Breaking My Silence: The Dangers of Othering from Racism to All Oppression

As an English major in undergrad, I wrote almost all my papers examining othering in literature. What is “Othering?”—the act of distancing oneself from a group of people who are outside of one’s own group. This concept is taken from Edward Said’s Orientalism, in which he criticizes Anglo colonizers and writers for manufacturing Asia and the people of Asia without having been to Asia or having interacted with Asians.  Othering applies in many relationships and contexts, such as racism.

Othering creates room for oppression and hate. It is best understood by a song in Pocahontas, called “Savages:”

 

Composed by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz © Disney.  The Youtube subtitles are not accurate.  Full lyrics can be found here.

 In other words, it is the inability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, often coupled with an unequal power dynamic. There usually is an oppressed party and the oppressor oppressing them.

In the song, “Savages,” the white settlers and Native Americans both sing the chorus, “They’re savages! Savages! / Barely even human” about each other. Colonialism is a clear example of othering. The colonizer, AKA oppressor, uses force or threat of force to take over the colonized, AKA oppressed, lands and way of living by othering the colonized as weaker, uncivilized, etc. The colonizers distance themselves from the colonized by assuming the colonizers are better than the colonized and therefore in the right to take what they want and impose their ‘better way of life’ on the ‘inferior’ colonized people without knowing anything about them. In “Savages,” both the white settlers and Native Americans other one another’s group, assuming that they are savages and wanting to kill each other before they get to know anything about each other.  The word “savages” in and of itself creates othering and hate.  Sadly, that word has been used to referred to Indigenous People, fostering racist beliefs and acts.

The one instance where I have difficulty with processing othering is the relationship between people with disabilities and their personal care assistants.   While the people with disabilities may have the upper hand as essentially the employer in the employer/employee context, the personal care assistants also have some power in the fact that the people with disabilities cannot meet their needs without the services of personal care assistants. If an assistant refuses to give food or water, help with hygiene, etc., s/he would be the more powerful party. I’ve had great friendships with many personal care assistants and some not so great ones, like those who mother me, which may also be a form of othering.

For my senior thesis, called Ethnicities at Twilight: A Critical Look into African-American/Korean-American Relations in the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, I wrote about mutual othering between the Korean-American and African-American communities. When Boston Legal Aid interviewed me during my last year of law school and asked what I discovered about racism through this thesis, I was caught off guard, saying something PC like we are all more alike than people think. I should’ve said, just because I’m a person of color, it doesn’t make me immune from racism.

I have gotten into trouble calling out racism. I may not have always been tactful. In college, one of the feeders at my dorm for students with disabilities asked, “What are you?” I laughed hysterically for a few minutes, asking her back “What are you?” I know… she was asking about my ethnicity, but I hate that question—followed by “Where are you from?”—to which, I answer that I’m from a suburb of Chicago, even though I know that’s really asking where my family is from—Korea. That white student feeder probably never asked that question in that way again, at least I hope not.

No one likes being called racist, when in fact, (in my humble opinion) everyone is to some extent, even me. I catch myself thinking something of someone and say that’s racist or based on prejudices. No one is immune from racist thoughts—people of color can perpetuate mainstream Anglo-American racism against other people of color.

If you know anything about the relationship between Korea and Japan, you’d know there’s animosity on both sides—from Japan colonizing Korea: changing it’s name from Corea to Korea so Japan comes first alphabetically, forcing Korean men to fight as Japanese soldiers, and serial raping Korean women—AKA Comfort Women. I know more of the Korean perspective because my mom often speaks of her anti-Japanese sentiments, citing that Germany apologized for the Holocaust, yet Japan still denies the atrocities it committed to Koreans during that same era. Although it’s not as bad as parents bringing kids on picnics to watch innocent African-Americans lynched during the Jim Crow days, I believe my mom’s rants still try to instill hate. I’m glad to say it didn’t work, I have Japanese-American mentors and friends.

Hanging-tree1

Image Description:  Black and white sketch drawing of a large gathering of over 50 men with hats and guns watching a man standing on a donkey with a noose around his neck, about to be hung on a tree.

