President-elect Barack Obama’s speech after winning the election is the first political speech I’ve ever voluntarily listened to more than once. While I can certainly never fully appreciate how African Americans feel about the outcome of the election last Tuesday, I think I get just a minute taste of it as a 36-year-old white guy with cerebral palsy.
Certainly people with disabilities never incurred the level of brutality or open hostility faced by blacks throughout our country’s history, though our history is not devoid of cruelty. But I know what it’s like to be treated as less than someone else based on prejudice. I know what it's like to go into a job interview and know the moment I meet the potential employer that I may as well go home because their face tells me they're scared to death. I know what it’s like to go into a store and be unable to get service.
Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, if an African American male is working in that store, I’m 90% more likely to get service. Throughout my life when dealing with strangers as I go about my day, I’ve been treated much better on average by African American males than any other population. I’m treated like a person; I’ve never once had an African American man talk to me through the person I may be with. You know, at a restaurant having waitresses ask my mother what he wants to order. It’s something I don’t truly understand, but I wonder if that thread of shared experience plays a role.
Watching Obama’s victory was one of the first times I truly felt proud to be an American. It’s not that I ever was not happy to be American, I just can’t say I truly felt proud of it. It was just a reality.
Last week, I was happy for the elderly African American woman I saw earlier in the day weeping and saying that this day was why God had let her live so long. I was happy for all the people that had seen what she had seen in her life, and even those who only see a small portion of it.
I was happy our country had finally elected someone other than a white man. Yes, I think that in itself says a lot. I was happy that, in my opinion, we elected the right person, regardless of race.
I was also excited to hear what Obama said early in his speech:
“If there is anyone out there who still . . . wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time . . . tonight is your answer. It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches . . . because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference. . . . It’s the answer spoken by young and old . . . disabled and not disabled . . .”
For me, the man has already put people with disabilities in a category of full-fledged human being more so than any president I've been aware of. He showed an awareness that we exist as full members of society with that one line more than Sarah Palin or John McCain ever did. They simply wanted to refer to people with disabilities as “special” or as if we lived an endless childhood, and then suggest that Palin was an advocate for us because, after all, she gave birth to a son with a disability.
Of course, America didn’t become nirvana over night last week. I’m genuinely curious why the Black Panther incident at a Philadelphia polling place seemed to get very little play. Certainly, I’m not one of the idiots saying “this is what you get with a black president . . .” No, this has nothing to do with Obama as an individual. However, it would seem to be a story equivalent to the robo-calls meant to invoke fear of Obama as president. If nothing else, the video responses and text comments on YouTube related to the incident prove that racism is still alive and well on all sides.
But what did happen last week was that a lot of people, including those of us with disabilities, were given hope that among other things we may be judged on our abilities as opposed to the minority status we were born into.