Inclusion is a two-way street

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on April 25, 2016

Paralysis is an isolating experience. It immediately separates you in a profound way from the whole non-paralyzed world and for a hundred reasons, many of us remain separated. It is easier to stay at home, stay isolated, than to venture out. It’s a hassle to get around. You always stand out. You have to confront other people’s awkwardness, making you forever self-conscious, defensive, or both. You invariably need help, which is often discomforting.

Having just torn a rotator cuff, I would add fear of injury to that list. Because I shouldn’t strain my shoulder by activity like transferring or lifting my chair into the car to drive, I have an excellent excuse not to leave the house. It feels pretty normal, actually. I work sitting down, people occasionally come by to visit, I can always pop jokes with the mailman, and I am connected to a thousand sources of information and amusement. Let’s face it – the digital era is a great time to be a recluse.

Now, imagine -- rotator injuries aside -- a situation which would draw you outside and not the other way around. To begin with, it would probably be a relaxed, informal social setting where you weren’t the only wheelchair user in the room. Maybe it would be a place where you could roll in and, to quote the “Cheers” theme song, “everyone knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Think of other diversity groups, say the LGBT contingency or blacks or Latinos. They don’t have to imagine a circumstance where they fit in, because it’s built right into their lives. Since the Stonewall Riots of 1969, gays have created a social community of immense size and diversity. There are whole gay neighborhoods, gay bars, gay political campaigns, Gay Pride parades. Black and Latinos fit into social communities that have been around for a long time, including all of the above plus vital communal churches where you know damn near everybody’s name.

This is called “social capital,” a term that has been around for a while but particularly made popular in a book of a few years ago called “Bowling Alone,” by Harvard professor Robert Putnam. Social capital is what you gain by face to face social interaction. A person with a hefty social bank account is literally rich in sources of love, information, inspiration, and what John Dewey pegged as a vital life function, “incidental learning.” The opposite is equally true. Ever-increasing social isolation, the dearth of community outlets that “Bowling Alone” addresses, makes for loneliness, disconnected lives, spiritual entropy, plus it’s bad for your health.

People with disabilities often lack social capital or ways of increasing it. There are no “crip” bars, at least in Los Angeles, where you can wander in for a beer and end up playing wheelchair darts. There are no churches full of people where every pew is accessible or gyms where the Zumba instructor is disabled. On a larger scale, there are no neighborhoods where you point out to visitors that this is a disability community with disability clothing stores, theatre groups, social services, and dance halls. There is no Castro Street for this subculture.

Okay, you say, how can we get something going? How can we increase our collective social capital? Step number one, I would guess, is to venture outside. God forbid you might bump into another friendly wheelchair user in the mall who tells you about a wheelchair softball league down at the park. A bolder step would be to organize a wheelchair softball league, or maybe just have a summer party for as many disabled people and fellow travelers who can fit in your backyard or apartment.

If you have the wherewithal, stage a large public event where lots of wheelchair users mingle and tell stories. One of the most memorable events like this I ever attended was organized by the Reeve Foundation’s own Sam Maddox on the 20th anniversary of the ADA. Sam drew a couple of hundred wheelers to the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in LA to break the Guinness World Record for the longest queue line of wheelchairs ever recorded. It was a goofy excuse for a whole bunch of paras and quads of all ages and from all walks of life to gather for a big family be-in. At least for me, it was absolutely exhilarating. I wish there was an excuse to do that once a year in every town in America.

The point being, as simple as it may be, is that inclusion is not just something you demand from public officials. It is also something you create. First create it for your comrades of the chair, then invite the non-disabled world in to join the celebration. See, by including them with you, you are including you with them.

Or something like that. Inclusion, as the title says, is a two-way street.

© 2016 Allen Rucker |