Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Stephen Piotrkowski: Was it Discrimination or the Best Decision?

Brace yourself, folks, this is a bit of a read. My apologies. I caught a discussion on Facebook among some friends the other day about a news story out of Northwestern University. FOX reported that a male student, Stephen Piotrkowski, was denied a position at Northwestern University's Associate VP of Diversity and Inclusion because her is a white, heterosexual male .  My friend started the discussion using this quote from the Daily Northwestern: “This university is not ready, in any capacity, for a heterosexual white male to be in charge in any way of diversity and inclusion...I don’t know if any university is.”

I wasn't there for the actual discussion, but one of the participants and I discussed it later. She was firmly on the side of Northwestern University. Most of the other participants thought that that what had happened was discrimination.

Which, of course, according to the strictest definition of the word, it is. I admit to being torn about this at first.

But I've given it a lot of thought since.

Stephen Piotrkowski: A Question of Being Able To Understand Who He'd Be Representing

I took a course in Social Psychology back in university. It was a very interesting course. We spent a lot of time on race and racism, in Canada particularly. One of the exam questions ran along the lines "What would you do improve race relations in Canada?" and my answer ran along the lines of "Abolish affirmative-action-type programs and hiring quotas in employment." I went on to explain that these programs just caused resentment when it looked as if people, were benefiting from them based on ethnicity, and that the real solution was to level the playing field so that everyone who wanted it had equal access to the opportunities to become the best qualified candidate for a job, regardless of ethnicity. As if that's so simple, right? I was 20, white, and terribly naive.

My friends arguing on behalf of the man who'd been denied the job (all people who I know from prior discussions have given issues like these some considerable thought) argued that as a white, heterosexual male with no personal experience of being a member of an oppressed group (that he'd admit, at least), he was not a member of a "protected group" on that campus, and therefore had no means of appealing a discriminatory decision.

The friend arguing on behalf of Northwestern University said white, heterosexual males don't need to be a protected class, since they already run everything. A university professor, she cited her academic and personal experience with university campus diversity committees and how they operate, and talked about the need to have them composed of people who have lived the experiences of the people that they represent.

Jessica Steitz, one of the student Senators who questioned Stephen Piotrkowski, sounds like she would agree. According to the                Daily Northwestern, she asked him: “When you’re forced to work with all these multicultural groups that are, for the most part, not made up of white males, do you think you have the perspective that is not their perspective, to bring to them?”

I get this viewpoint, too. I actually had this sort of argument when I was in community college, living in residence with several other women. One of my roommates had lived in Canada for about four years. She was black (which made her stand out on our small campus), and she was a Muslim. She was trying to tell me that, as I was white, there was no way I could understand the experience of discrimination.

"There's no way I can understand your experience of discrimination," I said. "But, as a disabled person, I've experienced discrimination...and I wouldn't expect you to understand my experience, either."

But she didn't agree that it was possible for a white person to experience discrimination, period, and we weren't friends for long.

Still Talking About Diversity Committees, Which I Realize Isn't The Specific Issue for Stephen Piotrkowski, But Bear With Me

Assuming that my roommate and I could have sat in the same room together long enough to be on a diversity committee together (it soon became difficult for us to do so even as roommates, which made for an interesting year) I believe that both of our experiences would have been valuable. There's no greater expert on the experience of being a disabled person or a recent immigrant and their needs in a given committee than the person who's living that life. I'm seeing members of the autism committee make this argument more and more recently, and I think it's a valuable one.

I think that people who have experienced discrimination, while they may not necessarily fully understand each others' individual experiences, can empathize with each other and comment on the experience, among themselves and to others, in general terms. I think that there's a universality to the discrimination experience in terms of how it makes us feel that increases the power of diversity committees exponentially. No matter the nature of your discrimination experience, you're linked to others who have experienced discrimination, just by having experienced it.

And I don't think that there's any reason to make a blanket statement that white, heterosexual men don't belong on diversity committees.  In the case in question, no statements on disability were made, implying to me (given the nature of the story) that nothing came up relating to them. But a white, heterosexual man could have any number of invisible disabilities that had caused people to discriminate against him in the past.  It's not impossible that Stephen Piotrkowski didn't have some experience with being discriminated against. Even if he didn't, I don't believe that we can absolutely say that a person with experience with groups that have experienced discrimination, and a good appreciation for the issues involved, even with no personal experience of it, can't still be a great member of a diversity committee (provided that the experiences of the other members give the committee the diversity that it requires).

But, from what we know of the situation,  Stephen Piotrkowski does not have a personal experience of being the "other" in this society, and he wasn't just applying to be a member of  a diversity committee.  Stephen Piotrkowski was applying to *the* face for inclusion and diversity on Northwestern's campus. While I know (because I know them!) that there are very socially aware, empathetic-to-the-max men out there who have likely never experienced discrimination personally but who would still be amazing at this job, they honestly probably wouldn't want it - they'd realize that, as sketchy as this sounds to the idealistic 20-year-old in me who still pokes her head out from time to time and stomps her feet and says "But that's *not* how it should work!", making a white, heterosexual male the Associate VP of Diversity and Inclusion at a university in this day and age sends a negative image to the people that he's supposed to serve.  They're going to assume that he can't relate to them. It's not right, but there it is.

