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Dismissing dismissive language, welcoming disabilities advocacy

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Some thoughts about language--and the words we use--prompted by a conversation with Joy Weeber, Raleigh's hard-charging disability rights advocate. Hard-charging. Now there's a term. By that, I'm trying to convey in short-hand fashion that Joy won't let anybody get away with any sort of dismissive policy, behavior or language toward people with disabilities. (When she was on the cover of the Independent a few years ago, the headline word was "Fierce.") Because of her, I no longer refer to the disabled. People with disabilities do things differently--because she had polio as a child, for example, Weeber uses a wheelchair--but they are not without abilities, as the term disabled certainly implies. This I learned from Joy Weeber, who has lot of 'em.

Now Weeber has written in objecting to our description of Karen Moye-Stallings, who was a candidate for the Raleigh City Council, as "afflicted with cerebral palsy." We said this in an unsigned article endorsing her opponent, Jessie Taliaferro, who won the election last Tuesday, so Weeber didn't know who wrote the offending phrase. Well, it was me. And now that she mentions it, I'm not proud of it.

I could say I wrote it hurriedly, without really thinking about what it meant, but that's not the case. Actually, I spent a few moments on the question of how to describe Moye-Stalllings, and decided that saying she's afflicted would not be offensive. Suffers from? Struggles with? I considered both, as I recall, and decided that both would bespeak a lack of successful overcoming, which I did not want to do. Thus, I settled on afflicted, thinking it a neutral word. But it isn't, as Weeber pointed out. My dictionary says it means "trouble(d) grievously," and gives as one synonym "torment(ed)."

"It was a code word that dismissed her immediately as not viable," Weeber said.

Guilty. I didn't consider Moye-Stallings viable, and I hope I'm right in saying that it wasn't because she has a disability that slows her speech. But deep down inside, we're all racists, the result of centuries of acculturation in this country, and if it's not polite to say that about others anymore, I'll freely say it about myself as a reminder to me to recognize and struggle against the impulse. Similarly, our culture says in many, many ways that people with disabilities aren't as good as us "normals."

We don't understand it, Weeber says, so we go by the surface characteristic, which strikes us--because, after all, we wouldn't want it--as negative.

I've heard Moye-Stallings numerous times at candidate forums, and she's just not very progressive on the issues important to Raleigh. That's in what I wrote, too. It's all I should have written.

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Also about language, I often see the terms pro-growth and pro-neighborhoods (or anti-development) juxtaposed in opposition. I resent this. I am pro-growth and pro-neighborhoods. I'm for developers who want to build something that adds to the community. I'm against developments that grab for short-run profits at the expense of what came before in the neighborhood, or are careless about them--by towering over, for example--or are careless about their negative impact on the future development of surrounding properties. Careless as in, they don't care.

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Disability Advocacy: It was just by coincidence I talked to Weeber. I called her assuming she'd been invited by the Governor's Advocacy Council on Persons With Disabilities to its upcoming "community" forum, on the subject of whether the council should be reorganized as a private, nonprofit agency. She hadn't. Not a good sign.

Two years ago, we wrote about the GACPD and the many people involved in disabilities advocacy who considered it a toothless agency because it's part of state government. After all, a big part of its job is to fight for better government programs to assist persons with disabilities, and to sue the state for falling short of the mark--as it routinely does in the areas of developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and substance-abuse issues. GACPD doesn't fight.

Most states have reorganized their advocacy agencies as nonprofits precisely so they can do their jobs independent of government control (every state has one as a condition for receiving federal funds). But not North Carolina. Our GACPD, politically controlled, was against it. Until now, apparently.

Now the GACPD board has recommended nonprofit conversion, which could be a good thing. But Weeber, Raleigh's fiercest consumer advocate, isn't invited to the table, and she warns us to watch--if conversion takes place--whether control passes to civil rights advocates or to what she calls the "custodial agencies" that run rest homes and want people with disabilities put in them.

That's a good question going forward. Our call to the GACPD wasn't immediately returned, but we're told the forum is this Thursday, Nov. 13, 5:30 p.m. at the agency's office in Cameron Village, Raleigh (in the Bryan Building, 2113 Cameron St.); open to the public, supposedly. Call 733-9250 and see if they call you back. EndBlock

Contact Bob Geary at rjgeary@aol.com

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