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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Robert MacDonald's Proposed "Name and Shame" Bill for Welfare Recipients is the Republican War on the Poor at its Worst

American flag, in waves, with "Welfare" in gold, block letters at bottom of picture - Robert MacDonald


Long-time readers know that I'm not shy about calling out politicians for particular behaviours (repeatedly if it seems appropriate), particularly around election time. I really do only try to do it for politicians displaying examples of particularly egregious attitudes or behavior based on those attitudes: ablism, racism, sexism, classism, etc. Robert MacDonald, Republican Mayor of Lewiston, Maine, wants to submit a bill for the next legislative session that could potentially be all of these, so let's welcome him to the blog.

Robert MacDonald's Proposed Bill - The Basics


On September 24, in his regular column in the Twin City Times, Robert McDonald informed readers that "the days of quiet are gone" and that:

We will be submitting a bill to the next legislative session asking that a website be created containing the names, addresses, length of time on assistance and the benefits being collected by every individual on the dole. After all, the public has a right to know how its money is being spent.

The rationale behind this is that there's already a website in Maine that lists the amounts received by those that get a monthly pension from the state of Maine. Robert McDonald feels that it's fair that welfare recipients be identified on a website as well.

It's not about shaming people on welfare, he says. Just letting people know exactly how their tax dollars are supporting what "liberal, progressive legislators and their social-service allies" have made a "victimized, protected class." Besides, he doesn't need to "name and shame" people, because people on assistance "flaunt it" when they use food stamps in supermarkets.

I believe that this isn't about shaming, don't you? #sarcasm

Why Robert MacDonald's Bill Should Not Pass


I tried to find the pension website, but I couldn't. However, while it may display names and amounts (I find it hard to believe that it even displays names, but I wonder what the purpose of the site is otherwise) I guarantee that it doesn't display address and the length of time receiving pension. That's illegal, and it's why Robert MacDonald's bill wouldn't have gone through even if he could have found lawmakers to sponsor it (which he couldn't).

But there are many reasons why it shouldn't go through besides the fact that it's trying to put something illegal in place, including:

  • It's potentially dangerous for those who are trying to escape abuse situations

  • It's punitive. People in difficulty have a right to access this resource without being shamed about it by the people providing it.

  • It won't be particularly effective if the overall goal is to reduce spending. Former Senator Ethan Strimling said in his assessment of Maine Governor Paul LePage's investigation of the assistance programs that in 2014 public sector unemployment and food stamps showed $293 000 in possible fraud, a little over 2%, while the corporate welfare program showed $223 million in possible fraud.

Lewiston's rate of people using assistance is especially high compared to the rest of Maine. But that's not really the point. Robert McDonald's bill is terribly, terribly, insulting, and he needs to be called out on that.

Why Robert MacDonald's Bill is Insulting


It's not a nice feeling when you realize that your government's default reaction to you is to assume that you're going to be a criminal, or that you already are.

Countrywide there's a narrative in place that people on welfare just don't want to work. They just want things handed to them, when what they really need to do is just get a job.

Robert MacDonald would put all Maine welfare recipients' information up on the internet, assuming that it will shame them into finding work, when a large number of people on welfare are already working. Hard. It's just that even with a job, they still can't make ends meet. A 2015 report from Berkeley showed that, largely because of low wages, "nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of enrollees in America’s major public support programs are members of working families."

Very few people just want to sit around and not work. Suggesting that everyone who receives welfare be lumped into that one group, especially when evidence suggests that it's very much the minority, simply isn't fair, and it's insulting to people who are working very hard and simply need some help.

The ultimately more cost-effective way to get people off welfare is to increase wages, but I doubt that Robert MacDonald would support that, either.

Tell the Republican Party that This is Unacceptable


The insistence that poverty is a choice and indicative of bad character is the Republican war on the poor at its worst. It brings about petty, punitive actions like those of Robert MacDonald's that largely affect non-privileged groups and that potentially further bring further stigma on individuals and families that are already experiencing it.

For example, if a disabled person getting food stamps interviews for a job, and the interviewer is already wavering about whether they want a disabled person working for them, what happens if they just "happen" to check this website after the interview and see that the person has also been getting food stamps for a significant amount of time? If they hold negative views about people who get food stamps, is the person likely to get the job? No.