Stephen Piotrkowski: What's the Solution?

And it makes me sad for the white, heterosexual males that I know that could do this Associate VP job really well, because it's not their fault that they're being punished for being men in a patriarchal, racist society whose values they don't share.

I suppose that the friend who said he was sad for me because he knew that disabled people experienced employment discrimination and that he was sorry that I had to experience it felt kind of the same way.

Sometimes life isn't fair. At the very least,  Stephen Piotrkowski now knows how it feels to be "othered" - I'm sorry that he had to experience that, but I hope that he can take something from this admittedly unfair and unfortunate situation and use it. If he's really serious about furthering the cause of diversity, it'll actually serve him to better understand just what it is he's fighting for, as he join the countless others working a way to level the playing field for everyone.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Families Hiring Disabled Tour Guides to Bypass Lines at Disney World

So, apparently the way to see Disney World is to hire a disabled person to pose as a family member, so that you can bypass the rides for the lines. Social anthropologist Dr. Wednesday Martin cracked the story while doing research for her upcoming book, "Primates of Park Avenue".

"This is how the one percent does Disney," said a mother who enlisted the services of Dream Tours Florida to provide her with what she called a "tour concierge". For $130 an hour (or $1040 for an 8-hour day), a woman on a motorized scooter with a "handicapped" sign on it accompanied the woman, her husband and two children through the park during their visit, enabling them to access a special entrance at all the rides where the wait time was significantly shorter.

Disney offers a VIP tour service that's a bit cheaper, but parents are finding that this "black market" service is apparently worth the cost. The service is accessible only by "insider knowledge", with the most recent group of "insiders" being New York's private school set, according to Martin.

Is Dream Tours Wrong for What They're Doing at Disney World?

I think that they are, bottom line.

I'm not going to pretend that people didn't suggest to me, when I was in my wheelchair, that I visit the large Canada's Wonderland amusement park while I was still dependent on it, so that I could take advantage of not having to wait in line. I never got around to it. A day at the Metro Toronto Zoo in my wheelchair, which didn't have the fuss of constantly transferring on and off of rides, was exhausting enough (for both me and for the people pushing me.)

And the part of me that dislikes Disney smiles a bit to think of anyone sticking it to them. But only a little bit, because overall I find this Dream Tours-Disney World thing. pretty icky.

Even if the disabled people in question are getting a decent wage out of the money that Dream Tours brings in for having them escort people around the park (and let's hope that they are), I just cringe at this. Not only does it contribute to the cultural perception that disabled people and what they go through isn't really to be taken seriously, it potentially makes it much more difficult for people who are legitimately disabled to get what the need to enjoy the park. Now that Disney World is aware that people are scamming the system, they're likely to be much more diligent about who's going to get access to the disabled passes (which, as people like Brenda Rothman have written about in detail, can be difficult to procure to begin with). In the name of shortening the wait for people that can afford the service (and that are physically able to manage the line-ups), Dream Tours may make Disney World more reluctant to provide services for people who really can't manage the long wait. Perhaps they didn't think about that as a consequence of making this service available, but that's just symptomatic of our culture's attitude toward disability as a whole: their needs are invisible. They're invisible.

Hopefully Disney World won't go that way and will choose to crack down on agencies like Dream Tours who are offering this black-market service, instead of punishing the guides themselves and other disabled people who visit the park. But I feel like it could go the other way too.

And for those that would argue, "The disabled people who are acting as the guides didn't have to take the job," you'd be right. I don't imagine that Dream Tours held a gun to anyone's head and said, "You have to help us lead rich people around Disney World so that they don't have to stand in line!" But when you consider that it's very difficult for disabled Americans to get income support, with cuts to supports and services especially in the face of the Sequester affecting how well they can survive, with the unemployment rate for disabled people in the US still standing at nearly twice what it is for non-disabled Americans...can you blame a person for taking a job for which they're uniquely qualified, whether it's the right thing to do or not?

I think that, if I were in that position, the thing that would bother me the most is having people look at me and feel like they're making the assumption that it's all I'm capable of doing. That the only marketable job skill I have, so to speak, is the fact that I'm disabled and can get people onto the rides faster at Disney World. It feels like it would be terribly dehumanizing.

And the last thing that disabled people need is more dehumanization. I hope that Disney World keeps this in mind, makes the right choices as it deals with this, and doesn't end up punishing disabled people for something that isn't their fault.

