To become a Master Sommelier through the famed Court of Master Sommeliers one must pass four levels of course work and examinations on theories of wine and spirits composition and production, must be able to perform hair-splitting analyses of complex wines and spirits by vision, smell and taste; must be able to identify wines in blind tastings, and be able properly to pair food, wine and spirits … all while maintaining proper “demeanor of the professional sommelier.”
To become a Master Sommelier of … disabilities I spent five years becoming fluent in American Sign Language and its variants. This involved both course work and immersion into deaf communities and culture – attending deaf storytelling slams, and studying mime and deaf theater.
I learned that Alexander Graham Bell, the son of a deaf mother and husband to a deaf woman, was proficient in sign language and taught deaf children. Bell’s work was shaped by his desire to penetrate and dispel the isolation caused by deafness, and it is theorized that the telephone was Bell’s failed attempt at developing a hearing aid.
Disabled people fought for inclusion and access and for the elimination of arbitrary barriers. They fought for the eradication of architectural and physical barriers, and the elimination of communication barriers. They fought for curb cuts, ramps, accessible bathrooms. Disabled people asked that information be printed in Braille, that spoken information be interpreted into sign language, and rendered in closed captioning. Disabled people fought not to be institutionalized but instead to be able to maintain themselves in their own homes. Disabled people fought hard for equal opportunities in education, public accommodations, housing, and the workplace.
In 1977, disabled people held a twenty-five day sit-in, occupying U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare buildings in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco successfully achieving their goal of the passage of regulations that strengthened the Rehab Act.
In 1990, when the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, my practice as a sign language interpreter flourished. I was a “reasonable accommodation” and interpreted in educational, medical, government, business, and cultural settings.
I interpreted for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Colin Powell, Elie Wiesel, Barbara Jordan, Jonathan Kozol, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Newt Gingrich, music festivals … for blues diva, Kim Massie … for comedians, among them, Kate Clinton …. I interpreted for deaf-blind clients and knew a deaf couple who knew Helen Keller.
As an interpreter, my deaf clients were mostly achieving in school, and professionally. These deaf students were in undergraduate and graduate programs – they majored in biology, pre-med, law enforcement, graphic design, architecture, law – just to name a few. I traveled in Spain and France interpreting courses for a deaf student studying abroad. (That assignment showed me that deaf folks often feel no less at home in a foreign country where they can’t understand the language than they do in their native land where they also have difficulties with spoken language.)
I interpreted at Ralston-Purina, AT&T, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Personnel Records Center … job interviews, employee evaluations, business meetings, trainings of every variety. Deaf workers were dedicated, valued workers.
I interpreted a speech at a conference on disabled people’s interests in which the speaker made the most interesting and cogent argument that ALL people are accommodated. She estimated the cost of the roomful of chairs that cost the hotel many thousands of dollars. But she, and the others in wheel-chairs, had brought their own. They did not need the provision of chairs. She went on to point out that the expensive, state-of-the-art sound system was an accommodation for hearing people … the lighting … an accommodation for the sighted.
And this is what I knew of disabilities and of people with disabilities.
Disabled people were accomplished, successful, connected, and proud. They did not walk around in a state of shame, hat in hand.
One deaf friend of mine exclaimed he was thrilled to be born deaf when he was (1964) because there had been a German Measles epidemic during that time causing many babies to be born deaf. He appreciated having so many deaf friends … and courting so many pretty deaf girls!
Disabled people needed an accommodation here and there, but then so did we all … it was all part of a continuum of abilities and disabilities that required accommodation in one way or another.
Being disabled wasn’t a big deal.
That is what I thought.
I have since learned that being disabled enough to be eligible for Social Security disability benefits is a big deal.
I have never known a disabled person applying for, or receiving, Social Security disability benefits to describe themselves as proud, or to say they are happy to be in their spot. They are mostly ashamed … desperate … and isolated.
When disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity …” – the legal definition in Social Security’s statute – that is quite a harsher, and more desperate definition of “disability” than would fit the loud and proud – and working – disabled, in other words, the disabled people contemplated in the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Although there is one word, “disabled” there are a variety of meanings and levels of severity it describes.
The Social Security definition of “disability” requires an inability to do any job at all on a sustained, full-time basis. This version of “disability” describes a person who has little or no economic value in the market place, and who cannot support him or herself.
But the definition of “disability” in the Americans With Disabilities Act describes a person who possesses merely a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities …” but not necessarily a person who is unable to sustain a job on a full-time basis. Indeed, the Americans With Disabilities Act contemplates that people meeting its definition can assert “reasonable accommodations” so their chances of success and achievement in the workplace are optimized.
Achievement and success of disabled people is largely the goal of the Americans With Disabilities Act. But Social Security disability is meant to provide financial subsistence for people who cannot economically be in the game.
One word, two completely different circumstances.
As an interpreter, I had drunk plenty of the wine of disability, and thought I knew what disability was … until I took a taste of the hard liquor of disability that defines the people for whom the Social Security disability statute is intended.
These different categories of “disability” are as different as a crisp chardonnay with pear-apple overtones is to an oak-y bourbon with a caramel afterglow.
Even disabled people have difficulty understanding the gradations of disabilities.
I have seen deaf people say, “get a job!” in exasperation at disabled people who need the financial supports of Social Security disability.
Even disabled people have difficulty understanding that when a disability such as deafness is coupled with a cognitive impairment or a mental disorder or another physical impairment … the coupling is devastating. The aggregating of disabilities one on top of the other is a state from which a person cannot often rise to productivity and self-support – no matter the accommodations.
From my vantage point, I see the disabled people I represent before the Social Security Administration as being the most disabled people I have ever encountered.
They are largely isolated from the disability rights movement, estranged from other disabled people, and what’s more … attacked from an endless barrage of criticism from an uninformed public that says, essentially, “why can’t you be like those good disabled people?!?”
As a non-disabled person, I do not feel guilty that a hotel conference center provides me the accommodation of a chair, or a sound system, or light. It has never occurred to me even really to appreciate it particularly. I take it for granted.
Disabled people who require the financial supports of Social Security disability benefits, should similarly not feel shame … nor should they be shamed. The fact that severely disabled people cannot make it in the work place speaks in part to the severity of their disability, but also to the harsh, competitiveness of the American work place.
Not being able to work in the competitive work force might be the measure of economic value, but it is not the measure of human value.
Let us raise our glass to that!