Monday, August 27, 2007

Deafness, Disability and Frank Bowe

I wanted to add a few personal comments to Linda's postings on Frank Bowe, who passed away a week ago today. Thank you to Linda for posting the items by Cheryl Heppner and Hofstra University.

I grew up in the shadow of the 504 sit-ins (and what later became IDEA as well). Section 504 was finally signed into law in 1977. I was born in 1978. 504, like a big gray ghost, informed almost my entire public school experience, and yet I didn't know a thing about it until I was 19.

My second college job was working as a student assistant in the Bancroft archives at UC Berkeley on what is now known as the Disability Rights Movement collection. This collection includes the papers of such folks as Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann, and Patrisha Wright. One of the very first things I had to do was read about the movement in order to get a feel for what was historic in people's donations. And one of the first things I read was about the 504 sit-ins. I'd had no idea people with disabilities had pulled off this action. And, I'd had no idea that a Deaf person played a role in organizing it. That really blew my mind. I tucked away the name of Frank Bowe then and there.

It's been ten years since I worked in the archives, and I've done an awful lot of disability and non-disability related things since then, but I always thought that someday I had to bump into Dr. Bowe. I've gotten to know a bit more of his story over time (and check out Heppner's story elsewhere on this site to learn more).

Straight up, Dr. Bowe's life and work is one of my inspirations for my work in the disability rights movement. As a Deaf/hh person (those of you know know me know I have some label angst...some Deaf say I'm Deaf and others say I'm hh and still others say hh with a Deaf heart! a topic for another time), Dr. Bowe's example helps me maintain my faith in the importance of cross-disability work, and the need for it not only on a local level but on the national level as well. There ARE Deaf and hard of hearing people who support and work within the disability rights movement in vitally important ways, and yet they often go unrecognized, or held apart because of their deafness or what is perceived as cultural separateness. I strongly believe we are NOT separate and that there remains huge potential in a well-developed alliance between the Deaf community and the organized disability rights community.

In addition, Dr. Bowe's example demonstrates to me the impact that a Deaf person can have in the disability rights community. When someone who is Deaf looks at me funny and says, "Ohhh, so you don't just work with Deaf people...?", I want to shout, "I work with all people who are oppressed under the disability label!!" And then I want to point out how incredibly rich my life is for knowing and working with a tremendously diverse cross-section of society, and how thankful I am for that, and how hard we must all fight to achieve the radical revamping of society that is needed to achieve true equality. I think Dr. Bowe would have understood that.

Dr. Bowe's work also reminds us all of the power of information in advocacy work. Knowing the research, crunching the numbers, confirms what we all know by gut instinct and real-world tears: disability discrimination exists. To those in our movement who research and compile reports, I want to take a second to thank you, because your work helps us all tear down the walls.

Finally, picture this: it's 1977. Dr. Bowe is in the midst of helping to organize the Section 504 protests across the country. There is no e-mail, no text, no video relay. Just interpreters, typewritten mail, huge clonking TTYs and off-the-cuff friends to help the average deaf person get information. And still he ORGANIZED, because being Deaf was less of a barrier than not being recognized as a full human being in America, and when you are working for that, nothing is too hard, nothing is impossible.