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October 17, 2014

Taking Away the Right to Vote

While politicians and other elected officials are making every effort to convince more Americans to vote in the upcoming national election, there looms an unfathomable barrier to people with disabilities as they seek to exercise their most basic and important right as Americans: the right to vote.

Los Angeles is one place in the land of the free, for example, which is requiring thousands of people with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and other intellectual or developmental disabilities to pass a literacy test before being granted the right to vote. This is an outright violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The problem does not end there. After doing research, I found that this type of discrimination has been in place in some form or another for decades, and that only 12 states in the nation do not have laws limiting voting rights for individuals based on competence.

Twelve out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia ... That's stunning and certainly not in a good way. The U.S.A is called the land of the free for a reason, more than one reason actually. However, it is not the land of the free to discriminate! Yet, somehow, city and state governments keep getting away with it.

We want people to be informed and participate in the voting process, yet we still make extremely difficult for some individuals to do so. Let's take autism for example. There are many different types of autism and there are many different types of people on the spectrum. To quote a parent advocate, "Autism is a broad spectrum, and there can be low skills and there can be high skills. But what I observed was that people tend to just dismiss it as though they have no skills." The same is true with cerebral palsy. It is way past time we stop viewing every disability category as if it affects everyones who has it in the same way. Every individual with a disability is affected in a personalized way, no broad-brush strokes allowed.

If a person wants to vote and can state the desire to do so, then they should be allowed to vote. This is about freedom; the freedom to cast a vote and be counted. Last time I checked it was that sort of freedom upon which this country was founded.

Here in New York, I wonder what it says about the state when we still use lever voting machines? Machines that are wholly inaccessible for people with disabilities and that are so out of date that production of them stopped completely in 1982. Think about that for a minute and then ask yourself if any of this makes sense? When we question people's competence by using outdated assumptions and limiting accessibility, we are violating a
basic right of every American. On November 4th, let's let freed ring for people with disabilities by sending a message for greater accessibility

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Tags: Autism; Advocacy; Independant Living

September 19, 2014

The Disability Notion of the X-Men

The comic book world is home to many super heroes.Even if you have never picked up a comic, chances are that you know some of them such as Batman, Superman and Spiderman, to name a few. One of the most popular groups of super heroes of today, The X-Men, explores the human side of being a super hero. With very successful comic book and film franchises, the X-Men tackles the super hero genre and its often over-the-top storylines with realism.

What separates the X-Men from their super hero counterparts is that they were born with their abilities. If we take their super abilities and remove the super aspect, then we are presented with a group of people with disabilities; due to the discrimination and oppression faced by the X-Men, from a fearful society. The leader and founder of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier (Professor X) who has Paraplegia, uses a wheelchair. He also possesses telepathic powers.  It is important to note that there is no link between being in a wheelchair and having telepathic powers. Any notion of a tradeoff between disability and superpower is unrealistic.

The film franchise, which began in 2000 with X-Men deals often with discrimination and intolerance. This year saw the release of the seventh film Days of Future Past, which became the highest-grossing film in the series. The films have featured Hollywood stars such as Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman and Jenifer Lawrence, amongst many others. This has expanded the exposure of the X-Men as the characters have leapt from the comic book page to cultural phenomenon of the 21st century.

Looking at the popularity of the films, which storylines deal with subtexts of discrimination and intolerance against people of difference, the impact is universally positive, despite the sensationalism of the characters' super abilities. The fact is that you can replace the word "mutant" with the word "disability" in any of the movies and the level of discrimination and intolerance is altered very little, for the world represented onscreen is strikingly similar to the real world.

Besides people who do not get (or refuse to get) the everyday implications of the films, the main drawback in presenting characters that simultaneously have superabilities and disabilities is the assumption that people with disabilities have superabilities akin to those seen in the movies, such as the ability to control the weather, to emit a powerful energy beam from one's eye, or to protrude long indestructible claws from one's hands.  The everyday implications are vast, with humanity's flaws on full display in the films: from the Holocaust to human/mutant experimentation, from Senate hearings on whether mutants are dangerous or not, to lingering social fear, when a parent asking her son if he "ever tried... not being a mutant?" From developing a short lived "cure for" Mutation, to engineering robots to hunt and kill Mutants.

While the Holocaust is the only historical event represented in the movies, none of the situations in the movies are far-fetched and any of them could happen, which is very terrifying. It is a fear to be mindful of, rather than letting it drain the excitement from the films. 

An in-depth analysis, elaborating on certain scenes (there are many) that illuminate how socially conscious the films are, is a much larger topic than this post can cover. However, the voiceovers that open and close the second movie reveal insights on the disability notion of the X-Men and how the universe that they exist in is just a mutation of our own. In the words of Professor X, "Sharing the world has never been humanity's defining attribute."

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On the subject of what is considered normal, actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg offers us this insight, "Normal is nothing more than a cycle on a washing machine." I first saw this quote as a meme on a social networking site, in the picture used to illustrate the quote was a young daughter asking her mother what does normal mean? On hearing her daughter's question, the mother laughs and without even looking away from the magazine she is reading answers her daughter. 

According to YAI's website, "Hankering For More (HFM) is a program available to high-functioning adults with learning and developmental disabilities who live in and around New York City. HFM provides intellectually and culturally stimulating social and educational opportunities that encourage meeting new people, making friends and developing life-long social skills."

If you ask several people what they consider normal, you are bound to get several different answers, especially if you ask people from different cultures. The term "same" is usually on par with the term "normal" while the term "different" is not. However, in my opinion, normal and different are more alike than people think. To be different is to be normal since all of us are unique in our own way. Common is a word to say normal and that is much less threatening.

The fundamental reason humans hold so tightly to the concept of normal is because of our collective obsession with sameness. With sameness, we feel safe and protected. With difference, we feel uncomfortable and in danger. Humanity has a very long history of trying to uproot difference by demonizing it every chance we get, even though we were always meant to be a diverse collection of abilities.

The idealistic desire to be perfect, which masquerades itself as a need, is in fact, nothing more than an illusion. One that can never be fully realized or accepted because this world in which we live in is imperfect and as such, the imperfect cannot handle the perfect. Even if it could, perfection is boring — there is no push to improve, to grow. In the void of perfection, there is no spark of curiosity and therefore, no excitement.

To be normal is seen as a stepping stone on the long road to perfection and therefore, peace of mind. However, the end point is not reachable and if the end point is not reachable, then the stepping stone — or rather, the concept of what the stepping stone represents — is ineffective. Normal is nothing and on this side of the Great Divide, it leads to nowhere.

Acceptance of diversity at all levels — movement, speech, intellect — should be the driving force of humanity, rather than the obsession with sameness and perfection. And it is attainable. When you look at the concept of normal with an open mind and heart, you begin to see how something that was hailed as the standard is actually quite limiting. Diversity is not made nor meant to fit in a box. Therefore, disability, which is another form of diversity, is the answer to normal and its limiting scope, not the other way around.                

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Tags: Advocacy; Education

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