Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Semantics

A few weeks ago I posted a question on Facebook aimed at my attorney friends. What do you think about disability accommodations? Do you see them as  reasonable modifications that allow people to function? Do you see them as something that is fair and just, that promotes inclusion or at its core do you see it as special treatment. One of my friends answered with one word, "Semantics". On one hand I can see his point. If disability legislation (ADA, IDEA, RA take your pick) is law, what difference does it make? It's now part of our system, a part of our toolbox, what is the benefit of asking "why". We don't question a lot of our other laws and how they came to be. They just are. And if I wasn't personally invested in the matter, I'd say : those are the standards that I look at, those are the criteria, you meet them or you don't or you can make this or that argument and those are the anticipated outcomes. And on a different note: Does it matter how you got here when you're already here. I however am not just an attorney. I strive to promote inclusion and understanding. Yes, it helps that if I choose to go that path, I don't have to care to think what people think. The law is the law, it objectively exists outside of what people do and do not get, feel is right and justified. That I don't have to explain myself to anyone or seek validation. That the question I ask is "Is there a ramp" and not "Do I deserve a ramp". And yet I think, as much as it pains me to say it- that what people think matters. For a number of reasons. Firstly, I believe that the reason people dread ADA compliance - that they treat it as something the just must do, hiding things and hoping to get away with as much as possible is because they don't see how it affects other people's lives (and in turn their own bottom line).  Others are likely to include you if they understand your journey. If they're inspired by your struggle and form a connection on a human level. Secondly, I say it's a matter of respect. It's easy to dismiss someone if you think they've gotten an easy ride. I can't speak for other people, but I know I worked hard to be where I am today. I did  have help along the way in places where my disability limited me beyond my control. If you think it was to give me more than just my fair shake you undermine not only how I got here, but where I am. And it's hurts, having to look at people who smile and nod and underneath it all still assume that some bit of it is undeserved, like there's some kind of a trick to it. Like it's not your place, like you shouldn't be here. And one person who you shouldn't explain yourself is your attorney. Someone who should be unequivocally on your side. And I know as attorneys it's our "job", but as I human being I like to know how you "feel," how much you identify with a particular position and how much you "know", because it relates back to a very human experience, understanding. I don't think it's semantics if I ask, do you believe me, because that's what it comes down to. One thing that could ruin the experience is that lingering doubt, deep, deep down underneath all the laws, all the cases and all the political correctness. And this is why it matters.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Maintenance in the winter.

It was a few days before Thanksgiving, when after a dinner with friends we decided to go back to my place and watch a movie on Netflix. "It's toasty in here"- and he was right. The thermostat was showing 83 Fahrenheit, about 28 Celsius, despite the system set to 76F. The air conditioning was turning on and off and appeared to do something or at least make a sound, but nothing was cooler. The next day my maintenance staff came back with a verdict. I've had a Freon leak somewhere and they couldn't touch it without a specialist handling it. Another twenty four hours later the news was even more dire. My system was so old that it couldn't simply be fixed- the whole thing needed to be replaced/ I knew they wouldn't get to it until the following week. That weekend was the most celebrated family holiday in the American calendar. Christmas here is just the one day, nobody does anything for Easter, but Thanksgiving, that starts Thursday and goes well into Saturday and Sunday. Luckily for me I read up on Freon and it wasn't poisonous. It could however suffocate me in the right concentration as it pushes out oxygen. 24 hours before the big holiday I was given a window unit. A small, yet incredibly loud machine with  a pipe going through the open window. I'd serve me until Monday, only waking me five times a night. I felt like I lived in one of those  older college dorms without a proper installation with boxes affixed to the outside wall. It wasn't a great week, but at least it kept me cool. And it really brought me back to my first apartment in Gainesville. Oddly enough it was managed by the same leasing company as where I am today, but that was their low end "affordable housing" segment. It only had AC in the living room and it seemed like a huge airport style unit. My new roommate who I've just met at the time had to sacrifice our privacy in order to keep cool. With all our fans on and doors open, which was a strange thing to do with a virtual stranger we were able to maintain some degree of cool. Of course