Sunday, March 30, 2008


People with visible disabilities are no strangers to stares. Not all stares are bad. We invite them at ADAPT actions, the Disability Pride Parade, and at local disability rights functions. We want people to see our diversity, our power, and our unity in these political actions.

But when we’re going about the mundane tasks of our lives, stares can be at the very least, a nuisance. At its worst, is a searing invasion into our privacy.

People stare many different ways. There is the open mouth-gaping stare; the glancing, you-can’t-catch-me-staring stare; the double-take stare; the self-conscious, but-I-cannot-help-myself stare; the 360°, I-cannot-believe-my-eyes stare; the judgmental, why-are-you-here-interrupting-my-peace stare; and the most benign--the blank, staring-off-into-space-I-am-not-sure-I-even-saw-anything stare.

Young people with disabilities can be more vulnerable to stares than older folks who have, hopefully, hardened themselves to them. However, once grown, stares still leave psychological scars that can inhibit a peoples’ ability to include themselves in the larger community. I have heard many people with disabilities say they enjoyed the anonymity of online communities, because the other members get a chance to see “me as I am; not my disability.”

Not even fifty years ago, if a man paid a quarter, he (he, because it was considered to be much too disturbing for a woman) could gawk unabashedly at people with disabilities in sideshow attractions.

Photo of Kevin Connolly posing in front of several of his photographs. Photo by Deirdre Eitel, Bozeman Daily Chronicle.Now comes Kevin Connolly. He is staring back… with his camera. What started with one photograph at someone staring at him, has become a collection of 32,000 pictures, from 31 cities, in 15 countries and 1 terrific website: The Rolling Exhibition.

In the biographical information on the site, Kevin says he grew up like most kids in Bozeman Montana, playing and getting dirty. He was born legless and healthy in 1985. His preferred mode of transportation is a skateboard. From that vantage point, he began taking pictures of people’s stares.

In an NPR interview, Connolly says he rarely looks through the viewfinder when he takes the pictures. He snaps the photos on the fly, literally shooting from the hip. He must certainly have an uncanny sense of space and timing to get the pictures he has captured.

The website shows only 45 pictures of his collection of 32,000. Each one is fascinating, unique and leaves you wanting more. His art would interest any person, disabled or not. The Rolling Exhibition is primarily a presentation-based project. However, Connolly does sell his pictures and shows them in galleries.

All the photos will have an air of familiarity for people with visible disabilities. The stares may be out of a sense of confusion, disbelief, surprise, approval, dread, or just plain snooping. Whatever the subject's reason, Connolly’s stunning pictures capture a part of our disability culture that I have not seen before.

I like staring back. It is claiming our power as people who normally have little of it in public places. I just may start carrying my camera too.

Photo by Deirdre Eitel, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I’m Hillary Clinton -- And I Approved This Message…

On March 3rd, Wired Blog Network published the side by side pictures below. They are not-so-identical digital images of the same nationally televised moment. The occasion was the February 26th Democratic Debate on MSNBC in Cleveland.

The one on the left is an untouched MSNBC screen shot of the debate. On the right is the Clinton campaign’s screen shot of the same moment as it appears in one of her campaign ads. Obama is several shades darker in the campaign ad than he appeared in the debate and appears in real life. It’s clear the Clinton campaign wants to paint Senator Obama as the black candidate, rather than a formidable peer for the nomination. It started in South Carolina and continues today.

Earlier this week I wrote a piece about, what I perceive to be, the subtle racial overtones of Hillary’s 3:00 AM “Red Phone”. Subtlety just flew out the window.

I have created side-by-side pictures of Hillary at the debate (on the right). On the left, is a picture of Hillary in the same ad where she shows the “blacker” Obama. Hillary’s skin tone, despite poor lighting, is similar to her skin tone at the debate. If anything, it appears a little lighter.

Add to this, Geraldine Ferraro’s week of race baiting. She was Clinton’s “honorary” finance chairperson. All week Ferraro has heaved racially charged accusations that Obama is a candidate because of some Democratic affirmative action program. Forget the facts; that he leads in the delegate count, the popular vote, and the winner of more state primaries. She also claims she is the victim of reverse discrimination for uttering the initial racist claim. Clinton blew her opportunity to make a stand against racism.

Sadly, Hillary Clinton and her campaign does approve of the message.

Friday, March 7, 2008

It's 3:00 AM: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Someone once said, a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has time to tie its shoes.

There's been a lot of talk about Clinton's "3:00 AM" campaign ad. It attacks Obama's foreign policy experience. I've heard a lot of discussion about it; but I have not heard one pundit talk about my reaction to it. It's a very racist ad.

Now, I know the Clinton's have been supporters of civil rights for people of color. They talk about all the time. However, I'm looking at their current behavior and here's what's bugging me about it.

