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Disability Protests: Contentious Politics, 1970-1999

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Another reason that many Deaf activists oppose mainstreamed programs for deaf children is related to language. They feel that deaf children learn best if they learn ASL as their first, natural language and then learn written and perhaps spoken English as their second language. In that situation, English would be taught as a second language, and there would be no assumption that children would have learned it as a first language (Neisser, 1983). Deaf activists also demand that programs that teach ASL as a first language be recognized and supported. It follows, then that they support the hiring of more deaf teachers and school administrators, or, failing that, the hiring of hearing people who are fluent ASL signers. They feel that native ASL ability is a qualification that must balance other types of academic qualifications or training when candidates for positions in residential schools are interviewed or hired.

A somewhat more recent demand made by the Deaf movement involves an end to the use of cochlear implants in children. Advocates of this position say that “[t]he procedure is highly experimental, there is no evidence that children who receive cochlear implants learn English any better than they would with conventional hearing aids or with no aid at all, and the use of an implant could “delay the family’s acceptance of the child’s deafness and their acquisition of sign communication” and thus have a negative impact on the child's future quality of life in the deaf community” (Christiansen 1998: 1056).

The demands of Deaf activists, then, are very different than the demands of other disability activists. Although Deaf activists support the extension of the frame of civil rights to deaf people, their definition of civil rights is different than that of other groups. For them, “civil rights” includes the right to their own language, control over their own schools, their own teachers and other school personnel, and their own teaching methods. But their demands are not limited to civil rights; rather, they include issues relating to linguistic freedom, bilingualism, and being viewed as a linguistic minority group.

Demands Related to Blindness

Demands related to blindness fall into several areas, one of which is transportation accessibility. Blind passengers have been denied services completely or have been hassled, intimidated, and sometimes humiliated, especially on airplanes. Some blind passengers have been told they could not keep their white canes with them at their seats. One blind airline passenger was required to sit on a blanket in case she or he had an “accident.” Blind passengers have been denied access to exit row seating, or, in some instances, were arrested for refusing to sit in an exit row seat. In 1988, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, Kenneth Jernigan, stated in several speeches and in Congressional testimony that “[t]oday the situation is such that no blind person anywhere in the country can board a plane without fear of harassment, public humiliation, and possibly arrest and bodily injury” (Matson 1990: 531). (Since that time, several laws were passed to attempt to clarify and ameliorate the situation.)

Another set of demands relates to wages and other conditions at sheltered workshops. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 encouraged the growth of such workshops for the blind. In the early 1970s, there were approximately 160,000 workers in sheltered workshops, and we can assume that the majority of them were blind, as the law did not apply to workers with other types of impairments until it was amended in 1971. Even by the 1990s the majority of workers in these situations were not paid minimum wage rates (Pelka, 1990: 282). Blind workers in sheltered workshops began to demand that wages be raised to at least minimum wage, that unemployment compensation and worker’s compensation be introduced, and that the possibility of collective bargaining be permitted (Matson, 1990: 755–57).

For a number of decades, a related concern was the accrediting of agencies that work with or for blind people. At issue are the operations and objectives of the Commission on Standards and Accreditation of Services for the Blind (COMSTAC), organized in 1965 and later renamed the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC). Activists objected to the operations of this agency, which had little or no representation by blind people. NAC was perceived as having sympathies with organizations “for the blind,” instead of organizations “of the blind,” and many thought its outlook about blindness was paternalistic and condescending.

Finally, the blindness community has attempted to fight against paternalistic attitudes, discrimination, segregation, rejection and a general sense that blind persons are inferior and for a recognition that they are competent and normal (Matson, 1990: 79).


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