Tag Archives: Poverty

This Universal Pandemic Proves Our Diversity

19 Apr

Hidden Object (Image by Hans-Jörg Aleff used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Most of the world has been asked—if not ordered—to stay at home and only socialize online. Almost immediately the divisiveness inherent to social media was out in full-force. My friends and family have been venting almost since Day One about the posts and tactics they find most distasteful:

“I can’t go online anymore if it means finding out another one of my friends is blaming this on Chinese people, black people, or city people.”

“There SO many high-horses out there right now – people trying to shame anyone who goes to a bakery or uses public transportation or orders online and therein endangers delivery workers.”

“Be grateful your friends at least are committed to social distancing right now! Half of mine are still convinced anyone who does so is a sissy.”

“I’m gonna unfriend the next person who lectures about how we should be avoiding chocolate or shampooing with strawberry jam because it’s good for your brain cells and therefore your immune system. It’s hard enough to get people to listen to the clear-cut facts. We don’t need the airwaves clogged with theories!”

“I can’t take the memes that tell everyone to stop whining. ‘All we’re being asked to do is stay on the couch and watch Netflix’?! Complaining is helpful in a crisis!”

Indeed, orders to immediately have perspective and shut up sound crotchety at best and ice-cold in light of the escalation in unemployment, mental illness, domestic violence, and child abuse under lockdown. We absolutely owe it to seniors, disabled and chronically ill people, and every essential worker to do what we can to slow the spread of the virus and lessen the danger they face. But that doesn’t mean shrugging off even smaller problems like loneliness, cabin fever, or the obliteration of the work-life balance. A single mother of toddlers who works as a journalist said every minute of her day is a choice between neglecting her job or her children, and leaves her feeling every night that she failed at both. The U.K. reports an increase in custody battles over children since the lockdown. Less acrimonious legal procedures like immigration and adoption procedures are now in limbo.

Not since the last pandemic a century ago has everyone on every continent faced the same exact enemy. Earthquakes, bombings, hurricanes, and even World II occurred in specific locations. Some if not most people on earth lived far away from those catastrophes and only knew them as news reports. Right now I can ask my friends and family in every time zone the same question: How is it for you? I live in Germany, which so far has one of the lowest death rates of any of the infected countries and, at the time of this writing, has more residents recovering from the virus than infected by it. While that is some cause for hope, the diversity in international infection and death rates pretty much ensures that non-essential international flights are a long way off. For so many parents like me, seeing our kids hug their grandparents is almost certain to be the very last thing governments will allow. I know I am still partly in denial over that.

Social media is a hard substitute to accept. Unlike speaking to friends in very small groups or one-on-one, social media (like mass-emails) excludes the extremely helpful ways in which we each alter our speech and tone according to whom we’re addressing. And so we speak to everyone at once and too quickly alienate those whose experience we forget. Posts about what to read or watch now that we all have so much time at home alienate those whose workload has tripled. Or evaporated. Posts that overemphasize the dangers of the virus in order to try to frighten people into staying home make those with at-risk loved ones burst into tears. Posts trying to point the finger at wet markets or the Chinese government (or U.S. Democrats or cell phone towers) prove that the blame game is always poisonous and always fraught with fallacies. Scientists and journalists from Nate Silver to Bill Bryson had long been warning that humanity was due for a pandemic. The differences in how states have handled it proves that our political choices do ultimately determine how many will be in danger.

We all face the same virus and what it means for each of us is as diverse as humanity itself. Recognizing the wide range of experiences is necessary. It will degrade us if it is done with jealousy instead of empathy. Solidarity means no one is more expendable than I am and bravery in the face of a worldwide threat means overcoming the urge to think only of my experience.

Escaping social media and moving to the phone, I’ve found friends and family to be overly gracious. Jeez, I thought I was inconvenienced, but it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through! they say so often to each other. We vent and then edit ourselves, counting our blessings and privileges without humblebragging, and express sympathy for each other’s individual plights. For all the vile xenophobia that is but a Google search away, online organizing shows that many are ready and willing to aid people in poverty, African-Americans, refugees, homeless citizens, and prisoners, all of whom are a greater risk. The applause from balconies for health care professionals across Europe and North America has been heartening, and in many places it has been followed by concrete efforts for increased funding.

And who keeps even more people alive in a hospital than the doctors? The cleaning staff. This crisis has shown the need for paying our workers based on the necessity of their labor, not the skill-level. It has shown that childcare is absolutely and always a job in itself, worth as much as any other. It has shown how difficult it is to communicate simple but scary facts to over 7 and a half billion people. And it has shown we do have some choices about our responses and we can let the better angels of our nature prevail. When this is over, history will tell whether or not we did.

