Unexpected Consequences

by John U.

On October 18, 2001 The Wall Street Journal published an article titled "Those Suffering Special Stress." The author, Albert R. Hunt, writes about the impact of September 11 on people with disabilities, including claims by some that disabled employees should no longer be allowed to work on high-level floors. Hunt rejects such views as a threat to the hard-earned rights disabled Americans have secured under the ADA.

Because I use a chair, the lead paragraph of Hunt's article stuck me with a strong sense of personal involvement:

On Sept. 11, Meir Yaloz lost his apartment, his work and his much-needed exercise regimen. But the worst part was when he had to temporarily move to his parents' second-floor walk-up. "My father is in his 60s and had to carry me up to their apartment," says the 35-year-old architect, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. His apartment was in Battery Park City, right next to the World Trade Center. He was coming out of the apartment building when the first plane crashed.

It was a sobering image. For those of us lucky enough to be independent despite our disabilities, that independence is a precious commodity, but it is also a very fragile thing. Here was a man my own age, in similar circumstances, and perhaps it's understandable that his story struck a chord.

The events of September 11 were shocking, horrifying, but as the weeks passed, the dust settled and the dead were counted, the raw emotions evoked by the attack eventually gave way to wider concerns. The media were calling it the day the world changed, but I had fears about what kind of changes those would be. My concerns were mostly on a global scale—was the world about to descend into war? I grew up in the Cold War era, and my childhood fears of global destruction came back to haunt me. But Meir Yaloz's story suddenly made it all more personal, more relevant to me as a disabled person.

Then I began to see a whole bunch of larger issues as well. Some of them have to do with differences between life here in the United Kingdom and life in the United States, with respect to the equal access provisions we disabled are accustomed to taking for granted. And I began to wonder, too, how this "War on Terrorism" will play out in the lives of all of us that have already been "disabled" by social attitudes and government policies.

Let's start off with some figures. Firstly, the disabled population of the US is roughly equivalent to the entire population of the UK. I had to rush straight onto the web to find out the total population of the US, and then work out the percentages. It works out to roughly one in six disabled people, and one in nine who are severely disabled. I wouldn't even know how to find equivalent statistics for the UK, but we're talking about a significant part of the population here.

(As an aside, I found the population figures on the CIA website, would you believe?! There were some other interesting numbers there, too. A quick scan showed that compared to the UK, the US has fewer people below the poverty line but higher inflation, and has six times our GDP but only donates twice what we do in economic foreign aid. What was surprising was that while the US spends a larger percentage of its GDP on the military than we do, it wasn't as marked a difference as I'd expected. It goes on and on-the CIA seems to love numbers. Fascinating stuff, not least because of the fact it's on the CIA's website in the first place.)

Apart from the startling idea of the disabled population of the States being roughly the same as that of my entire country, the other thing that struck me quite strongly was the whole idea of disabled people not being allowed to work in certain buildings, or use certain facilities. Terrifying stuff! Surely the role of government and society in general, vis--vis its disabled citizens, is to enable us to live "normal" lives, not fence us in. What the hell else is government there for, if not to represent the interests of its people—all of the people, not just the nondisabled? Or is that just my socialist streak showing again?

The final thing that struck me was the comment about bus and subway services not being available to the disabled during the crisis period. Which is exactly what it's like in the UK all the time, lest you think I was slamming the US in an earlier paragraph. It's saddening that this situation has affected the provision of public transportation to the disabled, but at least you Americans have better transportation access the rest of the time. We could learn a thing or two from you there.

I hope that as the new, post-September-11th World Order continues to unfold, the powers-that-be begin to realize that they must not contribute to the increased marginalization of disabled people, particularly through intensified security procedures. As governments on both sides of the Atlantic fall over themselves in their haste to rush in new legislation, how much thought will they give to the fallout of these laws? Something tells me that the rights of the disabled—and let's not forget they are rights—are not very high on the list of priorities for the Bush administration right now.

Albert Hunt concludes his article by observing that, "Disabled people passionately believe they need to be part of anything that affects them." We certainly do! Whatever happens next will affects all of us, with repercussions for disabled people everywhere. We know we must be involved. Let's make sure we don't let the policy-makers and politicians forget it.

©2002 John U.


John U. writes :"I'm bisexual and I'm single. I've been a paraplegic since birth (T10 for those that keep track), and I live in the UK about 30 miles from London. I work in IT Support, and in my spare (!) time I run the tech side of Disgaytalk, the online discussion group associated with BENT."






BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/January 2002