DISCRIMINATION VACATION: the Golden Lining of Shelter-In-Place

“I can’t wait to get back to normal!”

It’s a phrase I’ve heard dozens of times during this past year of our lockdown spa, where the whining and moaning from people seems to travel farther than the reverberating calls of the South American howler monkey. Never in my life have I seen so much complaining and temper tantrums from an ultra-privileged class. It’s been surreal, like watching a bratty kitten tear up your favorite couch because you gave it a warm bath.

“You do realize that incarcerated folks and people with disabilities live like this every single day, right?” I try, usually in vain, to elicit one iota of compassion from the toddler ableys, who are determined to remind me how hard their life is. And no, I’m not talking about people with children, those facing homelessness and financial ruin, domestic violence survivors trapped with an abuser, or other vulnerable populations that have every reason to hate quarantine. I’m talking about people who can’t go on as many hikes as they used to, don’t get the hugs they want, or can no longer frequent the bars and clubs for the 2 a.m. meat market to bump uglies with some random stranger. This is a very large portion of San Franciscans, believe it or not.

Quarantine was never about them. But in a society that is quickly replacing empathy with voter suppression, it’s hard to explain to people that this isn’t about you. One of the things our current president has done a better job with than his predecessor is describing to people (especially youth) that social distancing is about protecting your grandparents, your sick uncle, and the millions of disabled people just like me. This is about taking one for the team, about defeating a new and deadly virus with collective compassion for the people who are most likely to suffer. The news never seems to cover the rates of new disabilities developed from COVID-19 infections, either. Just like in wartime, we only hear about the deaths. Never the disabled.

Well here I am, and it’s disability pride month! So let me blow your mind with a little bit of reality from my corner of the city.

A part of me has absolutely loved the pandemic shelter-in-place. I mean loved it! What? Can I say that? It sounds wild, but hear me out:

San Francisco is like a personal social-distancing obstacle course for people like me. More than half of the buildings in the city I can’t even get into (including doctors’ and therapists’ offices, to talk about how much this sucks), and even when I can enter a building, I’m not even able to pee in their bathroom, since I use an electric wheelchair. I can almost never go to crowded places like bars or clubs or music venues, as I will be immediately told that I’m a fire hazard, or otherwise ostracized, threatened, or worse. I was kicked out of a bar where we were celebrating my friend’s birthday in the Haight-Ashbury because the owner didn’t like my wheelchair being parked in the corner while I hobbled with my cane to try to dance. 

An employee at Muddy Waters on 16th Street refused to put a wheelchair ramp down for me (which they have) because “I know you can walk!” — he had seen me use a cane once in public and was convinced I was faking my health needs (I can’t walk with a cane anymore). The manager never returned my calls and I still can’t go there now.

The $1.25 store owner at Mission and 24th Street routinely yells at me for trying to navigate the tightly cluttered aisles in my wheelchair. I’ve never complained about them and I completely understand his hardship in trying to make a living. But that doesn’t stop him from hating my existence.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to a venue only to be kicked out, or have to pee in the street because there’s no bathroom available to me. I frequently have to lay down on sidewalks next to my wheelchair, because my spinal pain keeps me from sitting straight up for long periods. It’s extremely rare that anyone offers to help or sympathizes with this. However, the police are sure to let me know how angry this makes them as they menacingly tell me to “move along.”

Bus operators, due to lack of training and oversight from SFMTA, have discriminated against me so often, so routinely, that I was forced to file an ADA lawsuit with the city.

My self-esteem is consistently shattered whenever I leave my home due to the hateful stares of strangers passing by, the inappropriate prodding questions of toddlers and children, and the sheer misery of all the stigma that surrounds being disabled in my community.

And should any of these things work out for me, and I would find an accessible place to meet someone, and say—oh, I don’t know—bring a date back to my place, I would still have to humiliate myself by crawling along the filthy floor to the steps to my unit, because even my own apartment has no law requiring it to be wheelchair accessible. (a personal meeting with the DPW housing ADA investigator, along with the brutally unfair laws, made this very clear to me.)

So yeah, being in “lockdown spa” is no big loss for people like me. In fact, I’ve been calling it “Discrimination Vacation.”

After years of being told that video attendance was impossible for public meetings, even at places like the disability transportation summit hosted by TRACS and World Institute on Disability (held at the Ed Roberts center, bless his soul, as he rolls over in his grave), all of a sudden, in less than 48 hours, we had videoconferencing everywhere and for everything. It’s like a switch flipped, when all the abley two-leggers whined and moaned, and all the things that would be impossible for cripples like me — things I had been told are “too expensive” or “not required by ADA law” — became the immediate order of the day. It kind of reminded me of the 2009 Wall Street bailout, when the federal government gave at least $8 trillion of our taxpayer money to the crooked banks that wrecked the economy. But when it’s time for a $1.9 trillion stimulus to Americans to survive during COVID-19, wealthy corporate scumlords and politicians say – whoa, that’s too much!! After strong opposition, and removing billions of desperately needed help to working Americans, including a $15 federal minimum wage (it’s still $7.25), the bill passed. The rich and the powerful (1%) like to dictate what’s best for their needs, and that rarely means including or empowering disabled people with social opportunities or jobs.

