Equal Rights Seekers the Real Firefighters
By Peter S. Kahrmann
Equal rights advocates dont start
fires, they put them out. Those who engage in bigotry and oppression and the
denial of rights are, in fact, the arsonists -- the moral arsonists.
I was recently in a phone conversation
with a friend of mine who is also an equal rights advocate. We were talking
about a situation in New York state in which a man living with a brain injury
disability was being denied his rights. Most of my advocacy work is focused on
the struggles facing people with brain injury disabilities, though -- let me be
clear about this -- I will step into the fray when I see peoples rights
being denied, no matter who they are. At any rate, my friend said the party
that was engaged in denying this man his rights had accused him (my fellow
advocate) of starting fires, i.e., starting trouble.
That situation reminded me of the
Montgomery Bus Boycott, of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were
integral figures. The yearlong protest campaign (December 1955 to December
1956) successfully overturned the Alabama citys segregationist bus
policy, which required blacks to ride in the back of buses. King led the
protest; Parks was the seamstress whose refusal to give up her seat to a white
bus rider helped light the fuse for the boycott.
The city fathers accused King, Parks and
others in the boycott's leadership of being nothing more than troublemakers.
Everything was just fine, they declared, until that group started trouble. What
the city fathers didnt understand (or, perhaps, understood but
wouldnt admit) was that the denial of equal rights was the trouble that
had been already started! The fire had been already set.
By demanding their equal rights, people
such as King and Parks were trying to put the fire out.
I believe every individual is born with
equal rights. I believe every individual is born with the right to be free.
Freedom cannot exist without equality. Deny people their equality, you deny
them their freedom. The reality is as simple, and brutal, as that.
It is not uncommon for those of us who
bring the actions of the oppressors into the light to find themselves publicly
and privately maligned. In the world of disability rights, the world where, as
I said, most of my advocacy is focused, rights are often denied to people with
disabilities in the name of profit and greed.
For many in my country and beyond, the
quest for wealth and power --some believe power is an appendage of wealth -- is
lifes primary motive, equal rights be damned. They experience those who
live in the world around them as being little more than revenue streams whose
taps need to be turned up high. Those who justly require assistance to make
ends meet in life, those who are poor, who deal with formidable levels of
disability, and the elderly, are often villainized, demeaned and treated as
little more than inconvenient refuse.
Ive worked in nursing homes and
quickly become known by ownership as a fire starter because I would not remain
quiet when I saw residents having their rights denied, including their rights
to dignity and respect.
In many, many cases, nursing homes are
owned or operated, or both, by individuals and companies who see those who live
under their roof as creatures who should be grateful theyre given food to
eat and supplied with people to help them dress and bathe when needed -- people
who will help them into clean, or almost clean, clothes, and then park them in
some day room where they can live out their lives in utter boredom and dismay.
In a nursing home fewer than 10 miles from where I live today, residents are
only allowed to bathe or shower twice a week. Now theres a fire right
there, dont you think?
I believe every
individual is born with the right to be free. Freedom cannot exist without
equality. Deny people their equality, you deny them their freedom. The reality
is as simple, and brutal, as that.
What bothers the oppressors most is having
their actions brought into the light of day, into the public eye. The fact that
it bothers them reflects an awareness on their part that what they are engaged
in is wrong, immoral, and, if you ask me, criminal.
So if, like me, you are an advocate, then
you, my friend, are an equal rights firefighter. Dont give up -- not
ever. Remind yourself from time to time how much worse things would be were
equal rights firefighters not around. Theyre a fine group of folks, and
so are you.
Peter Kahrmann writes a blog on disability issues. He
resides in Massachusetts.