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Redefining the Self and dropping of Labels.
Article two in a Series

Right before Dr. Martin Luther King passed away, he and his compatriots were working on organizing a renewed march on Washington with the added plan of occupying the city. The difference with this event is that from the first, Dr. King had begun to see that the shared issue driving racism in America was poverty. He desired to march for an end to poverty! Dr. King had rightly grown to understand that ending poverty translated into a wider world view through an action that we will call “full inclusion.”

We should not limit our understanding of poverty to its financial dynamic. Its financial aspects are a byproduct of systemic historical under-education. In the world of the Physically Challenged, an individual can even come from the privileged class here in the US and still have to overcome poverty as a mindset. The “poverty mindset” looks at an individual and/or group and says because of an individual’s “looks,” dominant form of “communication” and/or
geographical location they have inferior cognitive ability.

The contention here is that the “poverty mindset” in a majority of instances leads to under-education. The impoverished to often feel overwhelmed just in the action of sustaining the little the group does have to be worried about expanding their knowledge base. Coupled with this there is a mistrust of their own innate ablates to “understand.” As a result, institutions of higher learning, not just schools but also institutions like museums, many types of concert halls, and visual art venues become inaccessible because of the “impoverished mindset” creates a feeling of ingrained inferiority. This access issue seems so simplified and maybe even hard for many readers to understand, that it is even hard to write about. My own first reaction, if I had/have not seen this “mindset” in action, would and has been: “Why don’t people just educate themselves?” The thing is the “poverty mindset” is deeply rooted in a sense of inferiority. Say someone of the “poverty mindset” happens to hit on the American dream of economic prosperity and upward mobility, then very often it will take several generations of sustained prosperity to lose the “poverty mindset.”

The poverty mindset does not affect other minorities as it does the physically and cognitively challenged. In the African American communities, diversification has been much more common; the poverty mindset has not held its iron grip as fully as it has in handicapped communities. Even in the most dire situations, a well adjusted parental figure will positively reinforce their child’s dreams and motivations by saying, “You can do anything anyone else can do in this world!” For to many physically and cognitively challenged there is what can be called a lack of Knowing. All the systems built up around supporting the physically and cognitively challenged to often lower their expectations because of what testing says or because of general perception. The idea that one can “do anything” can come into question and stay with the physically and/or mentally challenged there entire lives. This lowering of expectation and assumptions of lack of faculties results in years of a kind of social retardation, and thus the roots of the “poverty mindset” are planted firmly.

Due to the “poverty mindset” so many of the Challenged subculture assume automatic weakness in their own abilities in regards to learning new skills. We do not believe in our own natural skill sets and this disbelief leads us to settle for what the people defining our “non abilities” say defines our abilities. When a system begins to label us (or, as in my case, being labeled from the start) we tend to look to the system to define ourselves entirely.

Once we have given our identities over to the helping system (whether we do it unknowingly or not), the system becomes our life support. Not just our physical life support, but our spiritual-emotional framework of analyses as well. When this happens,what follows is the complete compartmentalizing of a Challenged persons interior life. The challenged community begins to see itself through filters provided by the helping system. Soon the Helping
System is dictating how people with physical and/or mental challenges are collecting and gathering from the world around them and the world at large. The Helping System creates cubby-holing classifications for streamlining and controlling socialization.

Of course all this in the name providing persons with challenges
an “equal playing field.” Yet in striving for equality through labels
the opposite seems to manifest itself. Labels like “full inclusion”
and “main streaming,” which are in fact labels, are broader labels, each containing lesser identifiers within them. It important to understand that these labels are how the system operates and we cannot just disband them out of hand. What I am suggesting here is that we need to distance our subculture from putting our full identity into the label. We need to understand that if the system is offering us “full inclusion,” by its very labeling it is automatically not full at all. Governing Systems more often then not offer “controlling” factors. These factors are why initiatives like “integration” and “mainstreaming” have failed on the level of social/societal integration. The community must buy in and support an independent push towards self-governance…not just within the handicap subculture, but also in the minds of people on the outside of our community looking in. This point may be the most important because most ideas surrounding what handicap people can or cannot do is projected on us by people outside of our experiences. We tend to take those projections/limitations and self-actualize them.

We think our issues are independent of all other subcultures. In reality, all subcultures (as they emerge into to the mainstream) face almost the same issues, rooted in labeling that is being projected upon us by the culture at large. All emergent groups start out being classified into limited cubby holes, and within and under the poverty mindset; in a twisted way this seems to be a tactic by which the dominant cultural bodies both control and allow for the emergence of a minority group on to the main stage within society. We see this kind of handling of minority groups throughout American history. The difference for the handicapped is that we are deeply intrenched in the poverty mindset. You can draw many parallels with African American
struggles, but for handicap people our needs tie more directly into
Industry than in the case of any other subculture. As one example of
this, our need for medical and/or adaptive equipment makes us the worlds largest captive audience for industry. It is this convenience for industry, both public and private, that keeps the poverty mindset alive.

It is important to hold even the public “helping” systems up to the light in the illumination of its role in maintaining the poverty mindset. So much money circulates through programs like Medicaid/Medicare and all the other Federal, State, County, and in some cases City programs. This flow money feeds the overall system even when cash flow has slowed down to hard financial times. Even though the helping system is plagued with ineptitude, the money keeps circulating. Note the money is not and does not have to flow into the system, it simply needs to circulate. Red tape and regulations can and do keep the system from being overwhelmed by demanding clients (us).
Understand that the system is not outcome based and if there is a program that is outcome based it does not expect the client to rise up beyond minimal expectations. There is a history of low expectations and of playing down the natural gifts born in a person with a disability. We have come to internalize these low expectations so much so that when a person rises up beyond them the community at large holds them up as somehow Super Human. Due to the amount of obstacles one has to overcome, this may in part be true. It is this internalized history that I call the poverty mindset. It is important for the maintaining of the system to keep the poverty mindset alive because it has a literal payoff.