Upon searching for an image involving lynching, I discovered Hanging Trees: The Untold Story of Lynching in California, found here.  It reports that many Mexican-Americans and Chinese-Americans were lynched by vigilantes without any trials.  I never knew this.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am racist too. As a Korean-American with a disability, I never really fit in anywhere. I have many early memories involving Korean-Americans trying to convince my parents to institutionalize me, even my relatives. My first best friend was an able-bodied Korean-American elementary school classmate, whose mom made us stop being friends. For the longest time, I thought it was because of my disability—but gradually understood it was probably because I lived in Skokie, a less affluent neighborhood than where I was bused to school.

So when I was young, I consciously avoided Korean-Americans, wishing I was another race—because maybe, just maybe, the members of that race would accept me and my disability. This was racist and a form of othering of me to think that all Korean-Americans would be similarly narrow minded. But fortunately, I have since then made some really good Korean-American friends, who flocked to me on the first day off law school and beyond. As for the disability community in the U.S., which seems predominately white and culturally insensitive (I’ve heard what I felt were racist remarks and jokes from peers with disabilities), I couldn’t avoid them, as the education system usually grouped us together. I also now have good friends with disabilities.

 

This above video shows a White filmmaker, who traveled near the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan to document reactions to him holding a Black Lives Matter sign,  He stands below a billboard advertising WhitePrideRadio.com and AltRightTV.com, which say are “For the Family.”  You may think othering looks like this.  But othering does not always involve physical attributes.  While racism does, there can be othering that involve invisible characteristics.

I planned to get certified in sailing the summer between high school and college through an adaptive sailing program in Chicago.  My sister went with me for my first lesson.  They strapped me and another woman with a physical disability to chairs in the boat.  Our instructor was a white male teacher from a suburban school.  For the entire lesson, he only spoke with my sister.  This pissed me off.  Let’s say he was intimidated talking to me with my speech impediment, but this does not explain why he ignored the other woman with a physical disability, who spoke clearly.  This pissed me off even more.  I never returned to sailing.  I know I shouldn’t other people who sail, but I’m still not a fan.

Another example of othering is gang violence.  Although rival gang members may come from similar racial and socio-economic backgrounds, they are so infatuated by hate and othering of rival gangs, nothing will stop them from killing rival members–not even children bystanders.  I may be over simplifying gang violence; I admit I do not understand the pressures involved in that life.  But there must be substantial othering involved for a person to devalue human lives enough to kill other people and risk life in prison to do so.

We need to be aware of when we and the people around us are othering before it escalates in violence, like the deaths of so many innocent African-Americans at the hands of police, who consciously or unconsciously yield greater power over the Black community, who have been historically violently and socio-economically oppressed in the U.S. and continue to be today. I realize non-stop thinking about racism and othering is hard—my college friend and I often discussed race as two women of color, but as we became busy with life—her with motherhood and a full time academic job, and me just with surviving adulthood with a disability—we discuss race less and less. However, we all need to be conscious of when we, ourselves, and our peers and co-workers other oppressed people—call it out, stop it from escalating into any action; not just during protests and media coverage, but every single day!

I am not necessarily supporting defunding the police. I believe that even starting fresh with a community based system may eventually incorporate othering and unequal power dynamics. I do think there is merit in removing the police from Chicago Public Schools and using those funds for services, like mental health services. I do not have first hand knowledge of CPS, but feel it is problematic to treat students as criminals, reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline, when suburban schools have hall monitors instead of police.

I did not understand how African-American police could engage in police brutality against members of their own African-American community, but it seems the culture of racism and othering in the police department can trickle down to many, regardless of color, ethnicity, and gender. This is the same culture of racism and othering in our society at large.

Similar to how rape is not an act of love or lust, but power; to me, racism is less about skin color and more about how the dominate race exhibit power over other races. There was a time when Italians and Italian-Americans were treated as the ‘lessor or inferior’ race. I believe racism and othering is less about physical looks, but more who has the power to define the ‘inferior’ groups, often associated with physical characteristics (think the “airen race”), usually to the advantage of those with power.

We must root out othering, which includes racism, especially the extreme and physical forms, as well as the subtle quieter forms, before we all kill each other.  We must teach our children to empathize, not other.  We must address the underlying othering and unequal power dynamics that perpetuate poverty, injustice, and hate through racism and all oppression.

Moving Mountains: Assistive Technology as a Means Towards Independence

It’s no big secret that I have been opposed to using communication devices pretty much my whole life—that is, until now. My cerebral palsy affects my speech and mobility, but not my spirit. Although it is difficult for many people to understand my speech, especially before getting to know me, I preferred repeating myself a few times over using a communication device because that was more efficient. There wasn’t a communication device that matched my comprehensive vocabulary and my slow typing speed made the process too slow.

