This is Your Time Rwanda - Book on Rwandan Feminism and Resourcefulness

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Independent Living Movement II

Part Two:
The Independent Living Movement II

1200 words
By Karen Cole

What is the Independent Living Movement in Seattle, WA, the USA about? It and the aspects of it with which I was involved have changed, somewhat, from what I saw when there at Center Park. It was the first apartment building built in the entire country for disabled people in wheelchairs. It got flooded by every other type of handicapped people who could find a way into it. The “laundry list” – meaning, the applications made out of paper in those times - was one hundred blocks long to get in. It looped around the block, which mind you, was more like a downtown office city block than a neighborhood one.

The office was run by “ABs,” or in other words able-bodieds, and so it was thought that if you did the tiniest thing wrong when you reported on anything to the obvious “lesbians” – overweight, underpaid white women with no sense of humor who also smiled these abysmally evil grimaces all the livelong day - who ruled the office, you would be destined to “go places.” This was namely to a mental ward, or another form of The Poor House, as they used to put it in the Charles Dickens Dickensian days of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Whichever place least suited; there you would then be stuck, waiting for your typical early demise - as it was then for the disabled folk. The office ladies actually had their own lives, and weren’t that out to “get” people, probably; but in many cases, they did stick their noses into private people’s affairs.

As power corrupts, and as absolute power corrupts absolutely, those ladies ruled the office in Center Park with an iron fist in a velvet glove, and you didn’t want to mess with them. Mark Twain, alias Samuel Langhorne Clemens, had warned me about the existence of such seeming Christian and God Fearing ladies, and how merciless they were, when it comes to putting you in “your place,” and Center Park of the doldrums was sufficiently depressing in and of itself, as I said, back in the Precambrian Times. Meanwhile, the black ladies of the neighborhood were often hired for live out jobs at Center Park, doing the same thing I was doing; working for the disabled and helping them keep clean and neat apartments, handling both nursing and maid duties for them. We were all a kind of mixed bag of nurse aides and attendants, not all of one racial group, who worked there. I was white with freckles, and there were black, brown and white people, mostly women, who worked both live in and live out at Center Park, for some very low wages.

This “palace” for the disabled and handicapped back then was also thought of as the hospital - or Death’s Door - by many. There was an available office with a nurse on duty there day and night seven days a week, the one with the medications line in front of it during the day. And there was an office run by the disabled people who lived there, where you were supposed to have input, with a “President of the Center Park Council” who sat in it daily when I was there, answering questions of anyone who came in. I remember the President being a disabled white man who had been “normal” and then gotten involved in a hydroplane boating accident at Green Lake in Seattle.

Nowadays they also have an “in-house” newsletter, produced by the disabled people there. The privacy realm was greater, however, than in the average institution - and it was indeed an apartment building with surrounding gardened grounds, as many such better apartment complexes have nowadays. God’s verdant Land of Oz was accessible outside, in a marvelous garden that led around half the perimeter of Center Park, and it was as lush as the Garden of Eden, the temporary home of Adam and Eve. At the first thought of sex, unavoidable by all of the disabled handicapped and nearly incapable of having sex people of Center Park could thus see and feel, wasn’t a short life for one isolated person one’s place in the scheme of things? Unless you had a manual wheelchair – no exercise. Also, I met a number of people trying to explore sexual avenues, some of which were women who would try to check into a motel with someone repeatedly, in order to have the odd “tryst” with anyone able enough to have daytime sex with them. There were the usual love affairs and marriages as among the so-called “normal” population, but sex was something trickier - when it came to various people’s real disabilities.

So what exactly is the palace or place of each person, so physically challenged, you might wonder, given the fact your life before the Internet involved television zombie status or only wandering around outside, waiting for a life you could lead? Perhaps if you weren’t too disabled, you could find a job of work. In those days, the days before Section 504 of the Washington State Code was put through and enforced, it was spectacularly hard for a disabled or handicapped person to get work. Once that law was put through, it made it easier for a soul in a wheelchair or whatever to find work, given they were thus to be judged on the same basis as an able-bodied person. That’s the law as of the 80s: if you could compete and turn in substantially similar work, you could be hired, even though disabled. Getting rid of affirmative action laws in the 90s probably cut into that, as the type of law involved was that sort of thing, but I guess it’s still in effect.

It was kind of an affirmative action program, the sort of thing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only dreaming of in the 1960s. His dreams were to ensure white, brown and black people could get by in the same environments as each other inhabited, and not be racially segregated. Center Park was not racially segregated, and those three different types of people did indeed live there, although they didn’t necessarily interact much. There, I met a man who knew about his place in the scheme of things was similar to Dr. King’s and his name was John Tyler – he was the “radical” of Center Park, and he had a succinctly short death sentence of polio and sleep apnea hanging over his head while he did his level best to get rights for the disabled going. It was what he thought of as his place, along with a handful of other disabled handicapped persons who knew it was.

The goal of the Independent Living Movement was to “normalize” the lives of the physically and mentally challenged, and as John’s attendant, I was able to help him strive to fulfill this noteworthy and helpful goal. We all were pulling for the disabled to lead lives out of “physically and mentally segregated” institutions - and for them to move out into the general Seattle and surrounding environs and communities. The idea was to help the disabled and the handicapped lead fuller, richer, and more worthwhile lives. The ILM was and is the movement for these people to become more human and less cut off from able people, and so become able to become happier and more productive world citizens.


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