3:00 AM? Does it matter what time of day it is when the "red phone" rings, indicating some sort of national security crisis? Why 3:00AM?

It's because white people are afraid of black people at 3:00 AM. The ad would not have been as effective if it were three in the afternoon; it would not have played on the night time fears of white folk.

It plays the race card... and apparently so deftly, no talking-heads noticed. Clinton's ad is effective because it plays on deep-seeded white fears and institutional prejudice toward "the black man".

Subtle forms of racism are no less malignant than their overt cousins. It is common for people who practice this subtle form of racism to have no awareness into their own prejudice. For me, the 3:00 AM ad was the unnoticed iceberg tip. This is because they believe their prejudice to be based upon objective grounds. The ad gave and continues to give, people the opportunity to act on those deep seeded and unconscious fears.

Subtle Forms of White Racism

The website, Race, Racism and the Law lists ways to identify subtle forms of racism. Here are a few that can help evaluate the 3:00 AM Ad and the Clintons' current behavior.

Reducing people of other races to racial stereotypes."

This can often be done in very subtle ways; like choosing a time in the middle of the night, as the campaign ad does.

"Constant references to race. A mere mention of someone's race on a first encounter could be benign, but when these references continue after a long period of knowing that person, no matter how innocent the references may appear, they establish an unmistakable pattern."

The Clintons constant reminder of Obama's blackness, and "I have no reason to believe he's not a Christian" are those benign references that establish a pattern. Another example is the Clinton Campaign's release of the picture of Senator Obama in traditional Somalian garb; and then wonders aloud what all the fuss was about, is acceptance of racist behavior too. They didn't release the picture because they thought he looked handsome.

"Presumption of racism in members of own race. Racists typically expect members of their own race to be similarly racist. This often results in expectations of preferential treatment and they expect, for example, members of their race to see the humor in racist jokes or join with them in what but for the race of the victim would be seen as morally reprehensible behavior."

It appears to me that Clinton is willing to exploit that presumption in the ad. Certainly the Clintons' performance in South Carolina demonstrate that. Despite council from Black friends, they continued to diminish Obama's victory in South Carolina, implying a white candidate could not win over a black candidate there.

"Indifference to the opinions of members of the other race. It is typical of racists to e.g. make fun of members of the "inferior" race without any consideration for what those members will then think of these racists. At best, racists only care about what people of their own race think of them."

Consider how Bill used Jesse Jackson as his spiritual advisor during the Lewinski affair's then profoundly trashed his '88 presidential campaign. Again, despite council from lifelong friends of color, the Clintons did not seem to get the inherent racism of their words and actions.

"Acceptance of racist behavior or conduct. To view "mildly" racist acts as... reasonable ..."

Bill Shaheen was a national co-chairman for Clinton raised the issue of Obama's youthful drug use during the New Hampshire campaign. Hillary Clinton apologized and Shaheed took a less visible role in her campaign where he remains to this day.

"Maintaining superior position 'By all means possible'. A phrase often remembered as a precept of the maintenance of slavery in the Southern United States during the nineteenth century. A racist will use all means possible to preserve [their position of privilege]... "

Never mind that Hillary Clinton never answered the phone on a national security crisis... ever! Never mind she answered "the call" on the Iraq War and got it wrong. Never mind that Obama has more foreign policy experience than Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had before they took office. And never mind the fact that during Bill Clinton's administration she did not have a national security clearance; She could not even be in the room when President Clinton and advisers discussed "red phone" issues.

It appears that Senator Clinton will stop at nothing to try to win the democratic nomination, including black fear mongering at 3:00 AM.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Imperfections Make "Perfect"

My Slovenian Grandmother crocheted lace all her life. I never knew her; she died when my father was six. However, I do remember seeing her handiwork in my Grandpa's house when I was young.

Slovene women have a long history of making fine lace, dating back to the 1600s. There were trade schools in Slovenia to teach poor peasant women the skill. Selling lace helped lift families a little further out of poverty; though, never completely out.

My Auntie Anne, (who learned to crochet at her mother's knee) told me that Grandma believed that every piece of lace, even the finest lace, must have a mistake in it. Why? Because lace, like life, is never perfect.

I had the occasion to share that story with my friend Jess recently. She is a disability rights activist and a very talented quilter.

Jess made a baby quilt for me, my daughter and my new grandbaby, Sabine. When she gave it to me I was completely overwhelmed by her generosity and kindness to my family. I pored over each stitch, each scrap of fabric, and every inch of the design. She got all self-conscious, saying, "Oh, please don't look too closely, it's full of mistakes."

So, in my thank you note to her, I told her about how we cried with joy over it; that we didn't see any imperfections; and that it reminded us of the old lace maker and her creed.

