Disability, Inclusion, and the Zombie Apocalypse

Look.  Contrary to how we seem to be acting, we are not actually in the zombie apocalypse.  Or, any kind of apocalypse at all. If you doubt my claims, I suggest you look out of your window.  Go on, peep.  Are there undead corpses roaming around?  Are there locusts and frogs raining down from the heavens?  The sky is up high and the ground is down low, right?  Oceans where you left them?  Phew!  What a relief.

I am so sick and tired of people justifying exclusion and discrimination by making it seem like we are in the end of days.  I mean, okay, for most of human history, the struggle to survive has been real.  Back in the day, we were romping about the earth in furs and spears, sure, life was more tenuous.  But.  That was a verrrrry long time ago.

In the last, say, two hundred years, humans have been ridiculously busy.  Anesthesia, dishwashers, photography, air travel, mechanized farming, the internet, nuclear power, toilet paper, vaccines, instant coffee, machine guns, antibiotics, contraceptive pills… These are all from the last blink of an eye in the timeline of human history.  Some good, some bad, some TBD.

With all that modern invention, we have gotten to the point that we collectively make 2,720 kilocalories of food for every person on this space rock of ours.  Yes, I believe it is true.  Yet somehow, huge numbers of us are starving and in poverty, because we can’t stop fighting and trashing the planet long enough to take care of our fellow human beings.  We are our own worst enemies.

In this country, especially, I cannot believe that we are arguing about lacking resources to address poverty, lack of access, and inequality.  We throw out more food than paper, plastic, metal or glass combined in this country, and we have the largest material requirements in the world (to support our apparently dire need of huge houses, extra cars, bottled water, etc.).  I mean, we are a nation that is willing to pay upwards of $10,000 for Super Bowl tickets, for crying out loud.

What about the “if everyone did that” argument?  If everyone were in a wheelchair?  What if everyone had Down syndrome?  If everyone were this, that and the other?  I concede that yes, if every single person on the face of the planet suddenly lost use of his or her legs, sure, perhaps we would be in a pickle.  If tomorrow, every single baby were born with a disability, yes, it would give me legitimate reason to pause.

These imaginary scenarios, however, are never going to happen.  This obsession we have about what the ideal human should or shouldn’t be has got to stop.  We are not all the same.  That is the genius of the human condition.  We are a diverse species, and that makes us strong.  Maybe it is wired deep in our brains to worry about this stuff because back in the day, it was an actual possibility that 3 out of the 5 good hunters in the clan broke a limb or succumbed to a disability causing illness, and then the baby born that year had some significant condition.  I get it, that would put the group in a real bind.  But look, the interwebs tells me that the UN estimates there are somewhere around 7 billion people in this world.  Between us all, we can stand to have a little variance.  And, we make enough food to feed every single one of us.  So is our situation actually so dire that people need to rant and rave in the comment section of every article about disability that “they” are sucking all of our resources?  It isn’t about lacking resources, we need better systems to make the world more equitable (and this issue is not limited to disability, of course).

Which brings me to my original point: the zombie apocalypse.  Given that we have left the period of human history in which we are living in truly tenuous times, I’ve tried to look into the future.  Would there ever be a time in which this irrational obsession with (actually not so limited) resources would become somewhat rational?  The only scenario I’ve managed to come up with is the zombie apocalypse.  Even then, I’m more of a “live together, die together” type of gal, myself.  But go look out the window again.  No zombies.  I’m even gonna go out on a limb and guess that there are no zombies in our immediate or even long-term future.  We are more in danger of irreparably trashing the Earth in the next few decades, in which case the zombies won’t even have a planet to overrun, so no worries.

I’m an optimist.  We can absolutely take care of each other, and in so doing, we will all benefit.  We can have a more inclusive society; the resources exist, the talent exists, some people are working very hard at it.  If we put more energy into supporting those efforts, I think we’d all be a lot happier.  Plus, in the off-chance the zombie apocalypse does happen, I think learning how to more successfully cooperate will mean we’ll have a better chance at surviving anyways, am I right?

