"Noah cannot let this go. I can't tell if it's part of his diagnosis or if he just enjoys stirring the pot or a little bit of both" - Carver County Sheriff Olson
These words are taken from an email sent by Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson to Carver County Administrator Dave Hemze. It was typed in inconspicuous black font, covering one sides of a white piece of paper and It is one of thousands of letters, emails and memos I received in the mail today, to say nothing of the 2 am visits from cops and the threats to lynch me that were hung up all around the City Square Park— after I refused to, as Sheriff Olson so aptly put it, " let it go," and proceeded to publish my thoughts on how Carver County treats people with disabilities. I think in the beginning I did it more out of a desire to advocate than out of anger, as conversations are important, especially about a topic that resides at the heart of who we want to be as a community.
The entire thing is fairly frustrating because people come at disability issues from a variety of different perspectives, and people are at different stages of understanding of the cause-and-effect of issues facing minority groups in modern day America. There are a hundred different sentiments that can (and should) be analyzed in these conversations, but one keeps coming up that always gives me pause:
"Institutionalization ended a long time ago — isn’t it time for disabled people to get over it? At this point, they’re just using it as an excuse for their behavior. We all have equal rights now. They need to stop playing the victim and take responsibility. That’s not bigotry, that’s reality."
I hear it all the time and I could go into a 3 hour lecture on the history of the disability community or offer all sorts of arguments from philosophical legal and socio-economic perspectives, but I feel as though this is best illustrated with a simple story:
Once upon a time, there was a handful of blue houses in a neighborhood of yellow ones. Each day, the yellow house owners would dump all of their trash into the yards of the blue houses. Their owners hated it, of course, but if they complained, the yellow house owners would beat them senseless. If they went to the authorities, they’d beat them senseless too.
Day after day, so much garbage filled the blue house yards that it was impossible to clear it all. So the blue house people did their best to live their lives around it.
After years and years of this, the blue house folks said enough was enough. They banded together and blocked the road so nobody could get home. The yellow house owners tried to beat them up like they always had, but the blue house owners refused to move until the trash dumpers would listen.
The blue house people explained the obvious fact that it was unfair to dump garbage in their yards and vowed to continue to block the road until it stopped. It took a while, but finally, the yellow house people conceded.
But the blue house owners’ woes weren’t over. Their lawns were dead from years without sunlight. Their shrubs were withered from the toxic sludge that seeped in year after year. Some of the poison even penetrated the foundations of the houses, causing structural issues. The blue house people tried many things to remedy all of this, but there was so much damage, it proved difficult. Meanwhile, the yellow house owners’ yards thrived as they always had. And soon, they started complaining about how the blue houses looked.
“What’s the matter?” they asked the blue house owners. “We don’t put garbage in your yard anymore. Why aren’t you fixing up your yard?” The blue house people explained that they’re trying, but were running into some problems. Their tools were rusty from years in storage. They needed new plants, some good soil to restart their grass, and maybe some fertilizer.
Since the yellow house owners had caused the problem, they thought “hmm, maybe the yellow house owners will help us since they originally caused all this damage.”
“You’re just looking for a handout,” said the yellow house people. “You just need to work harder and be responsible. Look at your yard! What a mess! We don’t dump our garbage on you anymore. We’re equal now. There’s nothing wrong with your soil or your tools — you just don’t want to work at it like we do. I bust my butt to get my lawn looking this way. It’s your own fault that yours isn’t thriving and your house needs work.”
See the problem? This is what it sounds like when "normal” people refuse to acknowledge the generational, societal effects of America’s history of prejudice against the disabled. This is what it sounds like when people place the blame for all the issues they've caused and failed to address on the disability community. It is patently unfair to deny that so many challenges my community faces are the direct result of centuries of dehumanization and degradation. It is blatant arrogance for normal people to expect people with disabilities to take responsibility for disparities in our economic and justice systems over which we've had no control (AND STILL DON'T HAVE ANY CONTROL) when it's their fault the disparities exist in the first place.
You cannot exclude people away from society for 200 years, systematically and legally oppress them for another century, and think that everything is hunky-dory a mere 28 years later. I know all these behavioral determinist folks who want to point their finger in a disabled guys face and “move on,” to leave that ugly history in the past, to start with a clean slate. But there’s no such thing.
We can’t just wish away the far-reaching effects of blatant discrimination We can’t pretend that a mere two decades after the American with disabilities signed, which contrary to popular belief had opposition (and still does) that we've successfully weeded out the deep-seated prejudice that historically has and continues to fuel centuries of mistreatment for individuals with disabilities both inside and outside of institutional settings.
This isn’t about “white liberal guilt” or "revenge." Even though the very least — and I mean the very least — those who define themselves as "Normal" could do is acknowledge that our ancestors gave birth to this current mess, even if we had nothing to do with it directly. Of course we haven’t personally had somebody locked up in an asylum, but if we deny the ongoing effects of Minnesota's legacy of Ableism and refuse to own our role in helping remedy the problems it’s caused, then we are no better than that yellow house owner chastising his neighbor for the state of his yard — dishonest, unjust…and yes, prejudiced.
The Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD) is a broad based coalition
of advocacy and provider organizations working to change public policy to improve the lives of people with disabilities through building awareness, providing education, and engaging the community.
1600 Broadway Street NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413