All of that discrimination is illegal, of course. But would it happen?

You bet it would.

As I said, fortunately Robert MacDonald's bill won't go through. But you can't legislate away his attitude.

The citizens of Lewiston, however, can vote Robert MacDonald out in November. Let's hope that this is what happens.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Terry Fox: How Much Do You Know About This Canadian Hero?

Young man with prostetic leg runs along the highway - Terry Fox
"TerryFoxToronto19800712" by Jeremy Gilbert - Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TerryFoxToronto19800712.JPG#/media/File:TerryFoxToronto19800712.JPG

The annual Terry Fox Run happened this past Sunday, September 20th, across Canada. And as I watched coverage of Toronto's Terry Fox Run on the news, I wondered just how much people outside Canada actually know about Terry Fox and what he did. I'm sure that, say, American news covered Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope, which happened in 1980, but that was an entire generation ago. I honestly don't know if schools outside of Canada teach about this Canadian hero and the impact that he's had on cancer research. Looking at the Terry Fox Run website, I do see that there were two runs in the United States this year, and some in other countries, but I don't know how widespread the knowledge of his story is. I thought that it would appropriate to tell it here, especially since he was a disabled man when he decided to do what he did.

Terry Fox and the Marathon of Hope


Terry was born on and brought up on Canada's west coast. He was 18 when he was diagnosed with bone cancer, and was forced to have his right leg amputated 6 inches above the knee in 1977.

Terry had always been a good athlete, well-known and respected at Simon Fraser University for working very hard on the junior varsity basketball team. After seeing the suffering of other cancer patients in the hospital, he decided to put his athletic training to use, raising money for cancer research.

Terry trained for 18 months for what he would call his Marathon of Hope. On April 20, 1980 he started running in St. John's, Newfoundland, on Canada's east coast, with a prosthetic on his right leg. He he was determined to run all the way across Canada, and to raise $22 million dollars - a dollar for each person in Canada. The media caught wind of what he was doing, and the pledges started to come in. All of Canada was behind him.

Unfortunately, cancer appeared in Terry's lungs and he was forced to quit running outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario, on September 1, 1980. He'd been running for 143 days and had gotten more than halfway across Canada - 3,339 miles. He died in June, 1981.

Terry said:

“Even if I don’t finish, we need others to continue. It’s got to keep going without me.”

And it does. To date,  the annual Terry Fox Runs held across Canada and internationally have raised $650 million for cancer research. Here are some of the initiatives to which the raised money has gone.

Terry Fox: What I Think Of


When I think of the Terry Fox Run, I think of Elizabeth McClung, one of my first blogger friends. Even though she was terminally ill herself with a disease that doctors didn't understand, she used to do the Terry Fox Run each year. She'd walk as long as she could, and then her wife and friends would push her in her wheelchair. I remember that the last year she did the Terry Fox Run, her health was so bad, I feared that it would kill her.

It didn't. She knew that there was a risk that it could, and that the exertion on her body would at least put of her out of commission for several days. Perhaps it hastened her death; it's hard to say. But she felt that it was important to try to walk/wheel as much of Victoria's 5 km route as she could.

That's the kind of effect that Terry Fox's story still has on Canadians.

Regular readers know that I don't like the word "inspiration", but it's easy to tell from hearing people who witnessed the Marathon of Hope describe how it affected them that Canadians really did consider him one. And, 35 years after his death, people still do.

Supporting Terry's Legacy


The Terry Fox Run is over for this year, but you don't have to participate in a Terry Fox Run or pledge a runner to support the Terry Fox legacy. The Terry Fox Foundation accepts donations year-round through the Terry Fox Website.

“Some people can’t figure out what I’m doing. It’s not a walk-hop, it’s not a trot, it’s running, or as close as I can get to running, and it’s harder than doing it on two legs. It makes me mad when people call this a walk. If I was walking it wouldn’t be anything. - Terry Fox”

1980 article about Terry Fox and the Marathon of Hope

Excerpts from Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope Journal

Photos of Terry Fox running the Marathon of Hope

Saturday, 12 September 2015

The Zadroga Act: 9/11, Republicans, and Hypocrisy

New York Fire Department badge - Zadroga Act


As I'm sure most, if not all, readers are aware, yesterday was the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. But do you know about the Zadroga Act?