 

U.S. hotline for domestic abuse: https://www.thehotline.org/

U.S. hotline for the Deaf for help in domestic abuse: https://thedeafhotline.org/

U.K. hotline for domestic abuse: https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/

German hotline for domestic abuse, in several languages plus German Sign Language: https://www.hilfetelefon.de/

German hotline for depression: https://www.deutsche-depressionshilfe.de/corona

 

 

Baltimore Is Everyone’s Problem

3 May

Mural, Baltimore(Image by Eli Pousson used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I could write about the year I spent in downtown Baltimore, when I rode past the above mural every day, when the neighborhood I lived in was serving as the inspiration for the crime show Homicide: Life on the Street. But this is not the time for white people to talk about themselves.

This is the time to consider the undeniable disparities between white people and black people living in Baltimore, and elsewhere in the U.S. This is the time to acknowledge the privileges and freedoms black Americans still cannot enjoy today. And this is the time to listen to what we are being asked to do by those who have good reason to be upset about all this.

If we spend most of our time telling poor and disenfranchised people how they should behave rather than examine what we regularly take for granted, then we’re not interested in fixing the problem. We’re just interested in congratulating ourselves for being better than others.

 

 

What Makes You So Special?

13 Oct

Leg-formsDisney World is changing its policy for disabled customers this week since it’s come to light that many families have been hiring disabled people to help them cut to the front of the lines.  Like stealing disabled parking spaces, this kind of cheating requires a brazen combination of laziness and self-righteousness.  What kind of family believes that the agony they experience waiting in line is comparable to what a disabled customer experiences?  

MSN reports, “Stories of wealthy families hiring disabled tour guides to pose as family members have drawn national attention and scorn. But the more common abuse is subtler: people faking hard-to-verify handicaps such as heart murmurs, back spasms or claustrophobia… ”

The news broke the very same day that I had my first meeting with an adviser here in Berlin to explore the options available to me for disabled status. 

“It’s important not to lie,” he said bluntly.  “Don’t exaggerate your pain, but don’t feign bravery, either.” 

Indeed, ego-driven dishonesty can go either way.  Some lie and cause themselves unnecessary discomfort all for the sake of their own pride, while others lie and take advantage of assistance all for the sake of garnering special attention.  It creates a burden for genuinely disabled people who must convince cynics that their medical conditions are bona fide, but not necessarily tragic.     

I don’t know what level of disabled status I currently qualify for.  In elementary school, I took a specialized phys ed class and I was the only kid who was allowed to sit in a chair instead of on the floor during story-time to avoid distracting back pain.  Yet on both occasions that my family took me to Disney World, I managed the hour-long waits in line without assistance.  But I couldn’t manage that today.  Then again, I have good days and bad.  Should I mention all this on my application, or does it sound like I’m making things up?

Determining disability is to determine whether your suffering—which is always unique and important to you—is in fact unique to your peer group.  Decades of being designated as different cause many disabled people to balk at the idea of being given special treatment. (As I’ll explore next week, many in the dwarf community go so far as to insist that dwarfism isn’t a disability.)  Yet those willing to hire a disabled person for a day at Disney World appear to rebel against the idea of not being given special treatment.

I hesitate to delve into the topic of lying and whining because, in far too many parts of the world, victims of horrific suffering are readily silenced by being dismissed as liars and whiners.  To a heartless person, anyone’s complaint qualifies as whining, except his own.  In an intolerant society, “Suck it up!” is barked at anyone who ever sheds a tear or speaks up about injustice.  The world usually needs more compassion than cynicism.  Given the choice, I’d rather live with too much whining than too much cruelty and abuse. 

But whining abuses compassion.  I don’t believe the majority of cheaters at Disney World deviously set out to fake illness and maliciously steal a disabled child’s spot in line.  In my experience, it’s much more common that people with mundane problems truly believe their difficulties entitle them to exceptional treatment. 

A friend who was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in childhood once said that whenever he tries to explain this to a group of 20-somethings, more often than not a few will start saying, “I think I have that, too!”  This can happen innocently enough: Most of us like to consider new experiences by seeing how they relate back to those we are already familiar with.  And misery sure loves company.  But anyone with clinical OCD knows that this condition is not simply about odd habits that make for charming little anecdotes, or pathologizing our eccentricities so that they cannot be questioned.  In our individualistic LOOK AT ME! culture, there is a fine but crucial line between trying to empathize in order to understand a different experience, and trying to empathize in order to snag a place for ourselves in the spotlight. 

This is not to silence those whose problems are ordinary.  (We all need to vent about the lines at Disney World.)  But false equivalencies can also silence those whose problems are extraordinary.  Being spoiled doesn’t just render us disagreeable – it renders us ignorant.  To relativize all difficulty risks misunderstanding and overlooking the profound effects of true disability, true poverty, true trauma, and true grief.