When a friend told me about eye gaze technology, I was really excited. It was getting harder for me to type, so I was looking for alternative computer input methods. I tried a few devices and found the Tobii worked for me and it was covered, for the most part, by insurance.

The first time I got a Tobii was in 2013. Unfortunately, due to a mix up with my new wheelchair arriving after my Tobii warranty expired, I was never able to mount my Tobii on my new wheelchair, or any wheelchair for that matter. While the Tobii representative was gracious enough to let me borrow her table mount for an extended time, I could only practice talking to myself for so long. I did practice every morning for ten minutes at my home desk, where the table mount was set up and stayed, but then, I went about my day, which involved meeting people and attending events or appointments outside of my home.

The mount ordered with my first Tobii was a regular 7 shaped arm mount. I guess they didn’t get much consumer input (if any) designing or improving it, and that mounting technology had not advanced at all since the 80’a with my first communication device that I didn’t really use as a toddler. Due to my spasticity and lack of fine motor skills, I could never use these types of mounts myself. This might have contributed to my hatred of communication devices since I had to rely on others to move it, and take it on and off; being ‘confined to a wheelchair’ had a whole new meaning—since I couldn’t independently get out of my wheelchair when that mount was attached (NOTE: being ‘confined to a wheelchair’ is considered derogatory).

The second time I was evaluated for another Tobii-like device (I found another device, the Accent by Prentke Romich Company worked better for my spasticity, but got another Tobii because my insurance covered it), I expressed my frustration at the old mounting system that was still being used today to my occupational therapist. She told me of a mount she thought I could use independently. I was immediately intrigued and fell in love, even before seeing it in person. It was the Mount’n Mover, but what I heard was “Mountain Mover,” which I thought was a fitting name if I could really use it by myself.

Esther S Lee Mount'n Mover outside

Photo Caption:  Esther (me) using a Tobii mounted on a loaner Mount’n Mover in the backyard.

I fell deeper in love with the Mount’n Mover during a trial and am currently in the process of getting my own. In addition to being able to move the mounted device myself to transfer independently and/or access something else on a table, I can independently put my device and the mount on/off myself. This was something I never fathomed being able to do. I was able to take my communication device on the Mount’n Mover everywhere; to my doctor’s appointment, a writing group I participate in with local creative writers, and a meeting with Able Community’s supporters and a contractor renovating Able Community’s house. It’s amazing how much impact pieces of metal and plastic can have on one’s independence and empowerment.

I am an attorney, licensed to practice in Illinois and California. I recently opened a virtual law practice, called Disability Law Collective, (http://www.disabilitylawcollective.com). It is an affordable, socially conscious law practice advocating for people with disabilities and their families’ everyday legal needs.

I am also the president and founder of a 501(c)(3) non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities in the Chicagoland area, called Able Community, (http://www.ablecommunitychicago.org). It will be the only fully accessible and intentionally inclusive co-housing in the United States. Able Community’s mission is redefining independence through self-directed personal care, employment, and community by building affordable co-housing for people with and without disabilities to create an alternative to living in nursing homes and having to depend on family for care.

Esther S Lee Mount'n Mover house renovations

Photo Caption:  Esther (me) talking to a co-op mentor during the renovation of Able Community’s house with a Tobii mounted on a loaner Mount’n Mover.

Improving people with disabilities’ independence seems to be the common thread of my life’s work. I am often so engulfed in advocating for others’ independence that I neglect to think about improving my own. I am glad that I found the Mount’n Mover, so I can really start moving mountains, both for others as well as for myself. Now, I just have to work on the funding for it, since I just discovered that my insurance will not cover it.

EXTRA, EXTRA! An Extra Exciting Summer Update.

I know, I know.  It’s not December, when I usually send my annual holiday update.  But I have such exciting news that I couldn’t wait.  I’ll save it for the end to escalate the anticipation.  Hopefully, you’ll make it that far down.  There’s a surprise; so don’t miss it.

Quick health update since I mentioned it in December and friends keep asking why I am not coming out to play:  I have cerebral palsy, a physical disability.  It’s hard to explain CP because everyone’s CP is different and I ironically don’t know that much about it.  Yes, that guy on the Speechless show has it.  My CP makes the me spastic, basically, I have too much movement I can’t control, as some of you who have walked up from behind me may have noticed my startle reflex with me jumping five feet out of my wheelchair.

