Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Our pasteurized society

We live in such a pasteurized society. We seem to want everything to be homogenous, similar, to fit within narrow parameters. There seems to be these ideals of what "normal" is - & virtually nobody fits into that category, yet everyone upholds these ideals as attainable. Stereotypes are so pervasive in our society that we as a general rule don't even notice them. We claim to be accepting & tolerant, yet that is rarely the case. Take shopping at the mall for example. What do you see portrayed as the ideal in shop windows? Scantily clad women whose thighs are about as big around as my wrist. White scantily clad women at that - how often do you see mannequins that are any shade of brown? Not very frequently. And when is the last time you saw a mannequin in a wheelchair? Our ideal for women is to be sickly thin, taller than average, willing to show as much skin as possible, white, & perfectly able in all capacities. The reality is.....virtually all of the population does not fit into that demographic. 

Let's focus on this "able" category for today. I myself have no disabilities, but I have a child who does & I work with the developmentally disabled population. That's enough to tune in my perception to the disadvantages our society puts in place for anyone who is disabled in any way. This is called "ableism". Yes, another -ism like sexism, racism, etc. We have more isms in society than I care to count. Here are two short examples: 

Take my child who is hearing impaired, & a trip to the movie theatre. Did you know that by law movie theatres are required to have closed captioning available or either a handheld reading device or a headset to increase volume? Ask for one next time you go to the movies - most don't have them available. And they won't provide closed captioning because it is a "disruption" the other patrons. I'm so sorry that ensuring everyone can enjoy & understand the film is a disruption. Subtitles are interestingly NOT a distraction when at a foreign film. Why? Oh....because the majority can't understand the film of course. But when the minority can't, well that's just disruptive. Speaking of hearing impaired accommodations, are you aware that by law fire alarms have to light up to signal a problem to the deaf/HOH? HOH stands for hard of hearing, if you didn't know. And many facilities do not have light up alarms, although I do see more lately. That is a life or death scenario made solveable by installing a few simple flashing lights. But it is an inconvenience. 

Now let's go back to the mall setting. You know those kiosks in the middle where the sales people accost you with samples of everything from skin softening miracles to hair extensions to the newest gadget you simply must have? I don't know about you, but they annoy me to no end. If I was interesting in sampling your fantastically amazing product I would come over to check it out, you don't have to run across the mall with feigned compliments & poor sales pitches....I'm aware of your presence already. However, try walking through the mall with someone who is disabled in some way. Someone who is in a wheelchair, someone who looks a little different, someone who walks a little different, someone who has autism or something else where they may have sudden movements or outbursts. I kid you not, the crowd literally parts to let you through. And the people at the kiosks? They have no interest in selling you their wares. It would be fascinating, if it wasn't so profoundly & painfully telling of the insensitivity of our society.

People with disabilities, particularly very noticeable ones, are treated so vastly different in everyday life. And it's hurtful. And I'll let you in on a little secret.....they notice! They have feelings just like you do. Hopes, dreams, fears, worries, everything that you deal with on a daily basis - they do too! How would you feel if most people recoiled away from you every time you went into public, & those who didn't treated you like you had some sort of inferior intelligence by either talking slowly or in some weird form of babytalk? Oh...& let me point out, not everyone who is "different" is deaf. I can't tell you the number of times people interact with my perfectly hearing-able yet otherwise disabled clients & yell at them...there is some sort of innate tendency to think that someone who has a disability cannot hear you. And it is obnoxious! Although it amuses me to no end when certain clients will talk back in an equally loud or slow voice to mock the other person & point out that they understood them just fine. While I'm at it....speaking to those who actually ARE deaf/hearing impaired in a r-e-a-l-l-y  s-l-o-w  w-a-y so that they can understand doesn't help. It changes the shape of your lips & makes it very difficult for them to read.