we couldn't unpack as pest control was spraying all of our apartment every other day. The roaches seemed to have taken over and they were not about to be evicted. We had to gather our things in the middle of the room. The wheelchair ramp I was promised upon signing turned into be being able to get a ramp if I hired a contractor and pay for it. Needless to say that place was an experience and as close as I've ever gotten to living in a dump. It was an experience- and all that stress certainly didn't help the then-forming relationship with my roommate. The maintenance and management of where I live ten years later is of course much more helpful, but the place is far more expensive. But I have to say, what happened over the following week brought me back to those experiences from years before. Whoever was working on the replacement of the AC unit Monday and the unrelated but schedule inspection and replacement of my sprinkler system Tuesday seemed constantly surprised and baffled by what they found in the walls. There was a lot of drilling, plenty of saw action and a lot of frustration, that things either didn't fit, didn't go where they supposed to, that there wasn't enough room. The people dealing with the fire system- and again I think it was poor planning on my complex' part to schedule all  that work in my apartment they after day, with strangers coming in and out, which of course had it me stay home and watch it. As they made holes in my ceiling not only was there a hole there until the following Monday, but they didn't cover or move anything from my oven or my floor. For days I wasn't to keen about getting into my kitchen to get to the refrigerator. The drywall dust was everywhere, I didn't want to track it on my walls and why should I  have to clean it? After I complained - somebody came over and at least vacuumed the floor. I was less than impressed with how both issues were handled, that they were attempted one after the other and then left and disarray, that hardly anybody noticed that it was a struggle for me, that no one cared to properly apologize and make it up to me. Something I'd expect from the high end of the apartment portfolio.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A show of support

After my blog describing my shocking yet true experiences aboard the city bus, many other drivers reached out to me. They mostly wanted to tell me that they were appalled and make sure that I knew they were not all the same. Of course I did. I've been riding with some of them for almost as long as I lived in America. And the bus service has been a  part of my every day experience for the last ten years. I tell this story as an anecdote: a day after my parents left me in Gainesville and flew back to Poland I just got on the bus, without any prior practice I just got on the bus and went to school. Being able to do it for and by myself was the first independent thing I was able to do without my mom and dad present. They helped me find an apartment (although I only lived there for a short while), they've assembled a collection of furniture and equipment some of which I hated, but the bus.... was my own way to stake my own independence. My point is, that no matter how bad my day was, how early or how late, just like the sticker that advertises the bus as a safe zone, I have always felt safe. Yes, I've had some good times and some no so good times with the drivers and some I probably like some better than the others. Some became my friends; Some have been to my house and fell asleep on my furnished-apartment-standard couch. And most of them have an amazing power- to brighten your day with a pleasant interaction and affect how your day's going to turn out. Think about it: You leave your bus on your way to work and your day begins. You're ready to take on the world. When I was hit by bus about ten years ago it was the friendly drivers who went off course and hid on the bushes because they heard on the radio that I was in trouble. They wanted to know how I was  doing. Then they apparently reenacting the entire event back at the base. I'll admit that the times have changed a bit and I'm not as close with the new drivers as I was with the ones back in the day, but then the new recruits don't sing to you to welcome you on the route 46, wish you a "great one and a safe one" greet you with a "hello, hello, hello" or call every boarding passenger  a "darling". It could be that there's many more routes than 5, 7, 10  years ago and are many more drivers. Still, they're nice and likable and a conversation on the bus can still make my day. That's why what happened to me Saturday night was so unacceptable to me. Because for the first time while on the RTS bus I didn't feel  safe. And I didn't know what to do with that feeling. Even when I was hit by a bus I was not afraid to board the bus the next day and I  never avoided that same driver. He was the one that felt unsure and it was me who felt bad for him after he drove into me, because I survived and he was stuck with some type of guilt. One of my other transit friends tried to rationalize the Saturday driver's behavior. He was under pressure. There's very little time on the route, maybe they'll be more next semester? And that's all fine, but for me that's not what the issue was. They also told be that the driver felt bad and wanted to apologize. And