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into the light - peter kahrmann

Equal Rights Seekers the Real Firefighters

By Peter S. Kahrmann

Equal rights advocates don’t 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 people’s 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 city’s 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 didn’t understand (or, perhaps, understood but wouldn’t 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 life’s 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.

I’ve 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 they’re 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 there’s a fire right there, don’t 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. Don’t give up -- not ever. Remind yourself from time to time how much worse things would be were equal rights firefighters not around. They’re a fine group of folks, and so are you.


Peter Kahrmann writes a blog on disability issues. He resides in Massachusetts.


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