Disabled Feminist Speaker is NOT Inspirational! By Patty Black

  Mom and Jess 

  This past February, I had the pleasure of attending the first in a new series of programs at the recently established “Pat’s Place,” at the Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley (ILCHV)  in Troy dedicated to disability rights activist and leader Pat Figueroa, who passed away last April.  The event was wonderful and well-attended as the room was quite crowded by the time I arrived in the brightly lit lecture hall a minute or so after the presentation had begun.

     This arts event was a series lecture with readings from author and psychotherapist Harilyn Rousseau, who described herself as a “disabled feminist talking back” as she spoke of the new book she had written entitled “Don’t Call Me Inspirational.”  Actually, her lecture series was based on that very title and I became captivated with her the minute I sat down and began listening.  She read excerpts from her life growing up with Cerebral Palsy (CP) in a sassy, witty, and sometimes melancholy voice as she articulated the  societal limitations she had endured.  I could think of many adjectives to describe Ms. Rousseau…..spunky, witty, bold, bright…..yes, anything BUT inspiring!

     Ms. Rousseau explained her qualms about the term “inspirational” and the inherent demeaning value it held for her.  To illustrate verbally to us, she described an encounter she had at age 11 with a gym teacher when that word was first uttered to her.  Gazing at her with amazement in her eyes, the teacher loudly exclaimed words to the following effect: “OH, you got yourself washed and dressed all by yourself this morning-what a wonder-you are such an INSPIRATION!”  Well, the author could not help but think “For God’s Sake lady, I have been washing and dressing myself since I was freakin’ 4 years old!”  Of course she did not express her exasperation out loud, but internalized her sense of indignation.  She went on to explain that when people approached her with this “Inspirational” word later in life, it felt to her that this was their way of keeping her at a safe distance and not accepting her for what she was: an intelligent, capable peer who was just like them.  For her, if they took her in as an equal (like them), it created too much fear in their own minds and opened up their own vulnerabilities.  So calling her inspirational was more for the benefit of the speaker and not flattering for her in any way.  Hence, the title of her book….. I must say  that I thoroughly enjoyed her richly detailed, heartfelt, wonderfully written memoir.  Various themes from the book include struggling with an overly enmeshed but devoted mom who was disappointed in her daughter’s inability to walk “normally,” to a devious suitor who built up then simultaneously shattered her lifelong dream of becoming a Bride against the odds of her mom’s and society’s fears and prejudices.  Actually, in the case of the ill-intended “fiancé” who broke his promise to her after making her feel like the most desirable princess ever, she learned she was quite fortunate to not end up with this cad.  Actually, she came to find over time that he had betrayed her for reasons that had to do with his undesirable character rather than her disability, which had initially caused her much grief and pain.  In hindsight, she was quite lucky to land on her feet without him beside her.

     Ms. Rousseau closes her vignettes by explaining in her very unique and bold voice how she continually comes to see and accept the image in the mirror,  the same one she used to be ashamed and rejecting of.  I found her tales  entertaining and characterized by strength and endurance.  I drew a lot of hope from her richly woven life journeys….and no, I won’t call you inspirational Ms. Rousseau, but I will call you capable of provoking optimism and thought, and that is something we can all use, whether or not we have a disability!

     For more information or to purchase book, click on the following link: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2235_reg.html

Why Equal Voting Access and Unspent HAVA Funds are Still Worth Fighting For By Susan Cohen of Voting Access Solutions, Guest Blogger for March 2013

Susan Cohen

     Wouldn’t it be great if the US Congress and the NY State Legislature passed disability legislation because they were worried about losing the disability vote instead of trying to protect us because they consider us as a “vulnerable population?”

     According to a 2012 NYSILC post election survey, 30% of the people who reported using the Ballot Marking Device (BMD) reported problems with it.  The issues were mainly due to poll workers who were not effectively trained to operate the BMD.

     Both NYSILC’s and the League of Women’s Voters study find that Voting Access for persons with disabilities needs to improve through increased poll worker training and voter outreach regarding the ballot marking devices (BMD’s).  In the end, fewer people are using the BMD’s and the poll workers are not being properly trained.

     This is concerning because there were 10 million dollars in funds allocated statewide in 2007 to do this training and outreach through the Federal Government Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Education and Outreach funds.

     Due to the fact that the specific uses of these federal funds were not stated in NY Election law and the NYSBOE does not keep track of how the funds were spent in an electronic manner, we have no way of knowing how much of these funds went to any of these intended purposes, poll worker training on the BMD’s and voter education on the BMD.

     The good news – there is currently 4.5 million in unspent HAVA dollars statewide which can be used for training and outreach on the BMD’s (if Congress does not take the funds back first).

     In addition, it is also a great time to do a new round education and outreach on the BMD because the ImageCast BMD, the accessible voting system for people who live in 52 counties, just got easier and more accessible to use, thanks to modifications recommended by persons with disabilities.  These modifications will be ready for the 2013 elections.

     Why is it Important to Access these HAVA funds?

     HAVA was an opportunity to level the playing field so persons with disabilities could better access the electoral process, eventually obtain a voting block and gain the political power we deserve.  As a large and active constituency who relies on government at all levels, it is imperative that the disability community be respected and taken seriously by our elected officials.  Increasing voter turnout through an effective Get Out The Vote (GOTV) Campaign is one powerful way of achieving this.

     However, as experience has shown, if elections are not accessible and accessible voter education materials are not available, voters will get discouraged and turn away from the electoral process.

     Rather than explain the low usage of the BMD as an indication that the voting access needs of people with disabilities are not being met, election officials use the situation to write off the disability community as a non-voting constitutency.  This is in contrast to the State and National numbers for people with disabilities who are and could be active voters reported by reputable pollsters.

     In New York, we now have an excellent opportunity to turn this situation around and assert the power of the disability vote!  The Disability Voting Rights Network (DVRN) project, which will be implemented over the next two years, will be a powerful motivator both to persons with disabilities and the election community. It will help to make elections accessible so people can vote independently and privately like the HAVA law requires.

     This can be accomplished by people with disabilities demanding accessible elections in New York.  If there is enough pressure, County Election Commissioners could be convinced to come to terms with the fact that they have not done enough so far and that there can be consequences such as possible HAVA complaints and law suits if they continue to ignore the disability community.

     If these attempts do not succeed, a last resort may be to ask the legislature to force the counties to use these HAVA funds for some of their intended purposes including voter education, outreach, and poll worker training for voters with disabilities through legislation.  Initial steps have been taken in this direction.

     However, it would be more positive and effective if we can convince the County BOE Commissioners to voluntarily hire skilled disability advocates to provide their BOE quality training, outreach and resource materials regarding the BMD’s.  These training programs and resource materials already exist.  Not only will this assist in elections being more accessible, it will also help the BOE better comply with HAVA.

     While these are very exciting possibilities, for any of this to happen, we need to unite as a disability community and make equal voting access for all a priority.

Voting Access Solutions is a non-partisan consulting firm committed to achieving equal voting access for all eligible voters in New York State.  Voting Access Solutions is also a NY Certified Woman Owned Business.  Susan Cohen can be contacted at votingaccesssolutions@gmail.com