Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Restraint Game

Much of what state-funded advocates focus on is workshops for people with developmental disabilities and their families about how to navigate within the very system that is often responsible for the discrimination that people seek to end. Activities center on things like “how a bill becomes a law,” registering people to vote, town halls and presentations for legislators who “require more information” on the issues and the wish lists, and exercises in non-binding legislation, such as “respectful language” bills based on the premise that educational campaigns and requests for polite labels will convert the majority to the cause. Through these activities, people are schooled very carefully on acceptable and unacceptable communication styles and on the rules of order for “civil discourse.” They are cautioned to follow the wise direction of the governor’s appointed experts in patience and restraint and the paid “legislative liaisons” who always know when the timing isn’t right to push harder and ask for more. We know of a case during a local ballot measure to raise taxes for human services when more than one respected “advocate” advised that the people lay low during the campaign for fear of too much attention to the issues that might bring people to the polls to vote against supporting the measure. Extraordinary effort is made to distribute information about a scarcity of resources that makes people fearful that if they “ask for too much” in order to expand access to more of their brothers, then they will be forced to give up some of what they count on in exchange.

A small group of people with developmental disabilities is often called upon to participate on numerous boards and commissions advocating this kind of restraint and legislative nuancing. The state-funded advocates call upon the same individuals over and over and do not make much effort to reach out to a broader community. Some may mistake this to mean that those who are repeatedly called are the only ones who are capable or willing to participate. I take it to mean that this is the best way to keep some people so busy that they don’t have the time or energy to engage in direct action and resistance that may, in fact, have more impact. We know of one woman who belonged to so many of these boards and committees that she openly told us that she was personally worn out from it and didn’t have time to attend to other aspects of her own life, let alone get involved in direct action on behalf of the broader community of people with developmental disabilities.

What people need to keep in mind is that those who have been historically excluded and victimized have never made progress through “patient” and “reasonable” measures, but through resistance and sustained struggle. They didn’t close the institutions, in Oregon or anywhere else, because of the people’s diplomacy, or through voting. Of course, I'm not advocating that people shouldn't get out and vote or participate in the legislative process. But, we didn’t achieve the Olmstead decision by voting or by being reasonable, but through litigation. Women didn’t get the vote through voting. Blacks didn’t defeat Jim Crowe through voting. And we didn’t create US democracy by politely placating the salaried ambassadors of the power personified in the King of England. How long will we listen to the counsel of patience and restraint? As demonstrated in all human and civil rights movements throughout history, this is not a situation in which we have been impatient. The neglect has gone on for centuries. We have a responsibility in the face of an obstinacy that threatens our very survival to show resolve and the belief in our own worth to end the negotiations and diplomacy. This is a situation that calls for direct action with a commitment to the difficult and sustained struggle that will ultimately free us.

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