Crazy Cops, Illegal Marriage and True Love in Brooklyn
Do you know what today is? Today is July 26, 2015. It is exactly 25 years since the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA for short. Tomorrow, the 27th, marks one month from the day the Supreme Court ruled that Same-Sex marriage was legal across the board. However, the television and news media has been ablaze with reports of police brutality, racial targeting, wrongful death, and more. It seems for every step forward we make as a species we take two steps back. Not only are those who are different terrified of the outside world, those who do not or refuse to understand them feed their own fears by asserting their power and privilege through anger and violence. We should be celebrating freedom and growth, but instead is seems as there is much more work ahead of us.
Every summer the Prospect Park Band Shell hosts free concerts. I have lived in the New York City area for fifteen years and never availed myself of this culturally-enriching opportunity. So upon hearing that one of my favorite artists was going to be playing this past Friday I thought it was time I added another well-rounded edge to my musical education. I loaded into my adapted Honda Element and my brother Ethan and I jetted off to the big city.
I have a Love/Hate relationship with cities. For people in chairs, at least me anyway, they are like that one girl you love to love, you want to love... but... she has that one guy she's crazy about who smacks her around. He leaves for weeks at a time. He then shows up and she drops everything and runs to him. The big city plays you that way. There's the lure of museums and theaters and restaurants and great music, and when she calls with her bright lights and charm you run to her hoping for that big moment. Instead, you only hit the broken sidewalks and filthy puddles, high steps and cramped shops, restaurants without an accessible bathroom and the Doormen who say "Oh, sure the elevator is right up the stairs!". Arriving home filthy and smelling like car exhaust, back sore from bouncing over potholes, it's then you realize, you will always be her cuddle bitch stuck in the "Friend Zone". Like all long and emotionally complex relationships it got me thinking. Between two very interesting experiences while on this excursion and the anniversary of the ADA I came to an interesting revelation regarding opportunity and acceptance for people with physical limitations.
Prospect Park is deep in the heart of Brooklyn. It doesn't matter if you are driving or taking the train, it means dealing with traffic. I can't take the train for several reasons. The greatest being complete inaccessibility despite the little wheelchair stick men signs plastered everywhere. So we take the car. On this day, upon getting off of the Belt Parkway the traffic immediately slowed to a crawl. Up ahead could be seen the flashing lights of cop cars and fire trucks as emergency personnel scrambled to block off and redirect traffic. Just beyond this scene was the glaringly obvious reason for the mess, a major water pipe had burst shooting thousands of gallons of water 75-100 feet into the air. This set off a chain reaction clogging the traffic in all directions for several city blocks. It took us forty-five minutes to go three miles. This meant a good deal of time to sit and study and ponder.
South Brooklyn is a complex place. A vast grid of narrow one-way streets interconnected by wide thoroughfares. Warehouses, municipal complexes, and junkyards crammed up against row houses and tenement high rises. It is one of the toughest places in the world to grow up and live. It's sweltering hot in the summer and freezing in winter. Graffiti everywhere provides the backdrop to car horns, police sirens, garbage trucks, radios and gun shots. It is predominantly African-American, West Indian, and Hispanic with a spattering of Asian. While staring out at this congested world so foreign to me I began to think about the people who lived there. What brought them there? What the hell was keeping them there? Most of the African-American contingent came years ago and the Latinos began arriving when Puerto Rico became a U.S. Commonwealth. The Asian community has been growing for years. All of them settled in this urban wasteland in hope, hope for a better life, better wages and the dream of upward mobility. Mobility, now that's a word I can relate to. Ironically, the land of milk and honey they'd be hoping for drew them in and locked its doors behind them daring them to try to get out by any other means than professional basketball or Hip-Hop stardom. Walls made of stagnant government programs, underfunded education, racial profiling, drug trafficking, exorbitant rent, brutal tax rates, and much more have created a tangible depression, angst, and fatigue you can feel in the air.
I know this feeling. While I would never equate anybody's ethnicity with a disability, I can safely say that the same system which marginalizes the races and social classes treats those with a disability the same way. Most Americans do not know that most colleges and universities, including so-called "Black Colleges" refuse to institute accessible infrastructure, alternative testing, and even continued training for professors on how to assist students with disabilities! This is a total violation of ADA regulations. When I attended college myself I can remember being pushed by my brother through 100 yards of foot-deep, unploughed snow to get to class only to be told by the teacher "try to be on time next time". How can anyone get an education like that? I am asking all of my readers to please read the following article for more information on this topic specifically- Where's The Outrage When Colleges Discriminate Against People with Disabilities
Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking to lay blame. Certainly not looking to shirk personally responsibility, but when hardship and suffering are constant it can be easy to slip into feeling trapped. It is a scary feeling to feel trapped. No wonder there are so many guns in those places. Are we really free? Has America just traded one form of slavery for another? I don't believe people are just lazy. Yes, there are lazy people, but what I believe keeps people down more than anything else is hopelessness. A broken body, a broken community is one thing, but to bring it down the individual, a broken spirit can kill a man.