Read More Here

Monday, 13 May 2013

US Federal Agencies Seek Public Input on Transition Issues for Youth

Disabled American youth and their families, as well as the people who support them, should take advantage of an opportunity to have their voices heard that's being made available until May 27. Several federal American agencies are opening an online dialogue on transition planning issues for disabled youth, and need to hear from as many youth and families/caregivers as possible, as well as educators, support workers, agency staff, and policy and lawmakers. The dialogue focuses specifically on issues relating to the transition from secondary school to work life for disabled youth.

Transition Planning - Why is it Important?

This cause is one that's especially near and dear to my heart, as I did transition planning with intellectually disabled high school students for a number of years. I didn't understand when I first took the job why it was so important. I now understand that the transition from school to adult life is huge for disabled students, arguably even more so in many ways than for non-disabled peers, and that the question of "what comes next" is often hugely stressful for these students and their families. Transition planning needs to start early, and it needs to be thorough, because a myriad of things need consideration:

  • What does the student want to do after graduation? Work? School? Have all her options been explored with her, the way they are with non-disabled students? Does the student understand what diploma track he's  on and how that affects his options? Is her current academic program  giving her both academic and experiential edge that she needs to meet her goals for post-secondary school life? Does the student have input into his educational planning and course selection?  Will the student have a resume and job-hunting skills when she graduates? 

  • Where does the student want to live after graduation? Does she have the skills that she needs to live safely and comfortably in the environment that she desires? If he's supposed to be learning those skills through a school program, is that indeed happening? If additional skill-building is needed, what are these skills and who can teach them? If the student wants to live at home, what kind of supports will the family require to have her keep living there, given her disabilities? If he wants to live away from home, what supports will he need to do so? Does he want to keep living in his home community, or relocate?

  • Who will ensure, that, by the time the student needs them to apply for any needed supports/jobs/a driver's license that the student will have and have some means of effectively keeping track of a birth certificate, health insurance card (in Canada), and Social Insurance Number?

  • What kind of supports does the person need? Can she keep her pediatrician and childhood dentist once she turns 18, or does she have to find new ones? Is she eligible for disability income support? Are medical supports in the home required? Are supports for cooking, cleaning, budgeting, etc, required? Where do people apply for these supports? What do they cost? Is there government funding available to help?

  • Are there consent/capacity issues once the student turns 18? Does the student understand enough about his body and medical conditions to make his own medical decisions, or should parents consider trying to get a Power of Medical attorney?  Should a trustee handle disability income support funds, and who should it be? Do the people around the student understand his rights as a disabled adult?

This is really just a taste of what can be involved with transition planning.

Transition Planning - Rarely a Smooth Process

As you can see, doing good transition planning and constructing a plan that best meets the student's needs can involve a ton of coordination and agencies from a number of different spheres working together.

The transition planning process can hit brick walls in any number of places, and the American government wants to know where these brick walls are.  The joint venture of the the U.S. Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration wants to hear concerns about the “regulatory and legislative barriers that young people with disabilities are facing in accessing employment, education, Social Security and health and human services.”

Comments can be submitted via Web interface until May 27, and may be used to shape future decisions on policy. It's a unique opportunity of which everyone who's concerned about American youth with disabilities should take advantage - and that we should encourage other countries to offer as well.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Good-bye, Elizabeth McClung

I learned yesterday from the Blogging Against Disabilities Day 2013 post over at Diary of a Goldfish that fellow disability blogger Dr. Elizabeth McClung  has died.

Beth was one of the first disability bloggers that I got to know personally. She was the first blogger, I believe, to put me on her blogroll and for a while we emailed back and forth. I frequently commented on her blog, Screw Bronze, and it was always a treat when she'd comment here.

Beth had a severe and very rare autoimmune/autonomic disease, and was often very, very ill. It didn't stop her from doing what was important to her, like participating in the Terry Fox run for the last five years, traveling with her wife, Linda, spending time with their friend, Cheryl, and writing and sending over 6000 postcards to whomever indicated to her on her blog that they wanted one.

Even with her ill health, she blogged often. Her blog won awards. She wrote thoughtful reviews of the movies she was watching, talked about her travels and her community activities, and always included lots of art and pictures that she'd taken on her own. Many of her posts show her heart for advocacy for the rights of women,  disabled people and LGBTT people. She also wrote about disability rights for BBC's Ouch blog until 2008, and did advocacy work in her community and province as she struggled to get the  health care supports that she needed. I experienced the best of what Canada's health care system has to offer. Beth experienced the worst. Her stories were shocking and deeply worrying, and feeling so helpless while she went through such hardship was difficult. She was a very, very strong woman.

Beth always made me think.  I'm very grateful to her for that.

Goldfish pulled up her Blogging Against Disabilities Day posts, as samples of her work. They are all great examples of Beth's heart and voice:

The life no one wants and the war on disabled

Disablism within disability

I believe...one day

Those lazy, deceiving disabled. Why won't they die?

This is my 300th post. Cheers, Beth - I wouldn't have gotten this far without you.

I shall miss you.