This blog entry introduces a new contributor to our conversation: Sandra Chapin, an accomplished writer, poet, lyricist and theologian, who is in the ordination process for becoming an ELCA pastor, and who is also disabled – in fact, she’s a passionate voice for disability rights. Reflecting on the prayer posted previously on this blog, the one from this year’s MLK Jr. Breakfast, Sandra writes:
In January 2006 the Martin Luther King breakfast in Dubuque had as their keynote speaker a woman working with the governor of Iowa for disability rights. A disabled woman. We watched as she maneuvered her wheelchair on to the lift that allowed her access to the stage. It was a visual narrative that underscored the message she gave, that equal rights for the disabled still battles the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. Others who were at the breakfast that morning may not remember it as I do, three years later. I, also in a wheelchair, gave the opening prayer. And I noted details that others may not have, like the wheelchair lift, an out-of-place add-on to an otherwise elegant affair. Perhaps the noisy, mechanical sound it made, or its unattractive appearance caused some in the audience to look away or pick up their orange juice glasses to be distracted as they waited for her speech to begin. But her speech had begun.
Giving handicapped people equal access to places can result in unattractive mechanical add-ons. Sometimes access is granted using out of the way elevators. Grateful that I am for elevators, I know from experience many of these 'not for general public use' are uncomfortably small and outdated, and I've been stuck in one more than once. I prefer access not so out of the way, not so out of the public eye. Able-bodied people may think it's disrespectful to view the alternate route and adjustments a disabled person may need to take in order to end up at the same place they do. I watched with anticipation when former Vice President Cheney arrived for the inauguration in a wheelchair, but I was disappointed as he was whisked away to some undisclosed elevator only to magically appear later, circumventing stairs all other distinguished guests descended. I wanted a camera crew to accompany him, to note the path that other wheelchair bound people need travel when they visit the Capitol. Perhaps such camera footage was thought of as disrespectful. I should like to think it was at least thought of!
As in the days when people of color were relegated to the back of the bus, the only accessible entrances for wheelchair users to many buildings are still in the back, or off to the side. A trend I've noticed in recent years is locating the wheelchair accessible hotel rooms far from the front desk. Out of sight, out of mind? That's what it feels like. I invite anyone to come with me along the back corridors, through the restaurant kitchens, up the freight elevators to rejoin the group of people gathering for the same event I want to attend. Or watch me as I huff and puff my way up ramps. I won't feel disrespected by anyone taking an interest in the parts of my life that are often overlooked.