I remember where I was when the planes hit the towers. I was living with my father in our family home at the time, not that far into stroke recovery and still trying to visualize what was going to come next in my life. I was in the kitchen, finishing up my breakfast, when I heard the news about the on the radio (always tuned to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in our house) about the plane hitting the first tower. I sat in shock for a moment, and then called Dad at his office and asked if he was listening to the radio. Did we know anyone that was supposed to be in New York today, that he knew of?

No, thank goodness.

When I heard the news about the second tower, I remembered the online mental health support community in which I'd been posting for a while. I quickly signed in, and found that there was already an "I'm okay" check-in going on from the New York area, and a call going to out to people who hadn't checked in yet. By the next day, all of the regular posters in the New York area were accounted for, but some of them had lost friends and family.

In other words, I was not really affected.

I will always be proud of how Canada helped take care of diverted passengers. But I remember being very annoyed at the CBC radio reporter who, during the 6pm news report on September 11, tried to interview a New Yorker who was obviously severely traumatized and likely had no clue no what he was saying.

"Sure, ask him how he's doing," I grumbled at the time. "I'm sure he's fabulous. I'm sure it's been a *great* day for him. Way to report, CBC."

And I remember the Jon Stewart segment from 2010 shaming a group of Republicans for filibustering the passage of the Zadroga Act in the Senate because I thought at the time, "Those fucking hypocrites."

What's the Zadroga Act?


You wouldn't know from watching the CBS news last night. They talked about it, but didn't mention it by name, as if the name of the Act that guarantees health care for the First Responders that develop one or more of the (in society as it's constructed today) disabling conditions and illnesses including 50 forms of cancer that are linked to working in the toxins at Ground Zero doesn't need a name. Or as if acknowledging the First Responders are still sick and dying after working at Ground Zero, fourteen years later, isn't important.

This is a list of what the Zadroga Act covered in 2010: interstitial lung diseases, chronic respiratory disorder, WTC-exacerbated COPD, asthma, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, chronic cough syndrome, upper airway hyperreactivity, chronic rhinosinusitis, chronic naropharyngitis, chronic laryngitis, GERD, sleep apnea, PTSD, major depressive disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, anxiety disorder NOS, depression NOS, acute stress disorder, dysthymic disorder, substance abuse, adjustment disorder, some musculoskeletal disorders. More conditions have been added (including, as I said, over 50 cancers.)

"Call the Act by it's name!" I yelled at the TV.

But What's the Zadroga Act?


The Zadroga Act is named for James Zadroga, a First Responder who died in 2006 of respiratory disease frequently observed in 9/11 First Responders.  It was passed by the House of Representatives in September 2010, and the Democrats hoped to get it through the the Senate before the Christmas Break. However, in December 2010, Senate Republicans filibustered the passage of the Act, trying to get a tax break package through. There was a motion to break the filibuster and proceed, but it failed with just 3 votes short of the 60 needed (breakdown of the vote here, including who voted which way), despite the Zadroga Act having enough support to get through the Senate. The Democrats investigated a number of options, but couldn't see any way that they could get the Zadroga Act through in the new year, with the Republicans set to take control of the House.

However, in the 11th hour of the 111th Congress, things turned around and the Zadroga Act was passed. The New York Post said:

"Certainly many supporters, including New York’s two senators, as well as Mayor Michael R.Bloomberg, played critical roles in turning around what looked like a hopeless situation after a filibuster by Republican senators on Dec. 10 seemed to derail the bill. But some of those who stand to benefit from the bill have no doubt about what — and who — turned the momentum around."

Jon Stewart refused to comment, but he will stand again with sick First Responders next week when he protests in Washington for it reauthorization. Because when the Zadroga Bill was passed in 2010, it was only for 5 years, it needs to be reauthorized by the end of the month, and Congress hasn't looked at it yet.

I couldn't find the entire 2010 Jon Stewart segment in one piece. Here's the early part of it, with him very annoyed.

