important measure? In her speech today, she invoked the horror of TAXES! Yes, raising the necessary $186 million will require some taxation. Specifically, Amendment 51 would phase in a sales tax of two-tenths of one percent. For a $10 purchase, that’s two cents — a miniscule amount, considering the value of these services to our whole society. (Gasoline, groceries, prescription drugs, medical services and utilities would NOT be taxed under this proposal.)

    But that’s too much tax for Palin’s taste! Instead, Palin says we should fund these services by “prioritizing the dollars that are already there in government.” Does she know something that we don’t know? There is a big pot of cash sitting around in the state coffers, just waiting to be “prioritized”?

    To read more about Palin’s opposition to Amendment 51, go to

    To learn more about the importance of Amendment 51, go to

    Why I Support Obama

    Election Day is now just a couple of weeks away and, in fact, some people are already voting, either by mail or at early voting locations. I’ve been thinking that I should write a post directly addressing the disability community, i.e. people with disabilities and our family members, friends, and allies. (Or maybe I should define “disability community” more broadly, to mean anyone who has — or will someday have — a physical or mental impairment, or a loved one who does. By that measure, we could be a truly decisive voting bloc!)

    Polls show that somewhere around six percent of voters are still undecided, and I know that at least some of those will ultimately make their choices based at least partly on issues related to disability. It appears that the candidates, this time around, are somewhat aware of this constituency.

    Early in his campaign, Obama began recruiting knowledgeable disability policy advisers, developing a coherent disability policy agenda, and reaching out to voters with disabilities. The clarity and thoroughness of his “Disability Plan” attest to the close attention Obama and his team have been paying to disability issues. For more information about Obama’s position on disability issues, go to .

    For his part, John McCain appointed a running mate who claims to have a special affinity with families of “special needs” children, by virtue of having a child with Down syndrome. (Though as a friend of mine recently pointed out, Trig Palin really isn’t a “special needs” child yet — he’s a little baby, with pretty much the same needs as every baby. Sarah Palin has yet to face the kinds of educational, employment, and support concerns that confront the families of children and adults with developmental disabilities.)

    For the record, I’m strongly supporting Barack Obama. I have several reasons, some connected to disability advocacy, and some to other concerns. In no particular order, here are the stances and qualities I most admire in this candidate:

    • He seems to get disability. By that I mean that he appears to understand disability, not simply as a private family matter, but as a broader concern involving funding for educational and social programs, and recognition and protection of our civil and human rights. While Palin talks about being “a friend” to special needs families, Obama talks about fully funding IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, so that public schools will have the resources they need to educate students with disabilities appropriately, alongside their nondisabled peers whenever possible. While Palin and McCain highlight her new son as evidence of her “family values,” Obama vows to invest in early intervention and developmental assistance to equip disabled kids for future success.
    • He sees beyond US borders, recognizing global connections. In the disability context, this means he will urge the United States Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I have been rooting for ratification since 2004, when I had the opportunity to witness and report on the early process of drafting the treaty at the UN. We are, in fact, a worldwide community, and Obama knows this.
    • He believes in providing needed support services to people with disabilities in their homes and communities, rather than forcing them into institutions. Obama’s commitment to this issue is not just hypothetical; he is a Senate co-sponsor of the Community Choice Act, which would expand community-based care throughout the nation. He also supports the Fair Home Health Care Act, in order to improve home care jobs, making it easier to recruit and retain high-quality workers.
    • He understands the original intent of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Obama objects to the way conservative courts have narrowed definitions of disability, and favored employers against plaintiffs in discrimination cases. One of his most lasting legacies may be the appointments he will make at all levels of the judiciary, including the US Supreme Court. He says he “will appoint judges and justices who respect Congress’ role as a co-equal, democratically elected branch of government and who exhibit empathy with what it means to be an American with a disability.”
    • He’s a good writer. I recommend Obama’s book, Dreams of My Father, as an enlightening and literary memoir. What, that’s not a good reason to vote for someone for president? Well maybe it’s not sufficient in and of itself. But the ability to construct a graceful sentence, to tell genuine and compelling stories, to narrate a world in which personal events and insights connect to historical precedents — these are valuable, transferable skills, skills which we have not seen in the White House for a while.

    You may agree with my reasons for supporting Obama, and/or you may have reasons of your own. Or you may even disagree, and have found some reasons to vote for McCain-Palin or for one of the third-party candidates. Either way, now is the time to exercise — to demand — your right as a citizen to participate in our democracy. So, no excuses — VOTE!