One afternoon last month, as I was crossing a busy four-lane street that runs through the University of Pittsburgh campus, I looked up to see a robot blocking my path.
This wasn’t unexpected. Over the summer, several four-wheeled, knee-high robots had been roaming campus, unmarked and usually with a human handler several feet behind. Recently they’d multiplied, and now they were flying solo. They belonged to Starship Technologies, I learned, an autonomous delivery service rolling out on college campuses across America.
As a chemical engineering Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh who uses a power wheelchair, I figured it wouldn’t be long before I met one of these bots in a frustrating face-off on a narrow sidewalk. What I didn’t realize was how dangerous, and dehumanizing, that scenario might be.
The robot was sitting motionless on the curb cut on the other side of Forbes Avenue. It wasn’t crossing with the rest of the pedestrians, and when I reached the curb, it didn’t move as the walk signal was ending. I found myself sitting in the street as the traffic light turned green, blocked by a non-sentient being incapable of understanding the consequences of its actions.
I managed to squeeze myself up on the sidewalk in a panic, climbing the curb outside the curb cut in fear of staying in the street any longer—a move that causes a painful jolt and could leave me stuck halfway up if I’m not careful.
“Do you support Medicare For All? Why not? Don’t you believe everyone has a right to health care?”
Your coworker says:
“I think everyone should have healthcare, but how do we pay for it? And even if we can pay for it, how could we ever hope to pass such a huge and controversial plan?”
Meanwhile, your aunt wants to know:
“Do you really want the government in charge of your healthcare? And Is it fair that hardworking, responsible people should have to pay the medical bills for people who don’t even work? I don’t mean you of course …”
These are stereotypes, but nowadays they kind of ring true. They’re the sentiments that every disabled person even slightly engaged in the healthcare debate hears from every corner. That, and accusations of being a shill for “the other side” if you dare to ask critical questions and raise specific concerns as a disabled person. There’s no escape from it either, especially online. Now that 2020 campaigns are underway, you can’t plant a crutch or turn a wheelchair without running into someone’s passionate beliefs about healthcare. And they want you to believe, too. They’ll even point to your disability as a reason why you should support their position on healthcare.
The fact is that people with disabilities do have unique and important priorities that aren’t always addressed in healthcare plans. For people with disabilities, they matter more than ideology, poll-tested rhetoric, or political affiliations. This is the substance of the healthcare debate for the disability community.
On Monday, as part of its IOS 13.2 release, Apple released 398 new emoji, including a sloth, a flamingo, buttered waffles — and several disability-related symbols, including images of people with different skin tones in wheelchairs, a prosthetic leg, a blind person with a probing cane, a service dog and a hearing aid.
Disability advocates are cheering. I’m not thrilled.
As both the mother of a child with a disability and a journalist who covers disability-related issues, I have trained myself to look past labels to consider individuals. Just as the blue-and-white international “handicapped” symbol falls far short of including all people with disabilities, so does this handful of emoji.
Having a disability has made Gabi Serrato Marks and Skylar Bayer better scientists, according to a recent Scientific American article by Marks and Bayer that was published last week. The women note that even though creativity and the ability to think differently are valuable skills for any scientist to have, scientific research is rarely designed to accommodate scientists with medical conditions or disabilities. Marks and Bayer, a postdoc and PhD candidate, respectively, say academic institutions need to provide more institutional supports to scientists with disabilities if they don’t want to lose out on promising young talent.
In a letter to the editor, Mississippi U.S. Congressman Gregg Harper wrote a recent court settlement regarding segregated work places in Rhode Island is not enough. Harper said a new bill he is cosponsoring, the Fair Wages for Workers With Disabilities Act, would phase out the practice of paying workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage over three years. Read more.
In a letter to the editor, Les Greene, president-elect of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, wrote a recent article about fraud charges against first responders was “hardly” shocking. The Jan. 7 article “Charges for 106 in Huge Fraud Over Disability,” detailed retired New York City police officers and firefighters accused of faking symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries. According to Greene, “The tragedy is that compensation doled out by government agencies can be readily taken advantage of…by those who need to identify themselves as victims, and thus entitled to reparations by others.” Read more.
The United States does not need to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities because the U.S. already protects its disabled citizens, according to an opinion piece by Steven Groves in U.S. News & World Report.
According to Groves, U.S. federal laws are more specific than the “ambiguous” codes shaped by international opinion in the CRPD. Moreover, the U.S. legislation, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disability Act, can be expanded and modified.
CRPD activists pushing for ratification claim it will improve accessibility on a global level. Not so, says Groves. Read more.