that's nice to recognize that he did something wrong but I'm not angry. I'm not convinced he's the person most suitable to do this type of work, but I never really intended to do anything about in  terms of indication. It's not like he was rude to me or drove off or ignored me, like some other drivers have in the past. The aggressive behavior was so beyond anything I have ever experienced on the bus. I felt fearful for my well being, being so wound up he could have injured me without even meaning to. At that moment I didn't want to be on that bus with him. Some were even defending his conduct saying he was allowed to talk to himself and mumble (although he was shaking his head and cursing throughout) . Such behavior is of course problematic from the legal stand point. Some standards for emotional distress are relaxed when a common carrier (a person or company that deals in transporting people or goods) is involved. Under Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965)  section 46 a public utility defendant may liable for conduct which falls short of extreme outrage, but is merely insulting. I of course never cared to get the driver into any kind of trouble, but I was afraid he'd punch me or otherwise hurt me. But let it be a lesson to all my other bus friends. You not only have the power to inject yourself into your riders' day with your behavior, not only are you representing the company that you work for in the image building sense, but the way you conduct yourself and interact with them can have unforeseen consequences in the legal realm. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Anger management.

I can understand a lot. I know that sometimes you're just having a bad day or you're simply not in the mood. I can see how stopping your bus to load up a wheelchair can be pain. It takes time and you're on a schedule. And if you have one of the models with the lift in the back- forget it- the fun just begins. From struggling to line up yourself properly and close enough to the sidewalk and remembering to properly power it up in the front and in the back to make it work. Don't forget the key to open up the controls. And I thought I've seen it all. Drivers who rolled their eyes at me or told the person they were on the phone with that they need to "Load a goddamn wheelchair" as they saw me roll up or even never uttered a word while they were loading, unloading, strapping and unstrapping. I've seen unruly passengers. Some loud, others appearing unstable or threatening. I can understand a lot, but for the life of me I will never understand what happened Saturday night. I was waiting at regular spot for my night bus after a movie showing on campus. I've never ridden with this driver before, although I did recognize him. A few times he either never stopped for me or simply ignored my presence and drove off when other people got off. I should have known this may be not the best idea just by looking at his angry facial expression as he was coming up and how aggressively he was maneuvering to get close to the sidewalk. As he opened the door he started cursing, although not at me, just quietly to himself. And shook his head. He made sure it was clearly visible that he was not happy that he had to stop for me and load me up. Mumbling, making faces, As if I was some kind of punishment or flagged him out of spite. And with every minute, as he had to turn things on, get the key, get the controls for the lift opened, it was only getting worse. And I only wanted to gdt home. Preferably quick and in one piece, he just happened to be there. I've never seen a driver so enraged from the moment he saw me until he drop me off. He seemed furious. And as he was expecting trouble loading me up with the backloading lift which is complicated to power and sometimes gets stuck at that stage he got me in without a problem.  In the passing he explained that he hates this bus and they always give it to him- but then all the other drivers are in the same boat. Just ask the driver that made me wait right before him as he couldn't power his. But this man was just very angry. Angry and loud. While it seemed that he was mad at his equipment, as he waving his arms I wasn't sure that this emotional behavior wouldn't get out of hand. He's cursing and yelling and I don't feel safe. I'm strapped down, couldn't get off the bus or wait this one out if I wanted to. As he had a hard time activating the lift at my stop, more emotional outburst followed. As it turned out it was his mistake because he forgot to do something, but at that point he started to slap the box that housed the lift controls. It wasn't at attempt to make it work. He felt blinded by range and wanted to blow off steam or punish the bus for not listening to him. It reminded me of how one of my friends when he was helping to carry me up the stairs lost his grip and felt so frustrated with himself he punched a tree. I wanted to just sit there and let the driver do his thing..    I wasn't sure at some point he wasn't going to turn around and slap me. He was at the point where I wasn't sure if he'd be able to stop himself before he took one step too far. Because everything up to this point only made it louder and physical.  I was not only immobilized, but the only rider on the bus. I've never seen a driver so angry, walking back and forth, pacing, wiring himself up and in a way, I'm his prisoner. He doesn't know how to drop me off, so filled with anger decides to drive me to the end of his run, when some other driver shows him how to operate  lift. He then drops me off on his way back. A lot of things happened to me on RTS buses but I've never felt this unsafe before. I felt I was locked in a tiny box with an unpredictable man that was flying off the handle. It was beyond the point of trying to talk to him or asking him something. He was not someone at that point you can reason with. Had he come at me, I'd have no way to stop him. And that's a feeling I wouldn't wish on anybody.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Inclusive playgrounds

