When the new Beetles came out, Gretchen had kicked around the idea of ditching all of the cab business and getting a car. Since cars came with lots of options but none that made the car driveable by her, she and the Recluse realized the car would have to be modified. Gretchen heard that lots of disabled people got financial help for such things through Voc-Rehab.
Look. You work. You’re not really eligible to be disabled. Air-quotes.
One sleepy post-lunch hour in her clinic office, she gave in to an impulse and looked up the number. When no one picked up at the main number, she worked her way through the extensions until a deep, annoyed voice said hello. That one call into the San Francisco office of Voc-Rehab pretty much cured any hope she had of even minimal financial assistance. The call also showed how employment was a universal solvent on the human stain of disability, at least where government agencies were concerned.
The counselor had more to say, nasally, on the overall lack of money available and went on to say that he himself was legally blind and had been waiting five years for a computer he could use. To do his job. Voc-rehabbing people who were legally blind, for example. So complaining to him was not really something he would be real open to hearing. If she didn’t mind.
Want in on the conversation about ableism? Check out what disabled advocates, civil and human rights activists, and philanthropic leaders had to say at the Twitter chat on 10/12/18 about philanthropy and inclusion. Then make your voice heard at #FundDisAdvocacy.
Foundation funding for disability advocacy dropped 23% between 2011-2015. Disabled people were the only group to see a decrease. Most funders are “aware” of disability but do they see ableism and structural discrimination? How do we make funders see disability civil and human rights as areas of actionable, urgent advocacy? A first step is recognizing disability as a constant but hidden set of variables in nearly all formulas for civil and human rights.
I’m writing to you in my capacity as a community organizer – which is another name for a social justice fundraiser.
I believe you and I share common ground on the importance of advocacy:
We know that the great civil and human rights gains of the last century, envisioned and organized by the grassroots, were built to last through the courts and legislation, and they will continue to be the battlefields for preserving them.
I’m writing because disability civil and human rights advocacy is missing from your funding portfolios.
The first step in changing that is frank communication.
When you do not explicitly say “disability” in funding advocacy, you send a message to us: Deny, disown, and downplay your disability identity. That denies all marginalized communities access to our hard-won legal tools and, worse yet, our expertise in using them.
You may understand this letter, at first, as pertaining to a discrete group: disabled people. But it is a fundamental mistake to think that civil and human rights for any community can be fully achieved if we neglect, forget, or disregard such a basic human condition as disability and allow it to be the “natural” cause of poverty and abuse. If we are not safe or free to be vulnerable, then we cannot call ourselves safe or free. Our society is not safe or free.
There was a remarkable lack of public debate in San Francisco — or anywhere else — on Adult Diaper Dispensation (ADD). All costs were loudly underwritten by The Dignity Foundation, a charitable body dedicated to community development, medical research, K-12 education, and, now, small businesses hit by the “squat-by defecation” of serial defecants.
Would you like a TDF annual report? We have one for you right here. It makes no mention of our corporate sibling and sponsor, a disposable paper-goods manufacturer that is aging out of infant goods into a more mature market. Our Dignity Initiative public information campaign takes a broad-based social education approach to bring the public up to speed on what we can do — together — through top-level messaging in high-traffic spaces with framing that deploys innocuous word-play rather that blunt fear.
This top-level messaging was visible to all who cared to look out the car window at the blinking billboard near the off-ramp at Duboce. Dignity Is No Accident(s).
I’m FEDup with transactional philanthropy that presumes disrespectful behavior can be overlooked if the price is right.
I have now been witness to: RespectAbility’s President, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi making a mistake; the unpleased reactions by disabled women of color; some thoughtful initial responses; Mizrahi’s cringe-worthy apology-type product; the official statement; and now (I’m guessing), The Great Moving On from uncomfortable conversations about ableism, racism, and disabled people of color within the disability rights community. [2018 UPDATE: Moving on didn’t work out so great.]
Part of me — the part that’s still polite to boundary-busting missionaries who ring my doorbell — initially wanted to say, “I’ve done this kind of racist shit myself. Sadly.” Then I remembered that much of that shit was when I was near the start of my career 25 years ago. When I would have lost my job — and Bi-Pap-providing health insurance — if I kept that shit up in our very progressive free clinic for gyn care. And how I had no safety net if I lost that job.
Everyone makes mistakes but the erring field is far from equal.
Depending on your class, Repercussions, Consequences, & Accountability are either the Three Furies that dog you even when you haven’t screwed up, or they’re the crisis PR firm you consider for damage control.