But on to the second part of my story... Once through the traffic and the usual wait-in-line at the gate Ethan and I settled into our seats in the park. As the crowd began to fill in I noticed a young couple seated in the reserved wheelchair seating. The girl had transferred from her wheelchair and was sitting in a regular chair. It was obvious she suffered from cerebral palsy, but not to the extent that she could not get around. They sat together smiling and chatting, and after my brain was satisfied it had taken enough visual data it looked elsewhere. About twenty minutes later I noticed the two of them returning to their seats from somewhere like the restroom or merchandise table. This time I noticed that he too had cerebral palsy. This in and of itself is not remarkable, but these two devoted souls were determined to face the world together and help each other through the physical challenges with love and commitment. Now I would not presume to know their economic status, but based on what I know and have observed over the 24 years in the chair there was a solid chance that they both were dependent on some form of government medical assistance. Along with that assistance there was/is a very good chance that their own government may never let them get married. Yes, you heard that right. While legally, anyone can get married, those in the "disabled" community who are dependent on certain government programs that only exist through services like Medicaid and SSI can be penalized for tying the knot. This government believes if those like myself who are dependent on the physical assistance of another should be monitored and watched. If you cannot work (or rather employers refuse to hire you) and you need daily care and you decide to marry the responsibility of your care in their eyes then falls to your spouse. They wash their hands of you. So tell me something... if someone needs help almost all day long when is their wife going to work? This puts people in the place where they. are forced to make the choice between health coverage, coverage often providing life-saving services, and marriage.
Inevitably the person will come along and say, "Why don't you just get a job and buy your own coverage?" Most private insurance companies will not cover 24/7 PCA assistance, so unless you have a job that pays you enough money to pay a PCA $35,000-$55,000 per year out-of-pocket, you have to utilize some form of government assistance. The system was not designed for upward mobility... or love either, but it's just that. A system. Systems can be changed. In fact, I would go so far as to say if we can change ourselves so that we do not have to depend on the system. I believe there is a better way, a way of innovation and personal autonomy. Getting help when you are in need is never shameful, but stagnation, that just breeds more hopelessness.
On the surface it would seem the land of the free and home of the brave has become a wasteland of broken dreams. It seems as if the deck is stacked against so many of us. As I drove home through the city streets of Brooklyn that night I thought about all those human beings behind those lighted windows. I thought about the light of humanity that is inside them. I thought about the love that couple had for each other despite what any one else may think. I thought about the amazing music I'd just heard and the power in each one of us to create something of great beauty out of seemingly nothing. That force, that determination is something that no government program can give and no social worker can take away. It will not fade like graffiti spray paint. No policeman's baton can beat it from you. No college counselor or admissions officer can dim its brilliance or stifle its strength. The only person who can blow it out is YOU.
That's why I believe things can change. Laws can change. People can change, but it starts with people changing themselves first. Don't see the walls that shut you in as prison walls, but mountains to be climbed. Stop seeing that chair or lack of education as one-way train to nowhere, but as an opportunity, a vehicle for change. Yes this discrimination is real. Hopelessness and poverty and violence are falling on this country like a cursed black cloud. So many things need to change, but I believe as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. I believe we can change the world, but just not by laws or rules. You can't just tell someone to stop being a racist or a bigot because it is illegal. He must see it in his heart, that it is wrong and know why it is fundamentally against the very life force that makes us human. Change comes from the heart. That is why we can change. Because within each of us is the power to do so.
Do something today. Do it now. Change your point of view. Don't have an education? Get library card. Don't have money? Share what food you have with someone who is hungry. Are you paralyzed? Get online and use it as chance to encourage others. Do you have a job, but it barely pays? Work harder, smarter, smile and laugh. Ring up those groceries like you're a millionaire. Do have a little spare cash every month? Support blogs like these and projects that empower the individual. Do you have a lot of money? Pay it forward and invest in somebody else dream. If you don't have anything? Give words, give words of life and encouragement. These are the things that supersede laws and governments and will last when this wheelchair I sit in is a rusted mass at the bottom of the ocean 500 years from now.
Civil Rights, ADA... they are written pages that mean nothing without the spirit of the men and women who believed in themselves enough to fight for them. It is the spirit of a thing that gives it life, which makes it breathe. That spirit is colorless, genderless, it is neither sick nor paralyzed. It knows no border or creed or flag. The moment we recognize this is the moment we will love each other.
Thanks for reading.