The more serious part, with the First Responders, has been taken down since I posted this. But here are the points that I really like:

  • Shame on the Republicans for being happy to be the party that "turned 9/11 into a catchphrase" while ignoring the responsibility that they have to the people who need help because of the work they did to help America deal with the 9/11 aftermath. Don't talk about how grateful you are to "New York's Finest" unless you're prepared to back it up with your actions like providing them health care through legislation like the Zadroga Act.

  • News coverage. There was very little coverage of the struggle to get the Zadroga Act passed last time around, and if Jon Stewart hadn't stepped in again, I doubt we'd have heard much about it this time around. Granted, I've not been watching much news, but that little piece on CBS tonight was the first I'd heard of it without Jon Stewart's name attached to it.

The day after Stewart's show in 2010, Fox's Shepard Smith had this to say (trigger for vivid 9/11 imagery):





I think that pretty much says it all.

Visit Zadroga Claims Info  for more information about the Zadroga Act, and for an easy opportunity to email your Member of Congress expressing your support for extending it indefinitely.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Ableism, Other -Isms, And Why I Prefer "Seinfeld" to "Friends"

"Seinfeld" logo - "Seinfeld" in red letters against a yellow oval


I don't blog about disability in media very often, but Andrew Pulrang profiled "Seinfeld" on his Disability Thinking podcast recently, and it really made me think. (He'll be posting a second podcast on "Seinfeld" in the near future; there really is a lot to talk about when it comes to this show. Keep watch disabilitythinking.blogspot.ca for details. Andrew's first podcast and "Seinfeld" and disability is here.)

I love "Seinfeld". I've seen every episode several times, and will still watch the reruns and find them funny. My family can have entire conversations in snippets of "Seinfeld" dialogue, which I realize isn't necessarily something of which to be proud, but there it is.

I've managed to retain this level of fandom despite being achingly aware that over its run "Seinfeld" had moments of blatant racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, and probably just about every other "-ism" that you can think of, including just plain bad taste. Apparently I'm not the only one that noticed - Sola Agustsson recently wrote an article for Alternet.com about sexism and racism in "Seinfeld", "10 'Seinfeld' Episodes That Might Be Considered Sexist and Racist Today".

But she also got taken down in comments on her article for not understanding the thing that lets me (mostly) gloss over the glaring prejudices of the four main "Seinfeld" characters: The whole point of the show was that Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are supposed to be terrible people. They're shallow and self-absorbed, they use people with little guilt and almost zero empathy, and they rarely do anything unless there's something in it for them.

They wanted to be nicer people - but only because of how their real orientation to the world made them look to others, and not out of any real concern for those around them. This is what made the show subversive, ironic, and frankly, hilarious, because the harder the four main characters tried to do "the right thing", the more apparent it became that they were really just awful people who didn't care at all.

Disabled People in "Seinfeld"


Take one of the episodes that Andrew rightfully says got the most attention and is about disability. Jerry, also a comedian in the show, promises a fan that he'll go see his son, a "bubble boy" that has to live behind a plastic partition in his parents' home because of his poor immune system.

(We learn later that everyone but his mother, including the people in his town, call him "The Bubble Boy", which is a disability issue all by itself, but not one that we can blame on the four main characters. We don't even learn his name until well after George and his fiancee Susan meet him. It's an indictment of how society treats him. )

George and Susan arrive at the house first and find not a bubble "boy", but a fully grown, very rude bubble "man" who eventually asks Susan to take off her top (the opposite of the "disabled people are sweet and polite" stereotype that we see so much in the media; Andrew discusses this in his podcast.)  Suppressing the urge to respond negatively to the Bubble Boy's rudeness (which would be "politically incorrect"), George and Susan allow themselves to be talked into a game of Trivial Pursuit. When George and the "Bubble Boy" disagree over the pronunciation of an answer, George finally loses control, the "Bubble Boy" starts to strangle George and George loses control, stabbing at the plastic partition and deflating the "bubble". His desire to be politically correct has been overcome by his temper, which often happens with George.

"Seinfeld" did a good job of highlighting society's ableism as well as the main characters'. That's difficult to do. It requires very good writing.