Anyway, I’m having too much tone in my right foot.  It feels like I have a lot of trapped energy and movement, which is making it harder to walk on, even assisted.  I’m working with doctors to find the right treatment.  Don’t worry; I guess this happens to many people with my type of CP, especially as we age.  I am doing a lot better than before, when I even had difficulty sitting in my wheelchair from the tone; funny how just a foot can make a big impact.  Doctors never seem to know what to do with me, but they are trying.  I’m a bit of an anomaly across the board, including in medicine too… they don’t know why it’s only one side, but I am thankful that it is not both feet.

Despite my tone, I was able to hit the slopes.  Unfortunately, not with my Midwest friends this year, but out West, during our family’s spring break.  Yes, they were very annoyed and I am not sure that they will ever take me again since we almost didn’t make it back. It started snowing while we were coming down the mountain and my dad insisted on driving down.  We skidded off the detour and got stuck on the edge of a cliff until someone towed us out.  I thought it was humorous, but no one else did.  It was one in a series of many unfortunate travel events during that road trip.

I tried the world’s only joystick operated ski through the University of Utah’s TRAILS program.  Dr. Jeff Rosenbluth envisioned it for people with spinal cord injury (SCI), having been an adaptive ski instructor before medical school.  Why can’t I have a cool doctor like that?  He even came to ski with me on the first day.

joy ski

Picture of me skiing in a joystick operated kart ski in Utah on a snowy mountain.  There is a man behind me holding on to a rope connected to my ski for good measure.

They were excited because I was the first person with a disability besides SCI to try it.  I also discovered that I was the first woman (go girl power!), so they let me go faster than they let anyone else before (being short finally paid off!).  It was the fastest I’ve ever skied, so of course, I loved it!  I surprisingly didn’t crash; I almost did at least twice misjudging a snowbank on a turn.  But Dr. Rosenbluth was strong enough to stop me.  Apparently, it hurts more than wiping out on a regular sit ski, which I have done.  I’m glad that I didn’t find out how much more it hurts.

So the real exciting news…  Drum roll please.  Able Community, the housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities that my friends and I have been working on, has finally received our 501(c)(3) status!

We were waiting to tell everyone formally until we got the green light from our Perkins Coie pro bono attorneys to officially solicit tax deductible donations.  And guess what?  We made a video to say that your donations will now be tax deductible; and if you filed an extension, you can deduct any donations you made in 2016!

It is fitting that we send out this update in July.  We had our first Able Community meeting in July, before we even had a name for it.  I really wanted to have that meeting on the 4th of July, since we’re working to improve people with disabilities’ independence.  But we settled on July 6th instead.

For you Amazon.com shoppers, 0.5% of your purchases can be donated to Able Community at no additional cost to you.  You have to set your donation preferences on smile.amazon.com and remember to make your purchases through smile.amazon.com.  Here’s the link: https://smile.amazon.com/ch/47-1913272

More exciting news… Able Community is this year’s recipient of the Berkeley Student Cooperative co-op development grant!

And extremely exciting news.  Able Community found a house to rent in downtown Arlington Heights (a Chicago suburb) to start living in together!!!  We are looking for more housemates with and without disabilities, and personal care assistants (both live-in and hourly PAs) if you or anyone you know are interested.  Please forward this application link to anyone who may be interested: http://bit.ly/apply2AC

ac house

Picture of Able Community’s red brick house with a ramp being built for the front door.

We are currently waiting for the renovations to make it accessible before we move in.  We plan to host an open house hopefully at the end of August and many get-togethers there that we would love to see you at.  Let me know if you are interested in attending.

We hope you enjoy our video and consider donating to Able Community, a 501(c)(3) housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities, so we can really start doing amazing work.  You have donate through the link on the video or through our link here: http://www.ablecommunitychicago.org/donate/ or if you want to send a check, I’ll give you our address.  Your donations will help us furnish our empty house and other household needs.

Until more good news,

Esther S. Lee,

esther@disabilitylawcollective.com

Able Community

http://www.ablecommunitychicago.org

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Holiday Update in July!

I had trouble posting my annual holiday update e-mail on this Gimpy Law blog in December. I thought it was a sign that I should wait until my post about my friend, Amber, who passed. But here’s my holiday update in case you missed it. If you want to be on my e-mail list, leave me your e-mail address below.

