Dear Mr. President: There are at least 25 million people in this country living in slave-like conditions today. They need and deserve your help.
I do not use the term slave-like conditions lightly. If we accept the Merriam Webster Dictionary’s definition of slavery, “(S)ubmission to a dominating influence,” and or the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of slave, “One who is abjectly subservient to a specified person or influence,” then, no question about it, millions of Americans are currently enduring slave-like status.
I am not writing to you solely to identify and outline the problem. I am writing to you with what I and others know must be the primary component of any solution designed to free these people and allow them to reach their maximum level of independence in life. If this component is enacted, millions of taxpayer dollars will be saved in the process. More in a minute.
I am talking, of course, about Americans with disabilities, of which I am proud to say includes me. (I was held-up and shot in the head in 1984 and live with the bullet lodged in the brain.)
According to figures released by the U.S. Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research (part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services) Americans with disabilities represent nearly 20 percent of the population, about 49 million Americans. Of those, 25 million are in or are at risk for falling into the slave-like category this missive focuses on. Many are daily told when, if, and where they can eat, sleep, wear, go, do or not do. Where they can or can’t live. While they have the right to vote, many of them don’t ever get the chance to do so and continue to be disenfranchised. When they are given the chance to work, they often work in segregated settings called sheltered workshops and are paid what by any reasonable measure amounts to slave wages. Antiquated (and barbaric) laws and regulations relieve employers from having to pay them the minimum wage.
In too many instances nearly every element of their daily life is dictated by people (in and out of government) who see us as being less than human. People who are, so they believe, not disabled. (Though, one might conclude believing another human being is less than human is a challenging condition unto itself.)
Many institutional and community-based healthcare providers see us and treat us as if we are nothing more than revenue streams. Because of this, they do all they can to keep us wedded to and reliant on a range of services that, were their intent truly to help us grow our independence, would, in many instances, diminish over time, and save millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.
Believe me, Mr. President, there is such a thing as community-based warehousing; some of those who provide services for the Traumatic Brain Injury Waiver in my home state of New York do exactly that. With little if any oversight from the state’s department of health, a department that is steadfast in its resistance to any and all input from stakeholders, providers are free to engage in community-based warehousing.
New York is not unique, Mr. President. As a result, we fear nothing will truly change anywhere in this country without your leadership, without your voice loudly and clearly sounding the alarm.
What strides that have been made for people with disabilities are often made on the misguided premise that because of our disabilities we are this poor, pitiful, vulnerable lot in need of protection. (A notion that would come as a surprise to FDR, Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Beethoven, and, two who struggled with depression, Churchill and Lincoln.)
With all my heart I respectfully ask that you direct your National Council on Disability to identify the disability-led groups that can carry out a nationwide review of federal, state and local agencies. While some best practices will emerge, it will reveal a paucity of people with disabilities in decision making roles. Once established, the National Council on Disability can, with its sister groups around the country, devise and roll out a plan with a mandate that people with disabilities take the lead in the design and implementation of the services they deserve to reach their maximum level of independence.
Help us help others understand that our rallying cry, Nothing About Us Without Us, applies to all who’ve had to fight and still have to fight for equal rights.
Thank you, Mr. President. God bless you, and God bless America.
Peter S. Kahrmann
Peter S. Kahrmann is a writer, public speaker, and human rights advocate. Mr. Kahrmann sustained a traumatic brain injury in 1984 when he was held up and shot in the head at point bank range. He is a co-founder and former board member of the New York City Chapter of Victims for Victims, a past member of the NY State Independent Living Council, and a former board member of the Brain Injury Association of NY State. Mr. Kahrmann is also the founder of the Kahrmann Advocacy Coalition, a grassroots disability rights group. He currently resides in Berkshire County, MA. The Kahrmann Blog is available at http://peterkahrmann.com/.