A Chip On Somebody's Shoulder

by Christine Faltz

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          Previous articles by Christine Faltz have appeared in the Monitor. The account of her experience in dealing with the infirmary at her law school is worth relating. Here it is:

          The purpose of this article is not to tell the age-old tale of discrimination against blind persons; we know it happens every day. I write this article because we have to be aware that there are people who are content with the status quo and espouse the philosophy that when the disabled rebel against mistreatment we are upstarts, militants, and troublemakers. It is not a problem with society, we are told, but a problem with us. They say we have huge chips on our shoulders and our concerns are therefore invalid.

          On October 7, 1991, I went to Hofstra University's Health center to make an appointment for an annual examination. (I am a first-year law student and had never previously been to the infirmary.) I approached the desk and inquired about making an appointment. A card was filled out, my medical file was located, and a nurse asked me to come inside to go over my medical history. I exited the reception area through a door and followed her down the hall. The nurse stopped abruptly and asked, "What are we going to do on Thursday about your dog."

          "Oh, don't worry about Julip," I said. "She needs very little space and will not get in the doctor's way."

          "But we can't have a dog in the examining room," she replied.

          One of the women at the desk said, "You can leave the dog out here." "Can someone come with you on Thursday and help you onto the examining table and assist you in getting around without your dog?" the nurse asked.

          "There won't be any need for that," I said. "My previous doctors and dentists, as well as the Princeton University infirmary, never questioned the presence of the dog."

          "But the examining rooms are very small," the nurse persisted.

          "She really needs very little room; she will fit under a chair," I replied.

          Nothing more was said on the subject, and we went to a room to go over my medical history. I noticed upon sitting that there was a scale to my left. When she told me I would have to be weighed, I stood, intending to step onto the scale. She grabbed my right forearm in a tight grasp and said abruptly, "Now wait a minute! Be careful. The scale is right in front of you." As I stepped onto the scale, I did not trip or otherwise show signs of being about to stumble or lose my footing. "Careful, careful; it's right there," she said, grabbing my arm again.

          "Yes, I know. Thank you," I said. My arm was seized again as I stepped down. Immediately after this, I attempted to get onto the examining table so that she could take my blood pressure. The behavior of warnings to take care and tight grasps continued. I ignored all of this. I kept hearing the voices of sighted friends and family members: "She means well; she doesn't know any better."

          I left the infirmary and investigated the law concerning dog guides and medical facilities. I learned that if my dog was not permitted in an examining room, there was a legal obligation to examine me in a room where my dog could be present. I informed a dean of my problem at the infirmary and of the law. I also mentioned that the nurses had been overwhelmingly patronizing. The dean assured me that she would speak with Dr. Marie Hanache, Director of Health Services. She informed me that I was not the first disabled student to complain about such treatment.

          Three days later I went to my appointment, not entirely certain what would be said about my dog guide. Julip was not a problem, however. Instead, after dragging me about the tiny examining room, pointing out virtually every imaginable obstacle, the nurse turned to leave, said the doctor would be with me shortly, and asked, "Do you need help undressing?" I had turned twenty-two years old the day before and have been dressing and undressing myself successfully for a substantial portion of that time. Taking a breath to quell my rising anger, I said quietly, "No, I do not." The nurse left.

          I brought these incidents to the attention of the dean with whom I had already spoken, asking that she, Dr. Hanache, and I have a meeting to discuss the evident lack of sensitivity on the part of the nursing staff. I felt that I should feel comfortable visiting a health facility; that since other disabled students had complained, I was not being supersensitive; and that if a meeting between the nurses and disabled students took place, attitudes might very well start to improve. The dean agreed that the treatment I had undergone was inappropriate and readily agreed to the meeting.

          The meeting began with my tale of "No dogs in the examining room" and I was almost immediately interrupted with an insistence that the nurses are worried about sanitary conditions. I assured Dr. Hanache that I realized this, but that there was a legal obligation to accommodate me without requiring me to rely on a sighted guide. She interrupted again and I said, "Please, the dog is not the only issue. I am not finished." I described the incident of the nurse asking if I needed help in getting undressed. I explained that if a person with a specific disability needed such assistance, the infirmary was dealing with grown men and women who could voice their needs. She interrupted yet again and informed me that each and every nurse was concerned with the welfare of all students, regardless of whether they are disabled, and that the nurse's question was nothing more than an indication that she wished to accommodate me as best she could. Naturally, I asked if able-bodied students were offered this help. Without a pause, Dr. Hanache replied, "I'm sure it has happened." Yet, in an informal survey of several dozen able-bodied fellow students, none related such an offer.

          "You," Dr. Hanache then proceeded to inform me, "have a chip on your shoulder, and you are making this into a personal issue, and are trying to start trouble." She went on, insisting that the nursing staff was concerned with everyone's welfare. As an example: "The infirmary is very cluttered right now. There are boxes all over the place. I even tripped and went flying yesterday."

          I asked, "Are you suggesting that since `even' you tripped, there is necessarily a greater risk for me and others with disabilities?"

          "No, I did not say that," she snapped.

          "She didn't say that," the dean chimed in.

          "Then what was the purpose of your statement?" I inquired. There was no answer.

          I informed Dr. Hanache that since she was clearly unwilling to do anything, I was seriously considering taking the issue to the undergraduate and/or law school newspapers. At this point she slammed something down on her desk, stood, and said, "This meeting is over."

          After Dr. Hanache left, I told the dean that Dr. Hanache was the one who had made the issue "personal," and that I resented the implication that I was nothing more than a militant when other disabled students had voiced concerns about the infirmary. I asked why she had not pointed this out when I was accused of attempting to start trouble. She skirted the issue by saying that both Dr. Hanache and I had strayed from the topic.

          At one point during our interview Dr. Hanache declared: "Oh, I see, you want to be treated like everybody else, but you also want to be treated like a minority, whatever suits you." How could this woman so grossly misunderstand a central fact of being a minority: that one would like to be treated like everybody else, but bigotry, presupposition, and prejudice interfere. It ignores the reality that perceptions of single characteristics (skin color, gender, sexual orientation, physical impairment, mental impairment, religion, ideology) supersede estimates of intelligence, competence, ability, morality, and character.

          Another facet of minority experience is being labelled as a complainer who appropriates minority status as an excuse to whine, rather than take responsibility for their lives. This snide attitude ("whatever suits you") allows administrators to ignore whatever the labelled person says and deceive themselves that we are already treated equally. The irony is, of course, that in reality we are not treated like everyone else, unless you define "equal treatment" very strangely.

          "Being treated like everybody else" does not mean "a seventy percent un/underemployment rate for disabled people is perfectly reasonable, because disabled people just aren't as skilled as we are," or "It's perfectly fine to ban dog guides from the infirmary, because blind people shouldn't expect to be able to move about unassisted anyway", or "It's okay to be oversolicitous with disabled people because unless you're careful, they're a danger to themselves and others." Most of all, being treated equally does not consist of the implicit question "Why do they continue to delude themselves into thinking that they are like everybody else?"

          In short, the purpose of these evasions and rationalizations is to allow the speaker to avoid personal and institutional responsibility by the time-honored strategy of "blame the victim." However, when minorities refuse to be so labelled and blamed, an important step is taken towards a society which no longer tolerates such pretense.

          [Note: At the time of this writing (late October, 1991) the newly established association of disabled law students at Hofstra is intending to meet with the university's vice president of operations to discuss further this matter.]

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