Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Salem Commission on Disabilities

Handicapped parking sign at Museum Place, Salem

Handicapped parking sign at Museum Place, Salem

This past summer, I was appointed to Salem's Commission on Disabilities. What is the Commission on Disabilities and why am I there? Why should Salem care?

According to the Massachusetts Office on Disability, city and town disability commissions have the following objectives:

Commissions on Disability are established by vote of Town Meeting (in towns) or City Council (in cities) to promote the inclusion and integration of persons with disabilities in the activities, services and employment opportunities in the community.

Massachusetts passed enabling legislation for commissions on disability in 1980. Salem established its own commission in the early '80s; the late Andrew Quinn was the first chairperson. Jack Harris and Charlie Reardon are our current co-chairs.

Why am I involved?

I've written about disability issues before on the blog, and even earlier, with one of the first web pages on invisible disabilities.

I'm too familiar with disability issues; my foster mom hurt her back in a car accident some 30 years ago (the driver wouldn't wait for her to get in the car and she dragged my mom about 10 ft. down the street) and was since confined to a wheelchair.

Some years later, she made the cover of our weekly paper: She would go to the local CVS in downtown (then, and still, on Essex St.) to get her prescriptions, but she couldn't open the door to get in with her chair. I'll never forget--or forgive--the person in the letters column of the newspaper telling her, in so many words, to "stop complaining and just ask for help!"

That got my back up and still does. This attitude still persists, as in this article in the Globe Magazine this week, "Access Denied". Geoff Edgers took to a wheelchair for the day to see if access was improved for people with disabilities since he did this experiment in 1995.

He goes to the Charles Playhouse to get tickets for Blue Man Group. No ramp. 26 steps to the stage. He couldn't even get to the box office due to a truck in the way. The clerk at the box office offered to "get him carried up [the steps]. Lots of people do that."

Um, no.

Carrying someone in a chair is one of the most dangerous things you can do, for yourself and for the person you're helping. If the person is in a motorized chair, as many are, it's virtually impossible. I have had to help my mom move her chair a few times and hoped never to have to do it again.

Sidewalks are no better. Edgers discusses sidewalks and the infamous sloping walk on Boston's Huntington Ave., but I can think of plenty of examples just in Salem. Salem has cobblestones (!) in the Essex St. pedestrian mall, and they are miserable for just about everyone except the historical purists who installed them in the first place. Never mind people in chairs.

We have our share of "historic" brick sidewalks, many of which start crumbling as soon as they're put in, by their very design!

Homeowners with disabilities have problems, too. A disabled woman in Vinnin Square may have to move from her unit due to a dispute with the neighbors over the chairlift she installed on the common stairway she and her neighbor use to get to and from the sidewalk. (From the photo in the Salem News, I count at least 20 steps; even a single step can be unnavigable for one in a chair!)

Later in Edger's article, he quotes Bruce Bruneau, formerly of the Massachusetts Office of Disability. Bruce is discouraged:

"I thought I could make a change when I started doing this," Bruneau says. "I was wrong."

I've always held a cynicism towards most government, but I share Mr. Bruneau's discouragement in particular. Not everyone believes in access for people with disabilities.

People complain about the cost. They complain, to quote one of my former colleagues, about "those activists". I was talking about the Vinnin Square situation with a friend and was telling me how my commission didn't know about it until it hit the paper. He told me point blank that my commission doesn't get informed about situations like Vinnin Square because all we do is "want want want!" (My friend has never been to a meeting and doesn't know a lot about the Commission, but I was very hurt. A bitter irony is that he has a disability and his town has a commission like ours, and, the chair is a colleague of mine!)

I've heard all the other complaints through the years: "You want special rights!", "Why don't you have shops/coffeehouses/drugstores just for people in wheelchairs!" (otherwise known as "separate but equal", if you remember your history) "Can't you just stay home?" "Can't you just get help?" "Can't you work harder and overcome your disability?" "Just get rid of that illness thing!"

People with disabilities are a minority and thus especially vulnerable to "the tyranny of the majority", as Edgers' article makes very clear.

The Salem Commission on Disabilities is a civil rights commission, the only such commission in our government. We are an advisory commission and can only get things done by moral persuasion. Sometimes, we get a victory, as when we were involved with the Bates School renovation and got the contractors to realize all the bathroom fixtures in the kids' restrooms were adult-sized!

Other times, we have dealt with handicapped parking issues in the same locations (such as Salem Depot) again and again without any resolution. The Commission has complained about the cobblestones in the Essex Street Mall for well over 20 years to no effect. Prior to my confirmation on the commission, I saw and videotaped their meetings for 7 years and I cannot count the number of issues discussed that are still unresolved years later!

In the history of human rights, there has never been a population needing their rights that has ever had them handed to them ("Yup, we oppressed you and we're sorry, here are your rights!") They've always had to be taken. And no one involved has ever been comfortable.

Most people have an idealized conception of disability. People such as the late Christopher Reeves are "heroes". If Reeves were still alive and he wanted to come to Salem again (as he came to Salem State a few years before his death), he wouldn't need "civil rights". He was so beloved that people would line up to lift his chair for him and open doors.

But civil rights aren't just for the great and the good. If that logic were true, we wouldn't need the First Amendment for "good speech". But we know we need it for "bad speech" or at least speech that some would not want to hear.

Civil rights are for all. They're never easy to assert or to enforce, ever. But they're for all of us.

They are for your friend with a cane. They are for that woman in Vinnin Square.

These "special rights" may even be for you yourself! Remember that people with disabilities are a minority that anyone can join without warning, through accident, illness or plain bad luck.

(Sadly, some elected officials learn this first hand: A few years ago, the fine for illegal parking in a handicapped space was increased. One of the sponsors of the ordinance was then-Ward 1 councilor Scott LaCava, whose wife had to have both legs amputated after she was run down by a reckless driver.)

My foster mom did not live to see this, but CVS eventually put in automatic doors in all their stores. I may be pessimistic and cynical, but I am also stubborn. I'm taking my post on the commission for her memory, and for that of all the citizens, employers and visitors of Salem who will use and need our services.

For everyone.

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