July 24, 2020

We are experiencing a cultural reset, and we must include Deaf and Disability culture in our discussions of change

First-person essay by Fran Flaherty
Photograph of essay author Fran Flaherty, a Filipino woman wearing sunglasses and a black jumpsuit. She's lying in the grass with small yellow wildflowers around her.
Fran Flaherty lies in the grass outside her Hampton Township home. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] was marked with celebration in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh hosted the 2016 Kennedy Center’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disabilities Conference and showcased many of its museums, arts organizations and talents in the field of disability advocacy.

As a Deaf artist and immigrant from the Philippines, I had the opportunity to curate a visual arts exhibit that provided a group of international artists with disabilities the opportunity to show their work in Pittsburgh in conjunction with the LEAD conference. It was a celebratory time, and Pittsburgh represented it well.

In contrast, the 30th anniversary of the ADA is upon us and, much like everything else, the conference and celebrations have been put on hold because of COVID-19.

Ironically, it presents a situation that most people with disabilities deal with on a daily basis: vulnerability and isolation.

We have heard the reports from the World Health Organization and other medical organizations: We are all vulnerable to this virus regardless of age, sex or social status. There are some who believe that COVID-19 is “just another virus,” thus wanting to continue on with their lives and viewing mitigation strategies as inconvenient disruptions to our “normal” American way of living.

However, these disruptions are, in fact, a way to keep yourself and others safe from the virus and a gesture of care and compassion for others. The truth is, there are nearly 15.3 million confirmed cases in the world (as of July 23). Almost four million Americans are confirmed to have the virus, of whom more than 104,000 are Pennsylvanians, and at the time of this article, there have been more than 143,000 deaths in the United States due to illnesses related to COVID-19.

We are all at the mercy of this virus, and our actions dictate it. Self-isolation, mask-wearing, physical distancing and other precautions that we have taken are indicators of our vulnerability, and we need to acknowledge and humble ourselves to understand that we are all experiencing the same pandemic, but not equally.

Photograph of Fran Flaherty sitting on the steps leading up to her home.

Fran Flaherty, photographed outside her Hampton Township home. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

While the coronavirus has become the master of our lives, the Black Lives Matter movement is the soul of it. COVID-19 has forced us to face our vulnerability, and the Black Lives Matter movement has asked us to bear the pain of (at least) the last four years and seek justice and change. The alleged murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by former police officer Derek Chauvin stoked a movement on the rise, from Rodney King to Rayshard Brooks. We cannot ignore the simultaneous call to action of these two situations.

It is only proper, because the issues of health and welfare go hand in hand, to specifically address excessive use of police force on Black, Indigenous and people of color [BIPOC] with disabilities.

According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, 33% to 50% of police use-of-force incidents involve a person who is disabled. What does this mean? It means that we are using our police force to try to mitigate uncomfortable situations involving people with disabilities. And because of this, we are faced with people with disabilities being incarcerated rather than supported. About 30% of all prisoners in federal and state facilities and about 40% of jail inmates report having at least one disability. In Allegheny County, 75% of inmates are reported to have either a mental illness or substance abuse issues.

Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson — these and others have needlessly lost their lives because of the poor treatment of people with disabilities by the police. What does that say about us as a society when we cannot take care of those most in need?

We need to acknowledge that it is often not the disability itself that makes a person vulnerable, but rather the rationing of critical services, lack of healthcare supports, inadequate funding for activities of daily living, isolation and discrimination that puts people with disabilities in situations of police brutality.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, called for us in a 2014 article for The Atlantic to refocus our pursuit of happiness from competition and financial success to a social infrastructure that gives equal importance to competition and caregiving. This, I believe, is a call for compassion. We need to start thinking about how we can help one another survive knowing that success and comfort is only attained when putting oneself in another person’s shoes, viewing situations from perspectives other than our own and realizing that we all have imperfections in our lives.

When we embody compassion — not pity — we naturally usher in equal opportunities, universal design, accessibility and inclusive culture. We know more or less what compassion means in our everyday lives. As children, we are taught to share and get along with others. It is these same ideas of compassion that we need to employ in every corporate business plan, government agency, educational institution and nonprofit organization. We must make compassion, disability awareness and culture a part of the foundation we build our future on.

We must let go of meritocracy and accept that we are responsible for one another. It is our duty to be compassionate toward one another.

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests in Pittsburgh and around the world, Mayor Bill Peduto announced June 12 that he will create an Office of Community Health and Safety in which social service experts will be responsible for addressing the problems city police currently handle, such as mental illness, homelessness and suicide prevention.

This is a good start in reforming the police force, but equally important is financially supporting the services that would uplift the most vulnerable in our communities. To be proactive and to provide support that prevents our citizens from being put in compromising situations. To be explicit in saying that we will look out for all citizens with disabilities by providing them with proper assessment, access to health care and other social services and a plan to execute it. To broaden the vision of police reform, creating policies focused on proactive caregiving and meeting people’s needs instead of “enforcement.”

When needs for basic survival are met, and respect and decency for one another are shown, tragic situations with law enforcement are less likely to happen.

If you are always looking to serve the most vulnerable, you will then always provide for those in need. When needs for basic survival are met, and respect and decency for one another are shown, tragic situations with law enforcement are less likely to happen. The Baltimore Police Department teaches de-escalation tactics, and a police officer in the department was recently filmed defusing a situation before it could become violent. This marks a stark contrast to how the same department handled the arrest of Freddie Gray in 2015.

A community is only as strong as how we treat our most vulnerable. We need to acknowledge our culture of ticking boxes to fulfill anecdotal organizational requirements such as access and inclusion and start asking the hard questions. If we are looking to create a more inclusive, accessible environment, what works and what doesn’t? Are we being disingenuous as organizations? Do our actions meet our goals? This also means that we need to face our contribution to ableist society.

Thirty years after the passage of the ADA, our world leaders in disability awareness are still at the forefront of the cause (i.e. Judy Heumann, Jess Thom, Maysoon Zayid). These are some people making large strides in disability awareness. In Pittsburgh, we have our own group of people that can make great contributions to policy reform in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“Nothing about us without us” is a mantra in the disability community. We cannot effectively create policies and reforms that will improve the lives of people with disabilities if we do not include them in the planning of such reforms.

We are experiencing a cultural reset during these times. We may not get another chance to make such a pivotal difference. We must include disability culture in our discussions of change and improvements in our social structures. What do we have to lose by being universally accessible?

Fran Ledonio Flaherty is a Pittsburgh-based multimedia artist. She can be reached at fran@franflaherty.com or on Twitter @fcflaherty.