Wednesday Words: On Being Deserving

de·serv·ing (dəˈzərviNG)

1. worthy of being treated in a particular way, typically of being given assistance.
“the deserving poor”
synonyms: worthy, meritorious, commendable, praiseworthy, admirable, estimable, creditable; respectable, decent, honorable, righteous

“the deserving workers”
meriting, warranting, justifying, suitable for, worthy of
“a lapse deserving punishment”

Last week, I bought a man a burrito.  I actually bought him two burritos, because once I told him I was willing to buy him dinner, he asked for an extra burrito.

I was with the kids getting dinner, feeling hectic and a bit stressed because I was trying to get us out-of-town for another trip.  The man, whom I’ll call Joe, came up and knocked on the window.  It was raining and I couldn’t understand what he was saying.  I must have looked irritated or unwelcoming, because when I motioned that I couldn’t understand, he walked off.

Once I got us out of the car, I saw him and realized that of course, he was asking for change or food.  I don’t help every stranger who asks, but… There I was, about to travel to see family (a luxury), sitting in my minivan (luxury), with my three well-fed kids (arguably luxury), while he was hungry and wandering the parking lot asking for help.

Then I thought, how could I possibly walk away from this man while my kids watched?  What kind of lesson is that?  No, I can’t buy a meal for every person in need, but at that moment, it seemed like the only reasonable option.  So I asked him if I could buy him a burrito, and we all went into the restaurant.

The whole interaction ended up making me feel very sad.  For all of us.

First, was that Joe clearly felt the need to thank me to the point of grovelling.  I suppose it would not have felt good if he did not at least do a minimum social nicety by saying thanks.  Still, it occurred to me that all he was doing was trying to survive and acquire a very basic need: food.  He seemed to think I’d refuse to help him without this outlandish show of gratitude.

The man also repeatedly assured me that he was not lazy, that he couldn’t find work (he was an elderly, disabled veteran), and that he would pay my act of charity forward when he could.  In other words, he was trying to tell me that he was deserving of help.

I had to wonder, however, where this logic led.  Someone who is not willing or able to work at a traditional job or who does not exhibit a certain kind of behavior doesn’t deserve to starve on the streets, do they?  He certainly was deserving of help.  He was a living, breathing human being.  Shouldn’t that have been enough?

The next thing that happened was that the burrito place employees decided that I was to be applauded for giving the man a meal. I hated that they did it so loudly in front of him, as if he weren’t even there.  I could see it hurt his dignity, and yet he stayed quiet.  Not only that, but one young woman was clearly appalled that Joe had the nerve to ask for two burritos.  I was not offended, so why should she be?  It seemed reasonable to me, that if Joe didn’t know when his next meal might come, he might ask for two burritos.  After having chatted with him, I felt fairly confident that if I had said no, then he would have simply accepted the one burrito and moved on.

If he hadn’t?  What if he had been very angry with me, or rude?  Well, I’d have understood that as well, and known that his anger didn’t actually have much to do with me, but probably frustration and hopelessness that came from being in his situation.  Yet, the burrito shop employee seemed to think that Joe was being uppity for simply asking for more.  $8 instead of $4.  

When I read some opinions about social welfare and entitlement programs, I wince at the blanket assumptions that anyone who needs assistance must be morally flawed in some way.  People are described as lazy, ungrateful, ignorant, or worse.  I talked to Joe for at least fifteen minutes while we waited for our food.  He was a kind, soft-spoken man.  He looked rough around the edges, sure, but that was from being poor.  He was a disabled veteran who was slowly being pushed into poverty; he couldn’t find enough work to pull him completely out his situation, yet doing some work would mean he was ineligible for whatever help he did receive. He couldn’t keep up on disability alone and would soon be without a roof over his head.  I know some people would doubt that he was telling the truth, yet I had no reason to disbelieve him; I know that his is a common story in this country.

I’m not saying that the answer to poverty is to buy everyone a burrito.  Still, we all need help sometimes; some more than others.  I really don’t think that one’s moral character or past behavior should be a prerequisite for having basic needs met.  If our aim is to improve our collective lives, that means improving all of our lives, right?  To me this goes beyond the question of deserving, and more about how we care for each other as fellow human beings.  If deserving is worthiness, I think we are all worthy of having our basic needs met.

Joe could have been the most obnoxious, rude, vindictive person on the face of the earth, and I still don’t think he deserved to be hungry or homeless.  He wasn’t any of those things, but I’m thinking that it shouldn’t have mattered anyways.  He was just one guy, trying to make it to tomorrow.