Regardless of the reasons, that switch was flipped and the world became an accessible oyster to me. All of a sudden, I could join friends and engage with the community. I could go to art events, music shows, even flirt! I didn’t have to pee in the street anymore, or struggle to find necessary nourishment, or a pillow when my body started to crash. I wasn’t told to leave explicitly or through passive-aggressive stares, I was treated something like… *gasp* …an equal citizen!

Best of all (and this is due to a certain amount of privilege) I can be a chameleon sometimes, if I take off and hide my medical aids to look like the ableys. And while I tell people all the time that I am disabled—I’m a proud and loud crip—for the first time it became my choice to do so, and not a conversation forced upon me nearly every moment outside my apartment.

While the two-legged whiners are droning on about how “bored” they are, I’ve never been busier. Now that the playing field has been evened out a bit, I can operate and access life in ways similar to them. So it’s been GO time! What have I done? For starters, I gave a national presentation on disability transit justice in February, I have won half a dozen arts contests (two first prizes), I’ve made friends and found community all over the country, I’ve hosted a music night and virtual hangouts, I’ve deepened my education by taking new free classes and joining community support groups, I’ve hosted two domestic violence support meetings and assisted survivors, and I’ve finally been able to access therapy regularly for the first time since being crippled, as well as many medical appointments (“telemedicine,” the ableys call it), and many other things. It’s been a busy year!

Most importantly, though, I’ve been able to deepen friendships with people. It’s those simple moments in hanging out where people just enjoy space together, sometimes not even communicating audibly, but enjoying each other’s presence. This has been one of the most wonderful occurrences of this period, and one of the deepest joys for me. I’ve been attending art groups where it’s been absolutely wonderful and shocking to see that people know who I am. They know who I am! I’m not that anonymous wheelchair user “what’s his name” that can physically make it out once or twice a year. I’m the regular guy that cracks jokes and makes art that people enjoy!

We don’t often think about it, but routine and association is how we build trust and bond with one another. I think this has always been part of the fabric of living in human society. While disabled people like me live in segregation, we cannot build those relationships because we cannot access the spaces to communicate and bond. This, in my opinion, is the number one thing that holds the disability community back in this country, and that’s why our fight against segregation is tantamount to our liberation.

I want to acknowledge that mine is an outlier case, and not the experience of most people during a very difficult time. While some parts of democracy have been improved through phone and videoconferencing, especially to access local government meetings, there is a large part of the population that simply doesn’t have the necessary technology, and our leaders have utterly failed at making it available to them. This is what’s known as the “digital divide”—a not-so-hidden caste system that is fully operational even in the heart of Silicon Valley, giving vast preference to those with a phone, laptop, or computer of some sort, and an internet connection. Nowadays, it’s like you’re not even a full human being unless you have a freaking computer phone to receive text messages for every single website signup form. It is often the source of brutal discrimination against the disabled, seniors, and our unhoused neighbors. During this time I’ve been distributing technology aids to folks when I can, with whatever leftover stuff I have here. But I wish our city was doing a lot more in this regard.

Aside from the digital divide, before this unique change of events we’ve had to go through numerous hurdles to engage in our local democracy. It’s only too easy to forget that every meeting, every decision by the Board of Supervisors, every proclamation issued by the mayor, every Human Rights Commission meeting, has required each and every person from the public to go through a wall of policing, security, and metal detectors. To voice our support in our own democracy has required handing over our personal belongings to police with the potential for confiscation or harassment. Just think about that for a minute… we’ve experienced something closer to direct democracy than we’ve had in many decades! 

The ablies, bigots, and political quacks will undoubtedly pose a false multiple-choice road forward of this or that—the technological accessibility of shelter-in-place, or the “back to normal” of enforced segregation. Tell them to shove it! We can have our cake and eat it too. Now we know what’s possible, that the excuses were always bogus, and that we absolutely can have remote meetings and remote phone calls, it’s time for us to fight for them. For example, one of the art groups I’m attending is going to have rotating in-person and virtual hangouts from now on, if for no other reason than to continue to include new members who have joined from other parts of the country.

The pessimist in me is awfully cynical about the access rollback that’s approaching like a brewing storm over my life. I’m bracing myself to be shoved back into the closet of segregation completely removed from the world again. I worry that everyone will be so enamored with physical interaction that I will become a distant memory of quarantine, an anecdote of the past. Please try to remember people like me, and think about ways to include us. If nothing else, this time has shown myself and others that disabled people are capable of doing a world of activity, when the activities of the world are changed to include us. Let’s remember to keep the good changes around, to make this world accessible to all, even after we’ve kicked some COVID butt! 🙂