This was a topic I was originally going to ignore. After all, I'm no longer a child and through the events that shape me how an adult experiences disability is far more interesting to me.  But I kept getting links to articles and fundraisers involving "inclusive" toys and "inclusive" playgrounds and that made me think of what it was like for me when I was young and interacting with the world through playtime with able-bodied friends. Maybe there's a better way.. A lot of those stories share an old too familiar beginning- a parent of a child with a disability didn't like something they saw and it inspired them to do something about it. I have to say that  I really like the word "inclusive". I prefer it over "accessible" though to some it may just be semantics. To me it suggests- at least in theory- something that all could enjoy rather than a thing that was designed or modified so a person with a disability could use it. I remember what it was like to not be "included" and I've written about it a number of times. Kids who walk and run get away from you, because you just sit there. And yes they say they'll be right back and most of the time they would be back at some point, but having experienced the fun and laughs you'd never be apart of. Sometimes it was as if a whole secret world existed I never had access to. My mom was smart enough to try to steer my friends and how we played to put m in the center for as long as I was little.  But as kids grow older they do more and more "stuff". "Stuff" that involves running and biking and digging and swimming that you're less and less connected to. You're able to rationalize it. The'll be right back and you can't walk, what did you expect for happen. You know well that you have a disability, that there are things you can't do and it's not even that you're angry and you're telling yourself "why me". You just don't like it. You don't like how it excludes you and how it makes you feel about yourself as you wait for others to remember to find you again. Yes, you were born with it. Yes, you're used to it in almost every other way. And you grow to understand that you can't do certain things, be included in activities. You sit and wait, because there's no other way. And then you can't be angry because how can you be mad at something beyond anybody's control. So you sit and wait as other kids play and for the most part, you get used to it- you're fine. But maybe there can be more to life to settling. Just because you know and you understand doesn't make it fun Maybe there's a way a child can be included without being either made the center of attention or forgotten by the group. Maybe some creativity and yet again, parental determination can offer a better childhood experience. I tried to think of a time I felt like this for the last time, because it is a feeling that stays with you. Originally I was going to go with "I was 19, visiting America for the first time and we were exploring Disneyland for the first time. My family then got to experience some of the more physical rides and activities, marked on the map as wheelchair unfriendly. And I got to watch some of them." Would I really want to try the monkey bars  or whatever it was? Not really. But you're left with a feeling that you can't do it while everybody else gets to. But in reality the last time I had this feeling I was 25. It was my first Spring Break and I went to Puerto Rico with a group of friends. They then decided to spend a day in the rain forest. Wheelchairs and the jungle? Forget it. I don't think I would even enjoy being around poisonous plants and venomous animals. It's not that I wanted them to stay either. But being alone on the terrace of our hotel, reading a book and playing solitaire gave me that old feeling like I'm missing out on something, like I'm missing out on life. This got my thinking. Maybe this feeling doesn't have to a part of a live with disability just because we accept it, just because we can explain it to ourselves and rationalize it. Maybe "You can do more" starts with your childhood? There's a few links that I'm trying to find to share with you, but why don't we start with this.  This is from my native Poland http://teespring.com/GoBabyGo-Nation, while here's something from the Madison Claire Foundation about aa accessible playgrounds project. https://givemn.org/fundraiser/Give-to-the-Max-Day-Lock-Up-for-Madisons-Place---Team-Leading-Edge-54539b8ab2223 Please note that I know neither personally, so exercise caution when giving money to any cause.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Special treatment