I'm not asking anyone to drastically alter their lives to accommodate those who may have a variety of different needs. All I'm asking is for a little bit of awareness. Next time you're out, see if everything is wheelchair accessible. The clothing racks in stores are requires to fit a wheelchair through them, yet they are rarely wide enough because then retailers couldn't fit as much stuff on the sales floor. Consider what the world would be like if you couldn't hear everything, & what might be different for you. And for goodness sake, please make it a point NOT to cross to the other side of the walkway when someone who looks or acts a little different comes your way.....they are just regular people out in public, just like you! 

Just be aware of the way everyday life is set up to further disadvantage the already disadvantaged. But I warn you, it's upsetting once you finally start to see. And you'll see it everywhere.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

free Apartheid?

I have a new favourite public figure. Well, he himself isn't new - he's been around a while - but I only learned about him yesterday. Tim Wise, and if you don't know who he is, check him out immediately. I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I haven't heard of him sooner to be honest. And don't be surprised when I meet him one day & I'm about as ecstatic as the time I met Dr. Maya Angelou. I think he's that amazing. 

So I'll spare you the complicated process of thinking that goes on in my head, but basically I read over his bio & realized that he became an anti-racism activist by involving himself in anti-Apartheid activities during his undergraduate studies. Having grown up in Apartheid South Africa myself, I understand how that experience can make you question not only your values but also the concept of justice in the world as you know it. And I started thinking about how common it is for white people there to have black maids. And the general thought is that by allowing this person to clean your home & care for your children 5 days a week, pay them, house them, & give them a day or two to return to their own towns/families, that they are being given a better life than they could have otherwise. There is no inequality, because they are getting a great deal. Think about that for a second - someone comes in, cleans up your crap, takes care of your (probably completely spoiled if you're the type to hire a maid) children, lives away from their family & loved ones, & this is *a good deal*. What's the automatic assumption there? 

Wait for it.......did it click yet? 

The unspoken yet automatic assumption is that the person who is financially able to do the hiring has a better life. Let me tell you, some of the most valuable lessons I learned as a child were from the Zulu women. And there is nothing that money can buy that is more important than being able to be a part of your own community, culture, and people. Therefore, by offering employment to people on the condition of being removed from their own is not actually "better". 

And then I got to thinking about the United States. Today, not in previous decades. Who primarily cleans houses here today? Latina women. Low income black women. If you're a really generous and wealthy white woman, you *might* have a live in nanny/maid type of thing & actually believe that you are in some way helping them achieve a better life. I cannot for one second wrap my mind around how someone could actually believe that having another person clean your toilets and raise your children and clean up your messes is "giving" them anything. It's the other way around in fact....they are enabling your lifestyle to exist by doing the menial tasks (otherwise known as common household responsibilities) for you. But there is no inequality of course, because they are being compensated for their work & oh my goodness if they are undocumented then how very generous of you to be providing them with a way of life. Right? 

When is the last time you heard a little girl say "when I grow up I want to be a maid" or "my biggest dream is to do someone else's laundry" or better yet "I hope I can take care of some rich lady's bratty kid while my own sits home alone all day"? Pretty much......never. These women do this backbreaking work for so little compensation because there are no other options. These women have hopes and dreams, and most likely they will never come true because of the way society is set up. 

Tim Wise said something very true that nobody wants to acknowledge: the term underprivileged by default means that there is an overprivileged. But nobody wants to admit that they could be hogging the resources of society or denying people access to basic rights like healthcare, education, self determination. Oh no, especially not if they are kind enough to *pay* these people for their services. No inequality there! And yet it exists....there is a distinctly overprivileged group in society, typically made up of wealthy whites. 

Our society in the United States today is really no different than it was in South Africa during the Apartheid, for plenty of reasons aside from this one. But I think in a way we are worse, because we hide the fact that there are distinct inequalities in the way we live. We *deny* it even. We say "oh no everything is wonderful here! Look we aren't like THEM." 

But we are. And we are worse because we adamantly refuse to admit it. We have the Apartheid in place under the guise of freedom. Ruminate on that one for a while...