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Monday, March 21, 2011

Harty Should be a Reminder of How Far People with Disabilities Have to Go

The lack of public outrage over the comments of now former New Hampshire representative Martin Harty is a prime example of why we need better advocacy in this country for people with disabilities.

In case you missed it, Harty said, “‘[T]he world is too populated’ and there are ‘too many defective people. . . . You know the mentally ill, the retarded, people with physical disabilities and drug addictions – the defective people society would be better off without.’ . . . Harty [added that] the world population has increased dramatically, and ‘it’s a very dangerous situation if it doubles again.’ . . . Harty said nature has a way of ‘getting rid of stupid people,’ and ‘now we’re saving everyone who gets born.’ . . . Harty [also] stated, ‘I wish we had a Siberia so we could ship them all off to freeze to death and die and clean up the population.’”

Of course, readers who have found Page 2 of my blog didn’t miss it. They probably found this post because they are specifically looking to read about disability issues, and likely landed here via a Google search or the like.

That’s because the mainstream media ignored the story. Last week, a search for Harty on cnn.com turned up absolutely nothing relevant.

It’s too easy to dismiss Harty as some dumb old man who doesn’t know any better. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an apt description and one some of his fellow party members (Republicans) seemed eager to share.

Yet, they didn’t seem eager to rebuke his comments. In fact, Republican House Speaker William O’Brien said Harty has earned the right to say whatever he thinks, apparently because he’s in his 90s. Others have now said the freshman state congressman often seemed confused, and I believe even he admitted to not knowing what he was voting for more than once.

Actually, he has the right to say what he thinks because he’s an American. He just happens to be an ignorant American who has no business being in government.

I was called out on Facebook for posting a comment with a link to a story about Harty suggesting that it took an asshole to vote Republican. It was obviously an emotional response to Harty, yet I found a comment back to me suggesting that I was acting in the same manner as the former state representative rather telling.

First of all, my reaction certainly was not on the same level of a politician responding to a constituent, which is how Harty’s prejudice became public knowledge. Quite frankly, after factoring in the number of blatantly stupid things coming from republicans these days, including the lack of response to an idiot like Harty, I’ll risk “throwing out the whole bushel” due to one bad apple, as I was accused of doing. Where exactly is Sarah Palin, who claimed to be such an advocate of people with disabilities simply because she had a son with a disability? She can’t wait to jump into the spotlight on other issues, yet to my knowledge has had nothing to say here.

Does anyone really think O’Brien would be offering half-hearted defenses of Harty if he had suggested sending African Americans to Siberia? No. Does anyone think the media would have ignored the story if he had made his comments about black people or any other racial minority? Hell, no.

In rebuking me, my Republican Facebook friend tried an analogy, suggesting that we don’t “hate poor people, children or the elderly, just [because of] differing opinions on the right and appropriate role the federal government should play in supporting them.”

Despite the pathetic attempt at an analogy, he accidentally pointed out something important. Why would someone be so perturbed by my reaction? The analogy obviously doesn’t work. This isn’t about responsible debate over the proper role of the federal government. The fact that he was ever elected, the lack of a public response, and the fact that some people seem to want to excuse him, are just some of the issues.

People with disabilities don’t have a word that hits home like racism, but what Harty displayed is just as ugly. Yet, the Facebook friend wanted to blame me for being ugly. People who don’t want to focus on the real issue often ignore what causes the response and try to make the yelling the issue. It’s ignorance in action.

Sadly, the disability community may be somewhat at fault for allowing this to go on. When I first heard about Harty’s comments, I expected to find a flood of responses on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Instead, in the relative terms of social media, there were very few.

In fact, his resignation seems to have deadened the reaction from many who actually paid attention to the story. For example, a Facebook group called Americans Against Martin Harty (By AddictingInfo.Org) currently has 570 members – a minuscule amount for the social networking site.

Harty’s resignation is not enough – not even close.

Once again, we have seen the complete lack of advocacy for people with disabilities in this country. It’s something I witnessed up close and personal for the two years I spent working for an assistive technology foundation.

I stayed silent as I was treated not as a writer, but as a poster child. When I finally spoke up, I was called ungrateful for a job I hadn’t pursued and was offered only after a contact of mine secured the funds for my salary as a grant to the foundation. My work was suddenly trashed, though it had only been praised previously. I was actually told that I knew from the start that sharing personal experiences was part of the job. Even if it wasn’t a complete fabrication as I most assuredly never would have taken such a job, the implication is that the organization has no qualms about using a person with a disability as a poster child.

I only took the job on the basis that a certain percentage of their Board was required to be made up of people with disabilities or individuals who had immediate family members with disabilities. At least half of the small staff, including the individual employing the poster child tactics, also had immediate family members with disabilities. I had already experienced being treated as the “disabled employee” in the corporate world, and had no desire for an encore. I thought returning to work at a place adhering to such guidelines would be a safe move. If anything, the treatment from the foundation was worse.

The foundation offers low-interest loans for people to purchase assistive technology. I was asked to take a loan that I didn’t need within weeks of starting my job. When I objected, I was pushed to take it and told that the purpose of the loan was only to familiarize myself with the process. Then I was asked to write about the loan as if I was a typical consumer. When I declined to speak at their annual press conference due to my speech disability, I was pressured to do it anyway. Despite negotiating to do a video presentation ahead of time specifically to avoid speaking publicly, I was unexpectedly called to the microphone at the press conference by the executive director of the foundation, who has a son with cerebral palsy much like mine. She later denied that I froze up and couldn’t utter a word due to nerves despite the press conference having been recorded.

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t quit on the spot. There are plenty of excuses for not quitting, but I can’t help to think that tolerating such behavior eventually leads to people like Martin Harty.

Are we really supposed to believe his prejudiced attitude came out of nowhere? Of course not. Someone knew about it. Probably a lot of people knew about it. But everybody kept quiet for one reason or another.

As others facing equivalent if not much greater challenges than I do have said, sometimes when you’re part of an oppressed minority, you gotta shout.

Harty should be a reminder to the entire disability community that we’re not shouting enough.

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