Happy Holidays 2016!

Dear Friends,

I hope this finds you well and enjoying the holiday season.

I love how the Cubs won the World Series after my family and I moved back to Illinois. Pure coincidence??

A Happy Holidays from Chicago card shows people engaged in winter activities in the city. This card is available for purchase at hellolucky.com/city-cards/hl-805-happy-holidays-from-chicago.

Able Community is well on its way to becoming a reality.

This photo is from Able Community’s 2015 Korean BBQ. A young man is sitting in a lawn chair in the front, four people with electric wheelchairs are behind him, and six personal care assistants are standing behind them. Two assistants are giving another assistant bunny ears. They all look content and full from the BBQ.

I just sent our non-profit attorneys the signed 501(c)3 application for the accessible housing cooperative that my friends and I have been working on. We will be able to provide tax deductions for your donations once we are approved.

Thanks for everyone who continues supporting Able Community through donations, attending our meet-up events, and keeping us in your thoughts. Stay tuned for Able Community’s big and exciting upcoming plans.


It’s been a tough year for me personally. Although I had chronic pain for a while now, I am losing some function—my ability to walk with assistance. It’s been especially hard on my family, who never fully accepted the fact that I had a disability in the first place. It’s funny how amazed people are when they discover I am able to walk at all; one law professor looked so stunned by me walking with my assistant down to the then inaccessible law school courtyard that I doubt I could have done anything academically to get a similar reaction.

I usually refrain from discussing my health to avoid seeming less capable (is it strange I think this?) and because I don’t want my friends to worry (I supposedly have a “normal” life expectancy, whatever that means). Don’t worry, I found some amazing doctors here, which is saying a lot because doctors and I usually do not mix well. As my PM&R Doctor said, the years of using my body in ways most people do not caught up to me. So, I guess it’s a part of aging with a disability. If anyone also has experienced increased tone with cerebral palsy, I’d love corresponding.

Also, in addition to missing friends who have passed away previously (I was waiting to update my newsletter with a post about Amber, my friend who passed away last year, but it’s been hard for me to do), I recently lost a dear former college professor, who was also my favorite poet. She put up with my endless e-mails although she was not fond of that form of communication and she helped me survive law school, even though she previously tried talking me into pursuing creative writing instead. Having said that, I encourage you to tell your loved ones that you love them while you can. I heard the act of saying something makes it more real.

My professor’s name was Brigit P. Kelly, if you want to read her books. I’m always surprised at how many people have never heard of her. Here’s her Amazon Author Page.

In exciting news, I am working on a legal guidebook regarding reasonable housing accommodations and modifications with Access Living and the Illinois Department of Human Rights. We hope it will enlighten housing providers in working with people with disabilities in Illinois.

I am hopeful that I can still squeeze some adaptive alpine skiing in this winter. Stay warm and drop me a line when you get a chance. I love hearing from you.

Warmly,

Esther S. Lee

Happy Holidays!

The following is from my annual holiday update to my friends.

A blue postcard says "Happy Holidays" in the center with white snowflakes and stars. This image is from this link.

A blue postcard says “Happy Holidays” in the center with white snowflake stars. This image is from this e-card link.

I dreaded writing this year’s update. Although I was appointed as co-chair for the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois’ Attorneys with Disabilities Committee and a member of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Illinois (SILC), I haven’t been as productive as I would like to have been this year. I’m so used to doing everything at 90 mph that my slower pace is hard for me to get used to.

Another SILC member I just met worked at the University of Illinois when I was a freshman. When I asked her why we never met before this year, she replied that she saw me but she could never catch me because I was too fast. So perhaps there are benefits to living a slower pace. Please forgive me if I was going too fast to be there for you. I’m definitely here now if you need me.

Last December, I was just ending my pro bono work with the Legal Council for Health Justice, or the organization formerly known as Aids Legal Council of Chicago, which was a fantastic six months of hands on experience with Social Security matters directly from the Executive Director. I was enthusiastic to launch my own law practice, the Disability Law Collective, with the assistance from my legal incubator program. I soon realized that successful self-employment requires more than shared office space, particularly as a person with a disability. I did get my first case through Access Living and am eager to grow my practice.

I see improving independence and employment for myself and others with disabilities as the reoccurring theme of my work and my ultimate life goal. Able Community is the non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities that I have been working on with a fantastic group of people, who all happen to have disabilities and are all graduates from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Our Able Community members are working towards improving independence for people with disabilities, personal assistants, and their families.

