Friday, January 31, 2014

Our Religion And Our Science ...

"My religion can never be science. This is the difference between navigating the world and explaining it.” -- Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic - January 31, 2014
It’s risky to take insightful words meant for one discussion and apply them to another. I’m going to do that now, though, because when I read the lines above in an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates about different ways that African-Americans process their history, culture, and politics, it nearly broke my brain because it seemed completely applicable to a basic duality for the disability community.

What’s our duality?

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On the one hand, there are things we as people with disabilities can do, and ways that we can behave, that can help us navigate this world successfully. We can educate ourselves, master our disabilities as best we can, plan the accommodations we need so its easier on everyone else, dress well, and practice ignoring the stares and always smiling. These things will help, and not doing them usually makes life harder for us.

On the other hand, the problems we face aren’t primarily because of things we fail to do or how we act. “Putting our best foot forward” doesn't remove the fundamental barriers that confront us. They exist independently of us. The world isn’t designed for people like us, and it’s getting better only very slowly. Being polite doesn’t cause ramps to materialize. Education does’t guarantee a job or even a decent shot at one. Smiling in the face of prejudice is often impotent, or worse, complicit. People have misguided and even hostile impressions of disabled people that they’ve learned on their own, whether they’ve met lots of disabled people or not. The roots of ableism are very, very old, lodged still deep in the lizard brain.

Which is why the quote rocked me so hard. I believe two contradictory things with equal conviction:

1. Every disabled person has available to them tools and strategies for making their lives better, and we are individually responsible for locating and using those tools to the best of our ability. If we aren't sure what those tools are, or where to find them, there are a lot of us around who are willing to help each other. I believe this to be true.


2. The most significant barriers we face aren’t of our own making, and nothing that we do individually is going to shift them an inch. There is hope for change if we work together, but it won’t always be fun, it won’t be easy, and it will sometimes make people uncomfortable. But if we don’t engage and try, then the only successes we’ll see for disabled people will be the kind of anomalies and one-off lucky breaks that get featured on slow news days. And thank God for them! They remind us of what success can look like, and chip away at non-disabled peoples’ preconceptions. It’s just that there are hard realities and quantitative facts at play that individual moral fortitude alone isn't going to change. I believe this, too.

The first is about self-help, and you could say it’s our religion. It’s a faith that if we try to be the best people we can be, we will see some reward. Also like religion, we commit to it for it’s own sake, even when we can see that it makes little difference to objective reality. 

The second is the objective reality that resists attitude, pluck, and even hard work, but can be analyzed, mapped out, and understood. And if understood, changed or at least shifted with smart, thoughtful collective action.
“My religion can never bee science. This is the difference between navigating the world and explaining it.”
It has never been clearer to me that we need both in the disability community, and that we need to evaluate each effort differently, by different criteria, because they have different, though complimentary goals. It's why Centers for Independent Living do both services and advocacy.

For what it’s worth, it feels good to be able to think about it this way.

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