Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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March 27, 2007
"An Anarchist Response to Disability"

Attempting to clean out some more links pertaining to off-line/in print stuff from the recent several weeks . . .

Mitzi Waltz's "Making Room for Difference: An Anarchist Response to Disability" appears in the current (# 374, winter 2007) issue of Fifth Estate.

Bravo to Waltz for the creation, and to FE for the publication, of an article that shook up some of my notions about disability (or, phrased from the opposite direction: "about myself"), notions that were a little less lazy and unexamined, after I read it. Perhaps the article did or could do the same for others. Although I am sure that my unspoken assumptions deserve on-going examination.

I bought the issue primarily because I wanted to see what an article about "Disability and Anarchism," as touted on the cover, would have to say.

However, at the same time, within the instant that I read that semi-title, I formed some smug, unimaginative but foggy ideas about what I believed the piece would address. I presupposed that Waltz would ask questions from a generally theoretical, quasi-academic angle, that were superfically probing but that would not make me feel anything too uncomfortable. Questions maybe that would not ultimately go beyond the category of:

Why is it so hard to figure out how to depict an "anarchy symbol" in braille?

Why are there so few wheelchair ramps at all-ages punk shows?

I did not become consciously aware that the above were my assumptions, until I started to read the article. It begins:

I won't name the city or the group -- it isn't necessary. Similar situations have occurred in every anarchist community.

A middle-aged man with obvious mental health difficulties attached himself to an anarchist activist project in a major city. He had time and energy to spare.

He also had difficulties managing his behavior sometimes. A group of young women thought his occasionally aggressive words and actions were threatening, and they were lobbying for his expulson from the collective.

Others grumbled that his personal hygeine was lacking, and that his presence drove away potential members. . . .

[N]o one seemed to be grasping the need for social support that had attracted him to the group, or the internalized unease that contact with someone who was experiencing mental illness provoked amongst people who believed themselves to be sympathetic with 'diversity' as a broad concept.

The lights went on for me within the first paragraph. I saw how easily recognizable Waltz's scenario is.

We've all been there. We've all seen it. Or something like it.

We've all felt, in groups, in such a circumstance, the push-pull of loyalties and self concepts in conflict.

Do we identify with the young people and those like them, whose need for a "safe space" we share and whose sense of safety is threatened?

Do we identify with the lone, troubled (brink-of-being) outcast, and say to ourselves, "But for accidents of disorder, that guy could well be me?"

[this i suppose is an old dialectic:
1. person who's marginalized, sympathizes w/ those who are, or who's never known how to conform to any group;
2. who thereby wishes for a community;
3. finds apparent community which also cares about the marginalized;
4. breathes huge sigh of relief and gratitude to find the like-minded;
5. joins group; then
6. discovers yet another marginalized population, within yet from the group.

at times like that, a person stands at a crossroads.]

Or do we side with the facilitators, bridge builders or group leaders, who try to mediate and make peace between sides, to accommodate all and smooth ruffled feathers?
The brightness of those lights intensified with Waltz's mention of the "internalized unease" that the non-disabled can feel and display around the disabled. I could see the extent to which my purported, kinda condescending concern -- "how can the disabled have more access?" -- was a dodge, insofar as my questions stopped abruptly there and went no further. I had deflected, by deferral, concrete considerations of the knottier, less tangible issues of acceptance, understanding, identity, etc.
(read: issues of
"mental laziness"
"habitualized moral self-congratulation"
" bigotry"?)
to be sorted through, when the disabled have such "access."

Those considerations, concerning social attitudes towards the disabled and/or the ill, are in the air lately, I suppose. In the USA, in the world of "mainstream" media and politics, we see the attitudes of some   commentators towards John and Elizabeth Edwards. While the horrific Walter Reed hospital and veterans scandal unfolded, movie audiences flocked to thrill to a tale glorifying a militaristic society that dumped its disabled children on a mountainside to die. Then there's the recently prize-winning photo discussed here. And, of course, PurseLipSquareJaw did many of us a profound service last month by drawing our attention to this.

Waltz did well to flag the issues of "internalized unease" and social stigma, especially to the extent they take root in the minds of her readers, who presumably strive to live well-roundedly progressive, enlightened or radical lives. However, Waltz did not need to devote her whole piece to those attitudes: Other   leads   exist to follow, that way.

Rather, Waltz's piece proceeds immediately in a different, more solutions-oriented, pragmatic direction. She laments the consistency with which, in her own struggles to get care for the disabled, she was driven to seek help from the state and government, due to the lack of support available in radical or anti-authoritarian communities. She discusses some of the impact of such a lack, in an interview here.

In Fifth Estate, she endorses the Circles of Support model as one way to solve the problem. She writes:

He [the middle-aged man] may have needed some help in managing his health, and our community did not seem to be providing that. He certainly needed help in successfully being part of the community, and a circle of support might have been a good approach to meeting both his needs and those of others to feel safe.

To round things out, from an anarchist perspective, she wraps up with some interesting links, including to two at Infoshop: "Anarchism and Blindness," by Marisa Sposaro, and "Seeing Past the Outpost of Post-Anarchism," by Sandra Jeppesen.