Able Community is not having a fundraiser this year because we are working on our 501(c)3 incorporation; we are extremely close to filing the application. I realize that I’ve been saying this for a while, but we have just submitted our materials to our non-profit pro bono attorneys and our next step is filing the application. We will have more fundraisers once we file for our 501(c)3 status, so we can provide tax deductions. If you still want to donate to Able Community anyway, we would of course gratefully accept your generosity; here is a link to our PayPal info on the bottom of this hyperlinked page. We are incredibly grateful for everything our supporters have done for us already.

(In case you missed it, above is our fundraiser video from last year. It explains what Able Community is and who the members are better.)

I consider myself so blessed to be back home in Illinois, near the city I love and to be closer to the other Able Community members. As someone who pursued a legal career to practice civil rights and fight racial injustices, I am appalled by the recent police brutality incidents. I am conscious that the systematic violence and racial inequalities deeply rooted in our nation’s history call for even greater collective systematic change at the city and national level. I have also come to realize that the everyday injustices are just as important to advocate for as the systematic ones and I hope that my law practice, the Disability Law Collective, will meet the everyday legal needs of the disability community.

(A sneak preview of Disability Law Collective’s animated promotional video.)

I also feel blessed to be back, closer to my friends in Illinois, to celebrate life’s happy and sad moments together. I lost 3 friends this year. While this comes with being a part of the disability community and I have lost schoolmates from an early age, I don’t think I will ever get used to it. I’m sure that my losses do not remotely measure up to what the families who lost their loved ones with disabilities or the teachers and professionals who continuously loose people with disabilities they work with must go through.

Having said that, I believe it is wise to make legal preparations so your loved ones and family know what your final wishes are. This can be done through estate planning, including wills, and medical and financial powers of attorneys. I’d be happy to help you figure out what legal options meet your needs and if for some reason I cannot (I’m only licensed to practice law in Illinois and California), I’ll be happy to help find someone else who can. And please let me know if there is anything else I could help you with, legally or otherwise.

I have been enjoying Chicago. One of the Able Community members would marry football if he could, whereas I would definitely marry Chicago. My sister and I have been doing the touristy things that we never did before, like architecture tours. We’ve also been going to Broadway musicals. I’m really glad that my love of musical started in an early age (thanks to my elementary school music and art teachers). I did subject to my whole law school to this love by making many of the professors and students participate in my law school musical production during my last year.

I’ve also taken up some inherently dangerous adaptive activities, including water skiing and alpine skiing (I’m sure some of you would love to throw me off a mountain). It feeds my rebellious-defying-what-people-say-I-cannot-do-because-of-my-disability spirit. Similar to the teams of people assisting people with disabilities find independence through sports traditionally meant for able-bodied people, I am excited to be a part of teams advocating for the independence for people with disabilities through the Disability Law Collective and Able Community.

Esther's SEWASP adaptive ski team: Jim, Ally, Dan, & Steve! #ablecommunitychicago, #ablecommunity, #WI

A photo posted by Able Community (@ablecommunity) on

(Photo with the crew of volunteers who made sure that I didn’t kill myself my first time skiing.)

I am taking better care of my health with adaptive yoga and horseback riding. I look forward to adding adaptive scuba diving to the list of my inherently dangerous adaptive adventures. Perhaps I am training to be the next James Bond… I know that I am not an attractive British able-bodied man. But how cool would it be if there was a movie with a female spy with a disability who is a person of color?!?

Happy Holidays, but especially a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah (showing my Judeo-Christian biases)!

Sincerely,
Esther S. Lee,
Attorney at Law
esther@disabilitylawcollective.com
Disability Law Collective <http://disabilitylawcollective.com>
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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Parallel Between Disability and Women’s Rights

This past Monday I attended a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Bar Association, featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA Notorious R.B.G.). Justice Ginsburg was asked about her quote that “Impediments turn out to be good fortune.” She elaborated that if she and the other female Supreme Court Justices did not face the adversity and discrimination that they encountered in employment, they probably would be retired law firm partners by now, instead of shaping the direction of the U.S. legal system on the Supreme Court.

