Editor's Column - November 2015

Tim BenjaminOver the last couple years we’ve had some very influential locals leave Minnesota to contribute to the disability community in a bigger way. The most recent is Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano, vice president of programs for the  Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, who has been selected to be Gallaudet University’s eleventh president.

Gallaudet University was established in 1856 as a grammar school called the Columbia Institution for Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. It began with 12 students just north of Washington DC, on grounds donated by Amos Kendall. President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 signed the bill that authorized the institution to offer academic college degrees, and the college department became the National Deaf-Mute College (in 1865, blind students were transferred to the Maryland Institution for the Blind). Edward Minard Gallaudet was the school’s first superintendent, and the college was named after him by the U.S. Congress in 1954. The first University diplomas were signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, and every diploma from Gallaudet since has been signed by the presiding US President. (That would be a pretty cool diploma to hang on your wall, wouldn’t it?)

What is especially important to people with disabilities is that Gallaudet University on March 1, 1988 became the site where the disability rights movement became a civil rights movement in the eyes of the general public. It began with over 1,000 Gallaudet students and people from other deaf organizations actively protesting the appointment of a hearing person as president.  The students demanded that a deaf person be chosen by the university’s Board of Trustees (two of the three finalists for the position had been deaf). The mainstream media picked up on the protest when Gallaudet students started setting up tents and camping on the front yard of the university president’s home. The press and the public recognized the “Deaf President Now” protest as a demonstration similar to many prior civil rights campaigns. The students prevailed, and it seems obvious to us today that a deaf president would be the best choice for this prestigious university for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Even so, it’s sometimes still a struggle for the mainstream population to recognize the truth in the childhood playground chant, “it takes one, to know one.” It’s very hard for a person without a disability to understand and feel the discrimination, frustrations and difficulties of living with a disability. It’s not impossible, of course. There are many allies who really do understand the struggle for disability rights. And most of us in the disability community know many non-disabled people who “get it.”

I try to remember that when some in the general population place people with disabilities apart—and even see us with fear or suspicion. Lately I’ve heard a lot of suspicion in discussions about Social Security. Politicians are claiming that people on Social Security Disability Insurance are fraudulently taking money from the system. One politician, U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), claimed that “Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club.”

If these divisive politicians were right, I would be protesting against the program myself. But I know that Social Security Disability Insurance is the only source of income for many people with disabilities, and most of them are living below poverty level even with that income. According to a report released in November by the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General, fraudulent Social Security Disability Insurance claims are exceedingly rare—accounting for just 0.02% of all payments. And it’s easy to find these facts on the Social Security Administration website.

Pitting the general public against people with disabilities, claiming that people with disabilities are robbing and cheating the system is what keeps stereotypes alive—and some politicians making headlines. Senator Rand also claimed in 2010 that the Americans with Disabilities Act should be abolished because it’s unfair to business. There’s another claim I don’t understand. How is it unfair to businesses if the 15 to 20% of Americans with disabilities are included in the U.S. buying population? Maybe they think it would be better to institutionalize people with disabilities, and concentrate their benefit to businesses within the nursing home industry.

Thanks to all who attended the Charlie Smith award banquet again this year. I’m writing this in advance of the banquet, so I’ll fill you all in on how it went next month. Hoping it stays warm for a few more weeks; I’m
get ing used to this.