When middle class college grads complain about being “poor” because they can’t buy as many DVDs as they did when they lived with Mom and Dad, they’re disregarding the poverty line.  When a young woman claims to suffer from PTSD after being pickpocketed, she’s stretching the definition of the word into meaninglessness.  When breaking up with a boyfriend or losing a pet is described with the same superlative words we use to describe battling cancer or losing a child, we overlook the difference between the kind of pain no one should have to endure and the kind of pain everyone should expect.  Blunt comparisons—“I know exactly what you’re going through!”—downplay severity and dramatize the mundane, impeding rather than spreading awareness. 

In applying for disabled status, I will find out from an objective source just how disabled I am.  If my weekly pain, fatigue and weakness qualify as Severe or Moderate, then I’ll swallow any pride I have about wanting to appear stronger and accept it.  If my difficulties are judged to be Mild, then I’ll discard any selfish wishes I have about the benefits of Severe status and accept it.  I do feel substantially exceptional when I’m the only one in a crowd of friends who absolutely must sit down after a 20-minute walk.  But other experiences make these inconveniences seem not only minor but trivial.

I lived in a pediatric rehabilitation hospital for five months when I was 11 years-old and undergoing my first limb-lengthening procedure.  On my first day in group therapy, the patients introduced themselves to me and explained why they were there. 

The first guy had a degenerative nerve disorder that was life-threatening.  “I was talking about it with my dad and he told me, ‘I wish you’d never been born.’  Thanks, Dad.”

The second kid had been shot in the hip and paralyzed in a gang war. 

The third guy was quadriplegic.  “I’m actually ready to be discharged, but I’m having a hard time finding my own apartment with a caregiver to live with me.  My mom has decided she doesn’t want to take care of me round the clock.”

Then a teenage girl talked about her upcoming discharge.  The room erupted into congratulations until she began to choke back tears.  “I’m being discharged because the treatments aren’t working.  At this point, they said they can’t even tell me if I’m going to live to see tomorrow.” 

Then it was my turn to introduce myself.  “Um, I’m having my legs lengthened so that I can be taller.” 

I’m sure this was met with courtesy and active listening, but at that moment I felt I deserved nothing but crickets.  That night in my hospital room, I tossed and turned, wondering if she would live to see the next day.

My fellow patients in group were ultimately sympathetic to any struggles I needed to discuss.  What they taught me above all else is that, as my advisor said, it’s important not to lie.  Tell the truth, and be aware of where your reality lies in relation to others.  Fight against the stigma surrounding disability, poverty, trauma, and grief.  And don’t claim to know the unique despair experienced by those who live it.   If you claim to already know, you’ll miss what they have to teach you about the world you live in. 

Like why someone would really need to cut in line.

 

 

Universal Disability Rights – Remind Me Again Why We Don’t Care?

9 Dec

 

Well, I was going to write about how conservatives are sometimes more open to discussing issues faced by disabled people than liberals are.  Then on Tuesday, all but eight Republican senators voted against the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, making sure the United States distinguishes itself as one of the few nations on earth that will not commit to protecting disabled rights.  Appeals by the likes of the World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association, and senior Republicans (and disabled veterans) John McCain and Bob Dole were to no avail.  So I’m not in the mood to write any sort of tribute to conservative ideals this week.

Supporters of ratification like Dole and John Kerry argued that the United States would be leading the world, since much of the Convention was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  Opponents argued that this is exactly why ratification is of little importance.  We already have the ADA and we don’t like the UN, so who cares?  But By refusing to ratify the Convention, the United States is undermining its authority, ultimately saying, “Too bad!” to the disabled citizens of other countries that will also abstain, where ableism is sometimes deadly.  (Do we need to talk about the thousands of medical conditions that are still thought to be works of the devil or punishment by God in far too many cultures?)  But this is not just a matter of the United States choosing whether or not to officially lead the world.  When it comes to human rights at home, complacency can be devastating.

 In many respects, the U.S. is not coming out on top.  According to an OECD 2009 study of 21 developed countries cited by the World Bank and WHO last year, disabled people of working-age are more likely to live below the poverty line than non-disabled people in every country but Norway, Sweden, and Slovakia.  This likelihood is highest in the United States, Australia, Ireland, and Korea, and lowest in the Netherlands, Iceland, and Mexico.  According to WHO, the discrepancy between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled citizens is twice as high in the United States (35 percentage points) as in Germany (18 percentage points).  And in the U.S., the risk of violence against people with disabilities is four to ten times higher than against people without disabilities. 

I will never officially endorse a candidate or a party on this blog.  Despite obvious political trends at the macrocosmic level, personal experience has shown me that people of all political stripes believe in universal human rights and I never wish to alienate anyone over issues not directly related to equality.  But shame on every single senator who blocked the Convention.  No one has ever protected human rights on an international scale through isolationist policies.  In a world where people with dwarfism still have little hope of employment outside the circus, people with albinism are persecuted, surgeries are performed without consent, and a diagnosis of mental illness is thrust upon LGBT people and denied people with clinical depression, international cooperation is crucial.  Otherwise, human rights disintegrates back into its inconsistent old self and becomes nothing more than a matter of privilege.