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Into The Light by Peter Karhamann

No Slaves? Tell That to the Disabled

By Peter Kahrman

People with disabilities in a sheltered workshop

If you think slavery in the United States has come to an end, think again.

Slavery is defined as a system in which people are the property of others. Consider this: If each person with a disability was a beautiful acre of land, then it is accurate to say that many of these “acres” are taken over because of “manifest destiny.”

Manifest destiny was a term used in the 1840s to justify this country’s taking of land -- such as Oregon, California and Texas -- because, it was said, the white man’s right to the property was inspired by God and democracy and good will. It was claimed that, somehow, the white man held a higher station in life than Native Americans, a notion that is best described, as TV’s Archie Bunker said, as “crapola.” Once taken over, a person with a disability becomes disenfranchised, a word that means “being denied the right of citizenship.” That is slavery.

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Manifest destiny, then and now, is nothing more than an excuse to step over and on anyone and anything that stands in the way of greed and lust for power. It is inflicted on many of us who live with disabilities. Our lives and our rights are taken over and controlled by others, usually to benefit big business. We are dictated to and controlled and restricted in a wide variety of ways. That is slavery.

We are told where to live, what to eat (there is not a plethora of menu choices in community-based programs or institutions), what transportation we can use, where we can work, for whom we can work, where we can vote and so forth. That is slavery.

Many of us are sent to sheltered workshops and paid slave-labor wages. The companies running sheltered workshops are not obligated to pay minimum wage. That is slavery.

I read one definition of a sheltered workshop that said, “The word ‘sheltered’ refers to a protective environment where the disabled can undertake paid meaningful employment in a supportive environment.” Again, that is crapola. In the real world, these sugar-coated words (sugar has been called cancer’s Cadillac, so sugar isn’t such a good thing in the first place) actually mean “we’re going to send you to do some mindbendingly boring work, pay you pennies and make money off you and -- oh, yeah -- this has meaning to you.” That is slavery.

I am most familiar with the experience of those who have a brain injury, which is not surprising, since I live with one myself. There are companies running day programs for brain injury survivors in my state that are out and out lying when they tell you they are all about helping participants increase their independence. The majority of day programs I’ve seen rarely discharge anyone, and many do everything they can think of to keep people in the program. A participant wants to return to work? Cool. Give him the task of cleaning up, throw him a dollar or two, praise him for working and keephim in the program so we can keep billing for the time he’s here. That is slavery.

Even without hard economic times, poor people -- a category that, more often than not, includes people with disabilities -- are shortchanged because so many health care providers won’t supply services to people on Medicaid.

When hard economic times do hit, people with disabilities are among the first to suffer. A 1.1 percent across-the-board cut in Medicaid reimbursement rates in my home state of New York will result in fewer services for people with disabilities because there are health care providers who say: “The hell with it, then. We won’t provide services to people on Medicaid anymore.”

What is the answer? It’s time to expose the slave owners for whom and what they are and, whenever possible, refuse to work for them. In other words, find creative non-violent ways to rebel. Aim at the wallets of the slave owners, which, in a very real way, hits them where it hurts most. After all, they give dollars more respect than people because they think dollars mean more than people. However, I’ve never seen a dollar stand up and fight. And I know lots of folks who have proved that you don’t have to have sight to have a vision of justice, you don’t need to have hearing to know the sound of hatred, and you don’t have to stand up to stand tall.

My dollars are on us.

Peter Kahrmann is an advocate for people with disabilities and writes a blog on disability issues. He resides in New York state.

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