A few weeks ago I had lunch with an attorney I admire a lot, an accomplishment man many years my senior. The way he carries himself and how he reacts to people around him is not something you see often. A quality I can't quite explain, but I call "old school". He has the type of practice I had always respected and dreamt of having one day. One where books are used for research and old furniture gives potential clients a sense of calmness and confidence. Where knowledgeable is not the same thing as cocky and effective doesn't mean loud or aggressive. A man  who knows his profession, who spent his entire life developing and fine tuning his skilled. We've met to see if there's a way we could work together to have the Florida Bar educate lawyers on how to approach and deal with people with disabilities. That's the one thing- despite all of his life experiences and legal skills- that he knew nothing about. And there's a lot of other lawyers that don't know how to conduct themselves in that situation either. I don't even mean the legal standard, although the Americans with Disabilities Act is still very young, and ever changing. The recent amendments have pushed it more and more to the direction of the person with disability being the main source of information of disability and how it needs to be accommodated. But I'm talking about things even more basic, how to set up your office, how to approach your client/opposing counsel, what not to do, what to say and what not to say. You could tell, he wasn't very comfortable with the subject matter, wasn't sure what language was appropriate and kept calling disabilities "challenges". And yes, in the last 25 years tremendous progress has been made in how we look and relate to people with those needs both in the field of awareness and inclusion and it's hard to keep up. We then got to talk about issues involving accommodations. And yes again, I understand that historically it's a fairly new concept- back in the day if you couldn't do something, you couldn't do something, end of story. Nobody stopped to think how we could modify the testing circumstances (or your work place) for example in a way that would still be fair to you and to others but focus on your talent, skill or ability without modifying the substance. And while I know there's some people who adopted the "look at me, I have a disability, I deserve special treatment"- as somebody posted something on our Foundation's wall about Florida not giving enough to people with special needs- I believe it's a minority. And while it may be a thin line between "special treatment" and "reasonable accommodations" we have case law after case law of institutions shown that their not doing enough, that they're in fact discriminating. I want to make it clear that both UF and the Florida Bar have never had any problems with any of my accommodations request. As I have functional use of only one hand - I was always given a scribe and extra time, while it is the disability resource center that suggested I also got untimed bathroom breaks if I ever needed to use the restroom. It is not as clear cut and set as you might think. The LSAC- a private entity that administers a test that is the basis of admission to all American law schools, was only few investigated by the Department of Justice and put on probation, while I almost sued my city for the way their city bus handles wheelchair passengers a few years ago. And to think their ADA person is working with one of the big disability institutions- I think Center for Independent Living. Just because somebody sings off on something doesn't mean your out of the woods. As we had our lunch and he told me of the few particularly loud bar applicants unhappy with   the accommodations they got or didn't get, I reserved my judgment. Years ago I was coming at the LSAC and nobody would listen. Those stories, yes they sound crazy. But if need be, the court will decide what is and what isn't reasonable. While every set of circumstances is unique I hope that he doesn't take away from it that disability accommodations  are some form of special treatment. That you get it because you're loud and make demands- not because you absolutely need it. I can't speak for everyone, but I know that I worked hard for absolutely everything I accomplished. Nobody gave me anything and life threw at me plenty. Yes, there were situations that I received reasonable accommodations, did it affect the test in any other way than letting me finish it? I don't think so. It would be really hurtful if people I respected thought of those as something "I get" versus something "I need". Trust me, it's no ball. I didn't ask to be born this way. But still, even if they don't know, I can't hold it against them. It's just something that they were not educated on, not their experience, not their time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson

I don't care who you are and what you're upset about. I will never understand how you can set things on fire or break windows and take home the TV's or the liquor that you see in the stores simply because you're angry. What do you expect to happen next? This is where you live. This your community. The store owners are your neighbors, they work hard to make a living. And you'll have to look them in the eye the next day. And the day after that. Do you not want them to run businesses in your area? Do  you not want them to feel safe? Who'll pay for and do all the repairs and construction? Does the stolen liquor and equipment solve any problems? Does it help with the anger if you charge at a McDonald's. I was watching the TV yesterday and I saw a lot of a pointless destruction. The images from Ferguson felt like scenes from a war zone in a post-apocalyptic film. I was switching back and forth between the four new channels as they were showing the Ferguson riots, up close and live, from different angles. One of the networks was even showing us footage from two IPhones as their camera was smashed. Battlefield from the safety of my living room.  A friend came by last night as we were about to pick something on Netflix and as the Ferguson coverage was still on he said, "We should just watch this, it looks like a movie". The video was horrifying. And all I could think of is what in the world can ever be accomplished through something like that. How will the city, the neighborhood, the business owners and the people ever recover. How can they just get up and wipe the dust off? Was the damage done so severe that they can never recover from it and nothing would be as it once once. The ruins and the destruction will serve as a silent reminder for days, weeks maybe months. Maybe shame some people into thinking. This is your town, this is where you live and now you also live with the end result and the consequences. We live in a nation of laws. We have a process. If we don't like the process or we don't think it's fair, we change it. But we all operate within a system. We have rules, procedures and protections that give us an alternative to what we saw on the street yesterday. Do we really want to live in a world where we battle it out for survival and we air our grievances and frustrations by simply doing and taking whatever we feel at the moment? Where the physical strength trumps any other consideration, where "I want", "I need" and "I feel" are enough of a justification to do whatever a person desires? The thing about a system is this. A lot of times there will be those unhappy with what the System does even if the System gets it right. And sometimes of course the System will get it wrong. I don't want to deal with the underlying issue to much. A Grand Jury was asked to look into the evidence of the shooting and it was within its right to return whatever decision it did. It was obvious that many people were only interested in having the policeman punished regardless of the strength of the evidence, they wanted a particular result, irrespective of the legal process behind it. I doubt that these individuals would be happy even if the case went to trial if the jury didn't return the verdict thy expected. And as criminal juries deal with a legal standard that is very difficult to overcome and work with evidence and not emotions or beliefs the case wouldn't have been very difficult to prosecute. I'm not a huge fan of instituting legal proceedings just to make some people happy or to create a particular impression or to get a message to the community out. This is not what the law should be doing. A lot of issues are fascinating about this case, but the legal aspect is the least interesting. It's amazing how some people became so strongly personally invested in this story about a boy they've never met and an event they could not have possibly witnessed to form strong convictions about something they see on TV. Many projected their own experiences with prejudice onto this, because truth be told, we can reasonably reconstruct the chain of events, but none of us were there, we don't "know" what happened. Knowing something is different from believing, rationalizing, speculating or explaining away. It was interesting to me to see Al Sharpton talk about it as if he saw it with his own two eyes. I know that there's a history of distrust between racial minorities and police, well founded and documented. But we got to believe in the strength of the evidence, in the forensic science, in the testimony that is credible and not excluded in the law of physics. A lot of people were not interested in the rationale. They only wanted to vent by charging at the nearest McDonald's. Isn't interesting how some internalized this story, a story of a stranger so much, that they feel they need to unleash their anger on other people and their property? As if somebody offended their relative or a best   friend. But it's someone they only read about or saw on TV and based on understanding they formed based on the media. And it matters to them. Perhaps it's the sign of the digital age. News networks, internet flooding us with stories on a 24 hour cycle. Often playing on emotions when there are no new legitimate developments. You hear about them you talk about them, you watch them on your big screen TV. At one point they become more than stories, they become real people. And that bring up human emotions. Anger. Frustration.  I guess it's not more out of the ordinary as people invested in the lives of One Direction, Taylor Swift or Katharine  McPhee, where fans stand up for them, attack them, cry  for them as if there was a chance to have them over for tea.  I know I have my own life. People in it have enough problems without me looking for more across state lines. I volunteer in the community, I run a non profit and I try to do the right thing: by being kind considerate and helpful.