Here is her reply:

Your Slovenian ancestors who prescribed to the theory that lace is like life … I have a similar theory. I learned it in Asian Art History class.

The beautiful, graceful Chinese statues of horses that are so rare and prized today were only considered perfect if imperfections are represented in the glaze. Their artists made hundreds, literally, of each stature and all but a few would be rejected and broken because they were too perfect.

It was believed, and this is a very Taoist way of looking at the world, that unless you could actually see the process of creation in the finished product – meaning a drip of glaze hardened on the horse’s belly or a spot on the tip of the ear where the glaze has completely run off during firing – you had not captured the essence of the art form, or the horse.

I’m willing to bet that your Slovenian lace maker ancestors didn’t know much about Taoism or Chinese ceramic arts, but isn’t it fascinating they had a similar understanding of what made their art beautiful.

Sometimes I hate the fact that I’m just so dammed “American” in my thought process and I can’t accept what the lace makers and the Chinese artists have known all along to be true – perfection really isn’t perfect.

It was my husband, after reading both notes, who thought there was something quite interesting about two women with disabilities--two disability rights activists--discussing art, life, and what constitutes "perfect". I hope you do too.

Life, like art, is infinitely unique, diverse, and imperfect; as are we all.

Description of Photo - Picture of the baby quilt Jess made. On a white background is an eight pointed star with rings of pastel colors from the center to the edges. Around the edges of the quilt are hand appliqu├ęd flowers on stems with leaves. All the fabric pieces are vintage 1930s prints.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Celebrating Bang

Bang Long Jr. died February 22, 2008. He was a friend of 20+ years and diligent advocate for people with disabilities.

I was attending my first Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities in Illinois Conference. The Conference featured a dance for people to meet and socialize. The small contingent of people I knew from Decatur wandered off, leaving me to sit alone. I was feeling a bit like a wall flower.

Then this robust man walked up and asked me to dance. Whew... I felt saved. You never know what you're going to get when you agree to dance with a stranger. Sometimes the guy is all elbows and jerkiness. But, this guy could dance! Double whew!

We made small talk while we boogied-woogied on the dance floor. I asked him his name.

"Bang", he shouted over the music.
"Huh?", I shouted back.
"Bang", he repeated.
"What?" I asked again.
"Bang", he said the third time.
"Funny", I said, "I thought you said Bang."

He made me feel welcomed... comfortable. He was tender, warm and had a friendly smile and manner. Observing him all these years, I watched him do the same sort of thing to countless other new members of the Coalition. His brand of organizing was very personal. He took you by the hand, walked with you a while, introduced you around. He made you want to be a part of what he was doing.

I learned that the man with the odd name had a stroke when he was 35 while working as a nurse's aid at one of the baddest prisons in the nation, Statesville Correctional Center in Joliet Illinois. I never could reconcile how this gentle man survived in such a violent place. But, he loved the work and had tons of stories about his adventures there. When he bumped into someone he worked with, he introduced them, then said, "We met in prison."

After his stroke he became involved with disability issues. He "got it". Not surprising, considering he was a strong union guy and an Asian-African-American.

He was working at a Memphis hospital when Martin Luther King and the striking sanitation workers were tear gassed and beaten by police in 1968. He was on hand to care for them. He knew racism, bigotry, intolerance and discrimination; and he knew that organized action was the only way to move toward justice.

Mike and I attended his memorial service in Joliet at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on March 2nd. It felt a little strange; we met a new group of people who knew and loved Bang. We sort of thought he belonged to us, the disability rights movement; but here was his church family feeling the tremendous loss too.

Mike noted that if you had to design a church around Bang's values, it would be Sacred Heart. They are open, friendly, diverse, socially aware and as committed to justice as any religious community we have seen.

One of the church members mentioned that every time she went to the train station to pick up or drop off someone, she saw Bang on the platform, going to to or coming from some disability rights event.

He was every where. If you were involved in disability civil rights in Illinois you probably saw Bang at an event; rallies at the capitol, fundraising, mentoring youth, attending meetings, sitting on boards, and the list goes on. He was also at the signing of the American Disabilities Act in Washington D.C. He seemed tireless.

Despite failing health the last 5-6 years, he was still showed up. His speech was a little slower, he started using a scooter instead of walking, he missed parts of conversations and it took him a little longer to form a response; but still Bang showed up. Even after kidney failure, he arranged to have dialysis in Springfield, 150 miles from his home, so he wouldn't miss an event.

I will miss my friend. He was vigorous in his support for the disenfranchised, especially people with disabilities. The world is a little less friendly, a little more selfish, and a little less complete without him in it.

(Photo of Bang Long Jr.)