When you’re poor, unemployed, a woman, a person of color, a disabled person, or all or most of the above, making mistakes is far more likely to lead to words like “unqualified.” You are threatened with unemployment, fired, and/or are cut off from public benefits. In the worst case scenario, you haven’t made a mistake at all but are questioned, blamed, violated, beaten, shot, killed for being the person you are in public, in school, on the road, and at home.
When you’re affluent or “comfortable,” employed, a man, white, not disabled, or all or most of the above, making mistakes is more likely to lead to words like “executive coaching,” and “Let’s bring our communications person in to help.” In the worst case scenario, you “transition out” to what is often a better-paid job, aka “failing up.” If you are in a position to be a volunteer who has significant authority, the usual checks and balances on your behavior can be even weaker.
That’s when I first realized how integral money, class privilege, and power are to this recent incident. I haven’t seen any real repercussions, consequences, or accountability for Mizrahi — except for a bump to her prestige — and that’s just one infuriating aspect of how race and class insulate those with power.
Then I reread the official statement and I hit a whole new level of disturbed.
There’s an odd segue from mentioning a nonspecific action plan to the information that Mizrahi gives to many worthy causes.
“…It takes a deliberate action plan, education and implementation.
“Outside of RespectAbility, I donate to many worthy causes….”
Translation: “Giving money is a transactional arrangement for me; it’s either outright proof that I’m a good person or at least suitable cover when my behavior is criticized as racist.”
You can’t buy back respect. That’s not philanthropy.
Not even when you’ve laid claim to the word “respect” in the name of your organization. This is one place where class privilege hopes so very much to neutralize racism.
Understanding and dismantling my own race and class privilege is a lifetime of work. Being required to clean up my repeated failures was how I learned to act on — rather than merely speak of — these precepts:
- Transparent processes and equitable systems are far more trustworthy than promises made by an individual.
- Women of color do not exist to teach white women how not to be racist.
- Vague reassurances about doing better do not qualify as “accountability.”
Picture it: 1994-ish, the dilapidated second-floor gyn clinic, up from an iron-gated door open during clinic hours to the Upper Haight, San Francisco. A bunch of us staff are in the shabby waiting room with the furniture that will, at one point, give some of us scabies. It’s Wednesday morning, 10:30 or thereabouts, and the gate is closed because we’re having our weekly staff meeting.
Everyone takes a turn, everyone complains.
Nobody gets out of it.
Everyone is deeply offended and affirmed at some point.
It was during one of those weeks that I got religion, disability-rights-wise, and that was liberating but lonely because I was the only one crip who was out. It was where I became visible to myself and then to others. But it was the example of the women of color and/or queer women who showed me how to show up. I had to follow before I could lead.
Our Director had talked our CEO into funding a 2-year Diversity Specialist consultant who will work with our whole staff. Our goal was to improve our healthcare delivery for a diverse group of women. The weeks when she is with us are rough and there are relationships that are strained and sore afterward.
We do it. We keep doing it after the funding is gone. We bake what we’ve figured out into clinic procedures, position qualifications. It’s not about us individuals, our emotional reactions, anymore. We went beyond ourselves to build a better system.
We did what we could to level the erring field without limiting the heavy labor to the women of color who were involved.
Given that Mizrahi may be Too Big To Fail, here’s my (unsolicited) action plan for RespectAbility:
- Do not put Mizrahi in charge of the action plan.
- Do not put Mizrahi on the team in charge of the action plan.
- Accept that Mizrahi’s leadership position is another ethical hazard waiting to happen, and could be in conflict with the mission of the organization. (When reducing disability stigma and advancing employment best practices are part of your mission, your President’s ableist statements and expectation of unpaid labor from women of color with disabilities constitute conflicts.)
Yup, that’s the plan. You’re the board. Figure out the action plan for the organization.
Too drastic? Way harsh?
awkward necessary to say: Mizrahi is an affluent white woman executive whose manner in asking for help was that of someone Summoning The Help. The very people she had just offended. And when disabled women of color didn’t come a’runnin’, she was publicly resentful. That behavior was out of bounds.
- It is not the job of women of color with disabilities to educate a white, affluent executive with a disability about racism.
- If it is a job for women of color with disabilities, pay them for it. Budget for it.
- If it’s not a job, then be honest and admit it’s not a serious commitment.
In 2016, How To Relate To People Who Don’t Look Like You is an essential qualification for any job — paid or unpaid — in disability rights. Period. If you’re not prepared, it’s on you to get prepared.
It’s not quick or easy to truly understand intersectional oppression, nor does it make you perfect. It makes you a better imperfect person. I know because I was willing to do the work.
So. Get to work.