Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Will We Ever Bridge the Gap between Fear and Compassion?

It’s a familiar scenario. You park in a blue space, struggle out of your car and begin walking. A stranger spits a cynical remark at you. People like you make me mad. You’re a fraud, taking a space that real disabled people need.

We handle that situation in various ways:

  1. Ignore them
  2. Explain that most disabilities are invisible
  3. Spit an insulting remark right back at them: People like you make me mad, taking up my time as if you are worthy of it.
  4. Buy a cane and use it next time — even if you don’t need one — to avoid hearing these judgments
  5. Stay home
  6. Only shop at night or when there are fewer people around

We never feel vindicated

No matter how we handle it we never feel vindicated. Though we pretend their stinging judgments are like water off a duck’s back, we seethe inside, revisiting the wound until it heals over. But the scar will always be there.

We know we can’t set the whole world straight. Can’t make people woke by chastising them or being their victim or reasoning with them. The crippled leading the blind will only work if the blind realize they’re blind in the first place. But how do you convince someone not to believe their own eyes?

A larger problem

It’s a symptom of a larger problem. A society that does not fully value its disabled, its minorities, its elderly, and its children will constantly try to push them into the margins. Making problems disappear is easier than learning about why the problems exist without politicizing the bejesus out of them. Fixes are very hard to accomplish for the same reason. They take study and time and discussion and negotiation. Experts talking with the afflicted and the dispossessed; policy makers talking with experts, the afflicted and the dispossessed; refining crisis management; employing visionary thinking for long term improvements of non-crisis social need. These are things an advanced, 21st-century country should be able to tackle in its sleep and with one hand tied behind its back. They are also things such a country ought to care urgently about. But the United States is a strange puppy. Considering its potential for tremendous social change, it has been a gross underachiever. People consistently take a backseat to technology in our willingness to allow progress.

People are so absent from headlines

Nothing partisan or controversial about touting the latest iPhone or video game. My newsfeed stories this week just about covered it — it being the extent of American curiosity. Technology, the military, food, and the latest fossil findings—or simply put: phones, drones, scones, and bones. My local paper, on the other hand, had a great story. An ancient brick school building not one mile from my house was being eyed by a local company for conversion into low-income senior housing, a much-needed commodity in our tiny town. It made my heart a little lighter after reading about hi-tech and DOD contractors’ wallets getting fatter. People are so absent from the headlines. The quiet struggles are too quiet to be headlines. But without media coverage, needs will continue to be shoved to the fringes of our awareness.

Further marginalizing the chronically ill

The United States is a strange puppy indeed. We boast of our first amendment right to free speech and our fourth amendment right to due process, chastising authoritarian regimes for their blatant disregard for human dignity. Yet we scream at our own citizens to worship the second amendment. Guns don’t kill people, people kill peoplePeople with mental disorders are the latest to be scapegoated for the epidemic of mass shootings. This could lead to a sacrifice of confidentiality followed by criminalization, or nothing at all, further marginalizing the chronically ill. It could also eventually lead to better mental health care.

Will we ever boast of having figured out how to provide universal health care for all 320 million of our citizens? It’s never been done on that scale anywhere in the world. We could be the first. And we’d still be one strange puppy. Universal health care on the one hand and 280 million guns on the other. In some perverse way it would strike a balance between fear and compassion, paranoia and trust, destruction and healing. That’s us all over. Someday.

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