In my 40th year working in the field of advocacy and services by and for people with disabilities, I am compelled to speak my mind about inclusion. Inclusion shouldn’t be a buzzword; it needs to be a synonym for humanity and community. It isn’t a gift or reward; it is borne out of a hard won struggle—achieved in the same way the Jews of Egypt won freedom over slavery and passed the memory of that struggle down from generation to generation so others may learn. People with disabilities represent the largest and poorest minority group in America today, with 68% out of the workforce and three times the poverty rate of others. And we remain feared by the business world and enslaved by antiquated sub-minimum wage laws that hold us prisoners to charity rather than empower us with inclusion.
In the daytime I’m the administrator for the largest independent living program of advocacy and services controlled and guided by people with disabilities in the nation. At all times of the day, I am a husband, a father and the Board President of Jewish Family Services of Northeastern New York (JFS) in Albany. Since losing my vision as a child while growing up in Brooklyn in the 60’s, I have dedicated my life to living the American Dream, alongside and as part of the fabric of my community. However, as people with disabilities, no matter how typical the world around them and participatory in the world among them, we question if we are truly accepted as just another community member rather than someone special. Too many people I’ve known throughout my life believe I possess some unique strength, skill set, determination or spirituality just because I find ways of doing everything they take for granted. I know inside my own mind that I’d be just as determined and bold if I were blind or not. Sure, I probably gained some grit from rising up in adversity, but I probably learned more strategies because my parents let me grow up on the streets of Brooklyn.
My greatest realization that I have indeed achieved what I have strived for all my life, of being nothing more than an ordinary contributing community member, came to me over a year ago when JFS chose me as their Board President. Nobody second guessed if I could fill the role. Nobody worried about accommodating me or questioned if I could step up. If I had a need, it was left up to me to make it known. I couldn’t ask for a more fully inclusive and enlightened community to work amongst than the folks I have come to know and count on in the Capital Region of New York. Oddly enough, they do not know how I feel about all this because it is a very personal sense of fulfillment that I’m not sure translates well for anyone who hasn’t lived with a disability. Nevertheless, I want to shout it from a mountain because it is a rare moment to be accepted and included and it calls for celebration. I pray for a time in our chapter of human history when all people with disabilities are naturally integrated into society, because we have passed on the memories of how enriched our lives have become as a result.
Aside being ineligible to get a driver’s license, Bob Gumson lives a full and fascinating life since losing vision from an eye disease as a child. He has hitchhiked across America, earned a graduate degree, raised a family, been involved in disability rights, attended nearly a thousand live concerts and serves the community in a variety of volunteer positions. He writes poetry, personal essay, memoir and “fracoir” (fractured memoir).