Now, I don't know about the writing process for "Seinfeld", but it seemed that each week the writers came up with a character (sometimes two), said "What if we took a person out there with this set of characteristics and put them in the group's path", and that was pretty much that character's role. Mostly they were romantic interests, like Elaine's elderly boyfriend, a stroke survivor who required a lot of care. One week it was the Bubble Boy. There were a few characters that had brief story arcs, like the man stalking Elaine and Jerry (who the writers imply has a mental health diagnosis, but never say what it is.)

Are Disabled People Props in Seinfeld?


Andrew also discusses in his podcast the idea that you could accuse the writers of making disabled characters props, in "Seinfeld". However, with the exception of a small group of secondary characters that had a bit of backstory, everyone in "Seinfeld" besides the main four characters were props. They mostly got burned somehow by being involved with Seinfeld and his group, presumably never to appear again, and the underlying message at the end of each episode was, right up to the group's one-year imprisonment at the series end for not helping someone who was being mugged, "Don't treat people like this group does. They're assholes."

Unlike other sitcoms in the 90s and after.

Are the Characters in "Friends" and "How I Met Your Mother?" actually Likeable?


I enjoyed "Friends" in the 90s, and I found it amusing when I rewatched it on Netflix. However, I noticed the second time around that this group that was supposed to be so close also:

  • Spent a lot of time picking on each other. To the point where it often seemed mean.

  • Were very competitive, and sometimes threw each other under the bus.

  • Couldn't be happy for each other if a positive change for one meant change for the group.

  • Watched the womanizer of the group treat his dates like crap and never called him on it.

  • Sometimes deliberately behaved in ways that negatively affected another friend's career.

These people were assholes, but we were supposed to love them. And they set the mold for another "Friends"-types show that debuted in 2005, with a similarly dysfunctional peer group that we're supposed to love.

"How I Met Your Mother" had the same pattern of young people living and dating in New York, hanging out in a bar instead of a coffee shop, but ramped up the sexism to the nth degree compared to "Friends" (and "Seinfeld", for that matter).  Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson makes "Friends'" Joey Tribiani look like a lightweight womanizer. Barney sometimes gets called on the womanizing, but more often than not friend Ted is his wingman. At one point, "HIMYM" manages to work approval of Barney's womanizing and slut-shaming of one of the female members into the same show.

A peripheral character, a therapist that one of the main characters dates at one point, says about the 5 main characters: "‘You’re all the most codependent, incestuous, controlling group people I’ve ever met!" There was an almost identical scene in friends where a therapist that Phoebe is dating offers about the main characters: "Actually it's, it's quite, y'know, typical behaviour when you have this kind of dysfunctional group dynamic. Y'know, this kind of co-dependant, emotionally stunted, sitting in your stupid coffee house with your stupid big cups which, I'm sorry, might as well have nipples on them, and you're like all 'Oh, define me! Define me! Love me, I need love!."

CBS was widely criticized for a racist episode of "How I Met Your Mother", and on my rewatching of that series I saw some references that I was surprised got by the network (Mexican Wrestler Ted, for example).  There are no disabled characters in the show. At least in "Friends" Chandler dates a disabled woman for an episode. She dumps him, and (surprisingly) comes out looking like the decidedly shallower of the two.

The point is that at least "Seinfeld" was honest. It didn't try to be anything but what it was - stories about terrible people that wanted to nice, but didn't really want to give anything up to do it.  So they'd do the "politically correct" thing, inadvertently out themselves as being anti-social and barely able to cope with the friendship between the four of them, and we'd all tune in next week to see in what new way they could ruin someone's life. The thing is, "Friends" and "HIMYM" (and there may be others that I just haven't seen) weren't any different - more peripheral characters with story arcs, maybe, but ultimately? Stories about terrible people...more actively masquerading as nice people.

However, they sure were branded to be people that you should trust and love and emulate.

That feels dishonest to me.

And I'm not going to feel guilty about watching "Seinfeld" until people start talking more realistically about that.

More reasons why you wouldn't want to be friends with the "Friends"

Keep watch disabilitythinking.blogspot.ca for details on Andrew's second podcast on "Seinfeld" and disability, and listen to the first one here.