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

December, 2009:

The Meaning of Christmas (according to me)

I’m no preacher, no sage, no Linus Van Pelt; but like most westerners enduring the commercialized chaos of Christmas, I occasionally find myself thinking about what the season might really mean. When I do think about it, here’s where my thinking leads: The meaning of Christmas, like the meaning of life, has to be invented, not discovered, by each seeker after truth. It’s not sitting there blinking at us like a Christmas tree. It’s not sitting there at all. It’s whatever we decide.

I’ve decided that for me, the multifarious meanings of Christmas include some or all of the following:

Giving and receiving can be equally pleasurable, but only if both acts are committed in good faith, without any expectations of gain or loss.

Certain color and light combinations are very therapeutic, in small doses. (Holiday decorations lasting more than a month are contraindicated.)

Something about this time of year makes us think even more about peace, and its terrible absence in our world today. Thinking about it is, and should be, beautiful and uncomfortable. John and Yoko said that better than I ever could.

Especially for children, presence is more valuable than presents. (I stole this from someone’s Facebook status.)

If you eliminate all the noise and clutter (malls, stress, drunken office parties, etc.), Christmas can be a time of quiet joy. Or it can be a day like any other, which might also be good.

Most people over the age of 12 seriously underestimate the element of surprise.

Some Christmas symbols that we consider timeless icons were actually concocted by individual human brains, and in some cases revised after one or more false starts. For example, Tiny Tim was originally named Tiny Fred until Dickens changed it. Therefore, we should be skeptical about sanctifying any yuletide trope, and willing to come up with something better when necessary. For example, we could transform Tiny Tim again, from a pathetic, sugarcoated little wretch into a rebellious tyke who grows up to become a pioneer disability-rights advocate. (Maybe he could reclaim his original name. We’ll call him Fierce Fred.)

Speaking of Christmas and cripples, what’s up with Mr. Potter? Really, capitalism has not done that much for disabled people, so why make a wheelchair user into the ultimate evil capitalist? On the other hand, good ol’ George Bailey’s hearing loss is a result of his selfless nature, and a symbol of the positive impact he’s had on the world. When he regains the hearing in one ear, it’s an anti-miracle of his never having existed, never saving his brother from drowning, who in turn wasn’t around to save a boatload of sailors. Sure, it’s cornball stuff, but who doesn’t love thinking that we all matter?

Whether ultimately we do matter or not, here we are. We might as well light candles, sing songs, feast together, stuff some stockings, have some fun, be nice to each other.

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Christmas is all about.

Does Dartmouth Study Distort Health Spending Data?

In the ongoing health care debate, it seems that we hear more frequently about patients costing too much money, rather than about the vast amounts being hoarded by the profit-hungry corporate insurance system and/or wasted by senseless decisions in both the private and public sector.

A current article in the New York Times describes the findings of a study conducted by Dartmouth health policy researchers, which criticizes hospitals that provide extensive treatments to people who are “dying.” But, as the article points out, the Dartmouth study only included figures relating to patients who did die. It leaves out very sick patients who received treatments and lived, or even got better.

For example, the article describes the case of 71-year-old Salah Putrus, who had a long history of heart failure and was hospitalized in order to be evaluated for a heart transplant. Despite his age, doctors at UCLA Medical Center pursued proactive diagnoses and treatments. “They changed his medicines to reduce the amount of water he was retaining,” the article reports. “They even removed some teeth that could be a potential source of infection. His condition improved so much that more than six months later, Mr. Putrus has remained out of the hospital and is no longer considered in active need of a transplant.”

This is an important corrective to the typical arguments against spending money to treat elderly and sick people. “Because Dartmouth’s analysis focuses solely on patients who have died, a case like Mr. Putrus’s would not show up in its data,” the article explains. “That is why critics say Dartmouth’s approach takes an overly pessimistic view of medicine: if you consider only the patients who die, there is really no way to know whether it makes sense to spend more on one case than another.”

Another study, in fact, demonstrates that in treating people with heart failure, spending more does result in higher rates of recovery. The hospital with the highest rates of spending on heart failure treatment demonstrated one-third fewer deaths six months after an initial hospital stay. This is not futile spending, but rather spending that does what medicine is supposed to do: save lives and improve people’s health. To argue against such spending is ethically indefensible, yet such arguments seem to be gaining ground.

Policymakers need to consider different sources of data when considering expenditure decisions. In the words of one epidemiologist quoted in the Times article, “If you only look at the failures, you miss the benefit.”

Question: Would Anyone Really “Hurt the Handicapped”? Answer: It Happens More Than You Think

Is there such a thing as a hate crime based on disability?

When President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law last month, much of the excitement centered around the inclusion of sexual orientation. I too am moved that federal protection has now been extended to LGBT folks attacked by those who cannot tolerate our different expressions and gender and/or sexuality.

Equally importantly, the bill also covers crimes targeting people with physical or mental disabilities. This aspect has received less attention, possibly because many people find the very concept of disability hate crime difficult to fathom. Who could hurt the handicapped? What kind of a dirty low-life would sink so low as to prey upon a helpless disabled person?

Ironically, these common questions reflect social biases which actually contribute to violence against people with disabilities. When we are lumped into a stereotype called “the handicapped,” and seen as easy targets, passive and vulnerable, then perpetrators are more likely to seek us out and to get away with their offenses. On the other hand, when we are active and respected in our communities, we can count on some natural protection: visibility, connectedness, and legal recourse.

Hate crimes targeting disabled people do occur. In 2007, the FBI tracked 82 hate crimes spurred by disability bias, the majority (62) directed at people with mental disabilities. Those federal statistics reflect only a fraction of this growing problem. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation recorded 42 hate crimes against disabled people, reflecting an 88% increase since 2007.

That figure represents only 1% of last year’s official incidents of hate violence, but I suspect it significantly underestimates the scope of the problem. Even more than other minority groups, disabled people are most likely to be victimized when they are isolated. Crimes against victims with disabilities often occur in segregated environments such as nursing facilities and residential schools. These offenses are less likely to be reported at all, and are more difficult to investigate.

Further distorting the statistics, crimes against people with disabilities rarely get framed as “hate crimes.” Other labels come more readily available, such as “abuse of a vulnerable adult,” “exploitation of an incapacitated person,” and others. These terms themselves contribute to a mindset that views people with disabilities as inherently weak, ripe for attack. Such thinking implicitly blames the disabled person, rather than the perpetrator, for the crime.

Though welcome, the new law may prove less effective in protecting my community. Attackers, more often than not, work in positions of power, in fields such as human services or law enforcement, and may therefore commit their crimes under cover of their authority. Will these offenses be counted as hate crimes?

Still, the new hate crimes law takes another step toward preventing violence against people with disabilities, if only because it recognizes both the value we offer to society, and the risks we face.