Friday, November 13, 2015

We Alone Are Not Enough

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I caught a glimpse yesterday of something going on with well-known disability activist and scholar Mia Mingus, something about having to do with air travel. I didn’t dig into it though until this afternoon.

It takes a lot really of nasty ableism to truly piss me off. This is partly because I’ve had disabilities all of my life, partly because of 20+ years in the Independent Living Movement, and partly from my more recent blogging on the subject.

It takes something really outrageous to shock me, and that sort of blunts my outrage.

But this kind of thing cuts through all the world-weary cynicism. It’s so stupid, so humiliating, and so unnecessary. Read all about what happened in this collection of Tweets, assembled by Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project. I’ll have a bit more to say at the bottom.

There’s a lot in these Tweets that goes beyond disability issues into even more fundamental issues of racism and state power. I feel a little less qualified to comment on those aspects, thought they are definitely there, and the incident itself carries all of the key hallmarks of ableism.

First there's the institutionalized stupidity of a system that probably has safeguards to prevent this kind of discriminatory targeting, but either can’t or won’t actually implement them. I suspect the individuals involved have far too much power and discretion to act on their personal views of disability, (or whatever else bugs them in the moment), and not enough oversight.

Second, there is the fact that people who must meet far more disabled people than most people do in their jobs still think a gel seat cushion in a wheelchair is some kind of weird, mysterious, unknown thing. This is an airport in Oakland, California, associated with one of the most disability-aware metropolitan areas in the United States. You’d think they would have met travelers in wheelchairs with gel cushions before. They are pretty standard components of wheelchairs for people who use them long-term.

Third, I really think a big part of this is what Mia mentioned about experiencing much less hassle when she travels with others. People in wheelchairs especially, are informally required to have someone else there to sort of “vouch” for them, in any situation where authorities are involved or observing. This is a fundamental part of ableism … we alone are not sufficient. We can be admirable, inspiring, plucky, resourceful … but someone’s always wondering where our keeper is, you know?

Now, I have never experienced anything like this, and I travel almost exclusively alone. However, I only fly about once a year, maybe. And for the last ten years or so, I have packed my ventilator … a medium-sized box of of indeterminate purpose with electronics involved … in a suitcase. I check it as luggage. I usually find one of those TSA slips in the case that says someone has opened it and snooped around, but it's never caused a problem. But a gel cushion seems pretty harmless to me, too. Why did they pick on that?

And why didn’t they just accept Mia’s explanation? Again, we go back to the fundamental issue … we alone are not enough.

Who is with you? Is there someone here who can help you? If you're this dependent on your equipment, wouldn't it be smarter to travel with someone? It's not our job to solve your problems you know!

I hope the TSA is forced to give a public explanation for how they treated Mia and what they did to her property. I hope they reimbursed her very quickly for her substantial financial loss. An unequivocal directive that wheelchair cushions are fine would be good, too. And, sad to say, a firing or two may be in order. Institutional ableism aside, sometimes it really does come down to an individual with too much power, who just won't budge in their thinking.