My stepson Brandon is a senior in high school. Two weeks ago, he went to his senior prom—the one and only school dance he attended throughout his high school experience. When it was time to pick up his tux, he directed me to a little shop on a main drag in our town. The shop is actually two distinct shoppes: one for formal dresses and one for tuxes. The shop is also a house; rather, it was a house once upon a time. The building was a split-level, where the front door met at a landing and one set of stairs went up to the women’s dresses and one set of stairs went down to the men’s tuxes. It struck me as I entered the tux shoppe that this place could not accommodate anyone with a serious physical disability. Even the need for a simple cane would be risky on those steps.
Around about the same time, I was reading more of James I. Charlton’s Nothing About Us Without Us, in which he writes, “Instead of backpedaling on the question of costs, a few activists forthrightly argue that they do not care how much it costs to comply with the ADA because civil rights should be guaranteed.”
If those activists had their way, there would be no dress shoppe and no tux shoppe in that location. Both businesses would be bankrupt long before they ever managed to create the accommodations necessary to hire someone as per ADA (if the law applied to them, which it doesn’t). Then, not only would the potential employee be out of a job, but the business owners would have lost their livelihoods and the employees they could hire would be out of luck, too.
Money is finite. Nobody has the money it would cost to make every building and every business fully accessible, especially if they had to accommodate the needs of every person with every kind of disability in existence. After all, the ADA isn’t limited to mobility disabilities. So, trying to accommodate every possible employee and every possible customer for every possible organization would cause an economic collapse of epic proportions. Worse still, the means of accommodating one kind of disability may very well cancel out the effectiveness of accommodating other kinds of disability. It simply is not feasible to enforce ADA at 100%, and that’s not including the loss of historic architecture.
Cost matters. Too much cost means the solution, even if technically possible, is a source of destruction, not empowerment. If the cost to empower one person costs someone else too much of what is rightfully theirs, thus destroying their property in the process, you are sacrificing someone else’s rights for your own benefit. How could that be right? How is that fair? How is that just?
If civil rights are guaranteed, who are they guaranteed by? And at whose expense?
Later on in the same chapter, Charlton quotes Carol Gill, writing, “The struggle shouldn’t be for integration, but for power. Once we have power, we can integrate whenever we want.” He also quotes Johnny Crescendo, writing, “We’re looking for interdependence, not independence. We’re looking for power, not integration. If we have power, we can integrate with who we want.” These are powerful statements that could easily inspire activists worldwide.
There is, unfortunately, a fundamental problem with inspiring statements like these: There are two kinds of power. There is the power that is inherent within all of us—the power to choose and the power to act. There is also the power people exercise over others—the power a parent has over a child, the power a teacher has over a student, the power a dictator has over a nation. People with disabilities have a right to their own personal power—the power to choose and the power to act. But they do not have a right to exercise power over others, just as others do not have the right to exercise power over them.
There is no such thing as a right to integration. Nor is there such a thing as a right to exclusion. Nations may create laws that guarantee one or the other, but that doesn’t make them rights. A right is “a moral, ethical, or legal principle considered as an underlying cause of truth, justice, morality, or ethics” or, more simply put, “a just claim or title, whether legal, prescriptive, or moral.” Integration is a noble principle, but the process of integrating people is messy at best. If spurred by legal action, integration involves taking away someone else’s power to choose.
It brings to mind the videos I watched back in one of my social studies classes of what happened when a school was forcibly “integrated.” Children who just wanted a decent education were harassed and endangered because other people in the community had their power to choose taken from them by the government. Now, for the record, I’m not saying those people were right. I am behind those kids 100%. But the point is that forced integration is messy, violent, and dangerous. And if we honestly respect the personal power inherent in all of us, then we need a better way to create integration.
See, it’s not just about power. We can call in the troops and the police department and we can force integration. But we cannot do so and be safe. We cannot do so and be welcome. We cannot do so and achieve justice. True and lasting change does not happen because people are forced to change. You may change someone’s behavior by pointing a gun at their head, but you don’t change their hearts—except to fill them with even more hatred and even more stubborn dissent.
By reclaiming power that is natural to you, whysoever you may be oppressed, you are restoring a proper balance. This is personal power—the power to help yourself and make your own decisions. By claiming power that rightfully belongs to someone else, like how they must spend their resources, you are disrupting the proper balance in your favor. The fact that “they did it first” doesn’t make you right to do it in turn.
Reclaiming personal power is a necessary step to slough off the oppression others would exert on you. By claiming power that rightfully belongs to someone else, you become the oppressor. If you want justice, however, you need something else. To achieve justice you need influence. Through education and advocacy that is founded on mutual respect, you can influence others to exercise their own personal power in matters of mutual interest. It is not right to force a business to go bankrupt in order to hire you—nobody wins, everybody loses. But you can influence that business to desire a mutually beneficial solution that they help create—everybody wins, nobody loses. Justice is achieved when everyone’s rights are respected.
In the U.S., a capitalist democracy, plenty of people seek after power that is not their own and they all hurt others in the process. This is the source of oppression in this country. Taking power that rightfully belongs to someone else is the source of oppression, period. You can assume you have a right to other people’s power and become part of the problem. Or you can assert your own power and seek to influence others and thereby become your own best solution. The choice is yours. Just remember that the cost does matter.
p.s. Next week I’ll be posting a big announcement, so stay tuned!