Saturday, August 23, 2008
Midnight Lessons: Rosa Parks and Tropic Thunder
I work the ovenight shift and a while back while I was filling my teacup with some very necessary caffeine one of the patients wheeled her way into the dining room. I asked her if she wanted something to eat, and while she waited for me to get her tuna sandwich and gingerale, two of the CNAs I work with walked by. They were laughing and one said to the other, “I’m not going to the back of the bus!”
They walked through and when I gave Mrs. R. her sandwich she was chuckling. She said that nowadays everyone understands that being made to sit in the back of the bus is wrong—it’s become such a common understanding that people just mention it in regular conversations. She laughed and said, “When it first happened you never would have known that it was going to take off.”
“Really??” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “There was Rosa Parks getting arrested, and all of the actions and riots and everything.
“And all around the country, folks were saying that even if they were allowed to sit in the front of every bus in the country, it wasn’t going to change prejudice. With all the serious issues that prejudice was causing (and still causes)—people were quite literally dying, you know—many people thought that fighting about bus seats was a waste of time.”
“I never knew that,” I said.
“Oh yes, the Civil Rights movement was quite split over it. Some people used it and said their fight—whatever it was—was a fight for respect too, just like Rosa Parks. Some people ignored it or put it down—those folks made themselves a harder road, but that’s the way people are.
“There were so many Civil Rights efforts going on around the country, but Rosa Parks having to move to the back of the bus was something EVERYONE could understand.”
Mrs. R. finished her sandwich and went to bed (after telling me about her years as a teacher and about her sons and grandsons that make her quite proud.) and I went to look up Rosa Parks on Wikipedia (Well, not right then, but when I had a chance!)
The article about Rosa Parks was interesting—what an upright and committed woman she was. My patient’s perception of the Civil Rights movement of the time wasn’t reflected there, but that might just have been her view, I really don’t know.
It is interesting to me to think about that conversation and the Disability Rights movement—especially in the last year or so. Until the last couple of years—with a few notable exceptions—the Disability Movement has been a pretty tentative thing.
There are many reasons for this:
-Uniting is hard—we all compete for the same funds.
-We want to be pleasant and grateful so as not to be de-funded or otherwise abused.
-We are busy leading within our organizations—we don’t have the time, energy or know- how for outreach.
-We can’t agree on styles of protest.
-We don’t agree on what’s worth protesting.
These and other issues weakened us.
Lambs wishing really hard that the lions would become vegetarians is the image in my mind.
Not an empowered approach!
Over the last couple of years it seems the disability movement is coming of age. We have come to recognize that we have more than hopes for fair treatment—we have rights. And we can do more than wish about these rights—we can expect them. This has changed our approaches and I for one am very pleased to see it.
I don’t know if the country-wide response to Tropic Thunder will be ‘sticky’ enough (read The Tipping Point and Made to Stick) to help the disability movement progress as it could, but it seems to have the potential in many ways: diverse groups have united for the first time, they have drawn a line in the sand, people around the country have gotten on the bandwagon—the relationships and the momentum built here could be used to bring us all forward.
In Rochester I am excited that diverse organizations are gathering to talk about respect for people with disabilities. That they are thinking in new ways, planning new respect initiatives, making new connections to build the expectation in our town that the voice of disability will be heard. No one is talking about the barriers or the systems—we are looking for the things we can agree with and do to build what I refer to as Presence, Credence and Influence.
The Tropic Thunder protest was not just about a movie or a word. It was about disrespect. The disrespect that allowed this movie to be made this way is the same disrespect that makes teachers feel that more corporal punishment for people with disabilities is acceptable. That disrespect is the same disrespect and disregard that allows neglect, abuse, system vs. consumer-driven living and all manner of other indignities.
At a fundamental level our society sees disability as diminishing and the people who have disabilities as lesser beings—or superior beings—either way, not as one of “us.” And historically people can accept truly horrible treatment of "thems."
It is time that this stopped.
This summer people heard voices saying this for the first time—in a place where they all go, about something they can all understand. This can become a launching pad or a stumbling block.
For myself, I’m hoping it’s a launching pad.
Picture from here.