A Notorious R.B.G. t-shirt from http://notoriousrbg.tumblr.com

A Notorious R.B.G. t-shirt from notoriousrbg.tumblr.com

Justice Ginsburg graduated in the top of her Columbia Law School class, after transferring from Harvard, where she was also in law review. However, upon graduating, she had difficulty finding employment. She clerked for Justice Edmund Louis Palmieri, who preferred clerks from Columbia. She later learned that a Dean at Columbia pressured Justice Palmieri to hire her, threatening to dissuade Columbia students from clerking with him. She subsequently went on to do gender rights work for the ACLU and taught at Rutgers Law School before her D.C. District Court judgeship and her current Supreme Court tenure.

She hid her pregnancy to avoid discrimination during her professorship. She shared that she had three strikes against her: (1) that she was a woman, (2) that she was Jewish when Jewish attorneys were not accepted, and (3) that she was a mother. She explained that being a mother was her biggest perceived problem; she would be distracted should something happen to her children.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Chicago Bar Association event.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Chicago Bar Association event.

Hearing Justice Ginsburg’s experiences with discrimination resonated with me and my struggles to find employment. The combination of having a disability, being Korean American, and a woman adversely affects my employability. Although people with disabilities have been graduating from law schools for some time, I still notice that a substantial number of attorneys with disabilities are unemployed. I am not sure how much of this is because of the economic recession increasing unemployment for all attorneys, but I do suspect that employment discrimination is at play. Most of my friends with disabilities from college are unemployed or underemployed.

Perhaps disability rights are not as evolved as gender rights. I heard that disability rights seems to stem from charity, instead of social justice rights, which is problematic in receiving these rights that are not considered to be on par with other rights. Perhaps to some degree, gender rights are not seen as relevant or on par with other rights as well.

Justice Ginsburg attended law school in the 50’s, soon after law schools starting admitting women, and there were a handful of women in her class. I graduated in 2008 and there were less than a handful of students with visible disabilities and students who were out about their hidden disabilities in my class, which had more female students than male. I realize gender discrimination still exists; my friend was fired right before her maternity leave.

Ginsburg was one of nine women in her Harvard Law School class. This picture of Ginsburg in law school is from this online article.

One major reason I chose to attend the law school that I attended (besides its Civil Rights Clinic) was because there were other students with disabilities. I was alarmed to find inadequate university disability services and lack of accessible housing. I constantly had to advocate for myself, which diminished my time for my studies. I had a theory that law school has a disparate impact on students with disabilities, since there are extra considerations for students with disabilities, in addition to being inundated with a new system of learning, called the dreaded Socratic Method. However, people like Justice Ginsburg poke holes to this theory, succeeding in law school while taking care of a child and hospitalized husband. Of course, I am not suggesting that I am any way near Ginsburg’s Harvard law review level; not many attorneys are. We also don’t all have Columbia Dean championing our causes.

Another student with a disability sued our law school for lack of accessibility. I’m not sure how much of the improved accessibility in the new addition and remodeled law school building was because of this law suit or my efforts promoting awareness with other students with disabilities through our Law and Disability Society events. The law school administration was initially reluctant to put in a bigger elevator in the addition, but there is now a spacious new elevator. An administrator justified the lack of accessibility in the old building that hadn’t been remodeled when I attended, from what seemed to be its inception in the 60’s, saying that they did not know that there would be students with disabilities. However, I found evidence to the contrary; a picture of one of the first graduating classes had a student with a disability in cap and gown. Of course he was a white male student, but a student with a disability nonetheless.

A law school professor I respect (particularly since she graduated from my law school, which is elitist in primarily hiring professors from Ivy League law schools) called me a trail blazer. I said that I wasn’t because I chose to attend this law school with other students with disabilities, as opposed to a Chicago school that tried almost successfully to woo me as its first student with a significant disability. Although this law professor never mentioned it, it is possible that she too faced gender discrimination as she attended law school in the 70’s, two decades after Justice Ginsburg. She did discourage me from going into personal injury litigation (Torts was my favorite class), saying that it was a Boys’ Club when she practiced.

Perhaps I was wrong about having to be first to be a trail blazer. Perhaps people who widen and improve the trails that have already been blazed can also be trail blazers. Just as Justice Ginsburg looks forward to the day when all nine Supreme Court justices are women, I look forward to the day when there will be our first Supreme Court justice with a disability, leading to more justices with disabilities. If she is a woman, that would be even better. Perhaps then, the ADA can have some bite and we can fight disability discrimination more effectively.