What I Think the problems are in short: 1.We have internalized
limitations put on our subculture by systems outside of our direct experience through labeling. 2.We do not see our collective histories and similarity in that with other minority groups. 3. There is an overwhelming economic need for the poverty mindset. 4. Non-handicap folks have an ingrained perception of the handicap as weak and/or needy. 5. We accept this perception as truth.

We must begin to see ourselves as our own cultural body. Maybe this calls us to more clearly define the makeup of our subculture. Questions like: How powerful are perceptions? What defines intelligence? Can and should a subculture really integrate into mass culture? I will dig into these questions in future writings.

I see the handicapped in terms of history and it is important to see that we are an emerging group, not unlike any other minority has been or currently is. Understanding this will tie many of our labeling issues to deeper human causations. I think its important to develop an identity as a subculture, while understanding that many of our institutional problems are universally felt by most others at one point or another. We should see our history as a collective one and our struggle as broadening Human and Civil rights for all people!

It is in my view that handicap people are not to the point in our history where we (most of us) identify as a subculture. In my view this is because we have been separated by the helping system into our disability identifiers and as I talked about earlier in this article each group that makes up our subculture in large part handles its own “direct-action” advocacy. Note that I acknowledge some crossover within radical grassroots organizations like ADAPT, but the reason I am writing this for the individual not locked into a progressive ideologue. For those that are, I am hoping my prospective can offer a retooling of understanding and labels like, “full inclusion” on all people.

“Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods, or tactics, or strategy. We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as free humans in this society.”-Malcolm X.

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Call them planets
universe in hand
slide in pocket

Move under, Doors Close
great voice, caraculs, calls out destination.
spinning ahead, thrusting backwards, moving from side to side

All at once, all together
call them planets
moving together in isolation

Eyes forward
Chaos vibrating all around
It shapes the breath as its birthing

Hand in pocket again
Fingers with the spark of youth still on them
brings forth a universe

Holding it up to the breath of Chaos
It reminds: as this is a Universe,
it is a planet, it is seed,

begin to understand that We our universe! We are seed!
We are all made from the same thing!
Call us Planet!

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Go Forth and Teach

Go Forth and Teach

This past week I was drawn back in reflection with my assistant to pen the following words. It’s been a long time since I have written for the Huntington audience. I moved to St. Louis, Missouri more than two months ago and I have only been in contact with my home community through Facebook. However, this past week drew me back to my college home because a dear friend of mine, well known to the community, passed away. Today I honor the memory of Father Bert Valdez.

The first time I experienced Father Bert was at the college’s Newman Center. It was in his first homily in front of about 60 students that Father Bert and I not just physically met, but met in a very intellectual and spiritual manner. I forget what the readings were for that first Sunday encounter, but I do remember Father Bert beginning his homily by pulling a chair from the front row (the chair being beside me) and briskly sitting down. We couldn’t believe it. We looked at each other in amazement. This was unorthodox! It was outside our understanding, and what happened further pushed us even more outside of our comfort zone. Upon reading his highlighted text in the mass for a second time, he looked up (from sitting) and said, “What do you think this means?” And again we stuttered, not quite sure if we were supposed to answer. He shook us to the core.

But, you see, that’s what Father Bert did…and he did it best. That’s because he calls us into question. Notice I say “us,” because for Father Bert all spiritual questions came down to being human. When explaining what Heaven was to a bunch of kindergartners, he at first asked “Where do you think heaven is?” and they all pointed up. He said, “No…Heaven isn’t up. Heaven is all around us.” He lifted his arms and pointed his finger and started spinning like a dreidel in the middle of the room, leaving a life long impression on these kindergartners and teaching them a lesson they would never forget. Heaven isn’t some distant place. Heaven is a place, a thing, almost a being that we interact with every day. I am sure Father Bert had told that story of those children and his conception of Heaven a thousand times before he met me, but it left an impression nevertheless that will last my entire life.

Bert Valdez, in some ways, was unapproachable. Many times I heard students complain that he was hard to follow. But, you see, with Father Bert you got the full complexity of what he was trying to understand as he taught it to you. He believed in the teachable moment, long before Obama spoke of it, and he understood that teaching was as much about learning for the teacher as it was for the student. There are some times and some places where even the most gifted teacher is not understood by his audience. For Bert Valdez, who lived with the passion of an artist, through the rhythm and the riddle of the Scripture, the goal was always to teach. Numerous times he brought up his experiences teaching high school. When I talked to him just before he died, Father Bert could not stop talking about the Newman Center and how he thought of it often. Even with his last breath, his goal was to teach. When I told him that I would miss him not only as a priest but also as a friend beyond the priesthood, he said “I’m always telling people that I was a man before I was a priest.” Those are some of the last words I would ever hear come from the mouth of one of my greatest teachers. He was fond of saying, “All stories are true. Some really happened.”

Father Bert and I didn’t always see eye to eye. We debated and I stubbornly rejected and then accepted, and he did the same. The gift of a good teacher infuses you with not just the knowledge that he or she is passing, but infuses you with a piece of them. It’s a sort of transference of spirit The very thing that I imagine happening during the mass, a truly gifted teacher can call out and call upon at any time. Bert Valdez gave to me in our dialogue a piece of him, and I will carry that for the rest of my life, passing it on to whomever I can leave a legacy to. For what it’s worth, all stories are true, and some of them really happened.

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