Science Fiction by Adolf D. Ratzka, PhD
Independent Living Institute, Stockholm
My friend Crip van Winkle is a man of strong convictions and moral fortitude. Not the type who would throw in the towel easily. But after years of putting his hopes on New Labour he got increasingly disillusioned and one day in 1999, he had enough. He left his friends a short good-bye note inviting us to meet up with him in the next century "when life will be easier for disabled people", as the letter said. He had contracted the services of Alcor, one of these Hibernation outfits that freeze you in and wake you up at a specified date.
They took him and his wheelchair out of the freezer on New Year's Day in 2050. The first person he met was a bearded fellow who introduced himself as a historian who wanted to interview van Winkle about life as a disabled person in the last century.
While Crip was having his breakfast he watched the news on TV together with the historian who volunteered to explain a few things for him.
The camera zoomed in on a middle-aged, elegant black woman who whizzed out of No 10 Downing Street in a flashy power wheelchair.
"That's the Prime Minister", the historian noted.
"How on earth could she win the elections!", Crip exclaimed.
The historian patiently explained that she was the charismatic leader of the UM Party, United Minorities, the political umbrella of all minority groups. In fact, the Prime Minister - apart from being disabled and black - was also Jewish, lesbian, a single parent, smoker and recent immigrant.
"Right now, though, she is in deep trouble", the historian chuckled, "because of allegations that she uses the powerchair only in public to get the disability vote."
The historian continued by explaining how all over the world UM parties had sprung up around the turn of the millennium and soon after dominated politics just about everywhere. The UM parties quickly moved to protect their constitutencies' human and civil rights through detailed and tough laws.
"In the area of disability, for example," the historian elaborated, "we have laws that go far beyond the old ADA, the American with Disabilities Act, which was the best legislation in your times. The European Constitution, for example, has Article 3 which prescribes Universal Design as the guiding principle in all activities and interrelationships between individuals and entities, private or public. For example, based on Article 3 we have had Universal Design in building and planning infrastructure for decades. This applies, of course, to both new and existing buildings. For example, No 10 Downing Street had an elevator long before the present Prime Minister moved in. So does Buckingham Palace which, incidentally, was turned into a youth hostel after Britain became a republic."
"There was resistance, of course. In the late 30's, for example, when the Tower Bridge was to be fitted with the present external glass elevator, the Heritage Foundation protested and went to court. But their case was thrown out by the judge who coined the now classical expression "people are more important than stones", the historian chuckled.
"How about busses and trains?", Crip van Winkle asked.
"What about them?", asked the historian. "All conveyances, public or private, for transportation by land, air, sea and cyberspace, for individual or collective travel are naturally covered by the Universal Design principle. You don't seem to understand, van Winkle, the United States of Europe officially abolished Apartheid in the year 2024 - 30 years after South Africa but better late than never. Since then, Universal Design has been the law of the land and the international sign of access that you guys were so proud of, is forbidden. It singles out and stigmatizes a particular group of citizens. Besides, it is not necessary anymore - I guess it never really was necessary. Already in your day and age it would have been better to mark the places that were inaccessible in order to point out the full extent of the injustice. By using the symbol of access you did yourself a disservice, because the symbol served as an alibi for the accepted norm of inaccessibility empasizing the exception rather than the rule.
"I have always hated the sign", Crip muttered. "For me it means that somebody else decides where I am supposed to pee. I can't stand paternalism."
"Talking about paternalism", van Winkle continued after a while, "how are the charities doing, you know the various organizations, one for left-hand amputees, one for right-hand amputees, victims of Foot and Mouth Disease and other assorted ailments?"
"Yes, I read about these organizations in some journal from your time", the historian remembered. "We do not have them anymore. There are, of course, special interest groups working for more research and better medical treatment of particular conditions, but it would be impossible today for them to go out in the streets and collect money. Politically and even legally impossible. There are no telethons or campaigns like that. The National Science Foundation allocates money for all research. Nobody needs to rely on private funding for things like health care, food, shelter, clothing or assistive devices."
"We have disability rights organizations who represent the interests of their constituency. They are still necessary, but they have only disabled representatives and all are cross-disability now. Today, no politician could get away with the old trick of 'Divide and Conquer`."
"Incidentally", the historian added, "I wrote my thesis on the one-issue groups that dominated disability politics in the early years of the century. They got things done, partly because they were cross-disability and partly because of their ability to concentrate on one issue at a time. They had no hierarchy or vested interests and could move fast."
"At around the year 2000 the traditional charities, as you called them, began to fade away. Their basically paternalistic attitudes, with well-intentioned non-disabled philanthropists running the show, did not appeal to the young and angry disabled generation who felt like ordinary people and demanded to be treated as such. Thus, these organizations literally dropped dead, peacefully and unnoticed by most."
Van Winkle wanted to know whether the gap in living conditions between disabled and non-disabled people was still widening.
"All citizens of the United States of Europe receive a citizens wage that allows them a comfortable life-style", stated the historian. Van Winkle got interested. "Can I get that too?", he asked.
"Your papers are being processed and you should not have any difficulties", the historian replied.
"But I want to work", van Winkle said firmly.
"Of course, you will find a job", the historian said calmingly, "and you will be able to keep your citizen's wage as well, since it is not means-tested. Most disabled people work. In this respect there is hardly any difference between the disabled and non-disabled population anymore. Perhaps a couple of percentage points, but nothing like the 50-60 % that you had last century."
"Sounds too good to be true", Crip was sceptical. "I can see how universal design in everything would make a difference in getting people back to work, but what about those of us who still need services like personal assistance? Accessible busses are not enough to get you to work, when you first need help to get out of bed. Do these people still have to stay with their parents, live in Cheshire Homes or depend on county council nurses? "
"I have never heard of Cheshire Homes", the historian mused, "they must have been phased out long before my time. Were these residential facilities for people who needed accessible housing and assistance in their daily lives? We don't have these places anymore. I told you, Apartheid was formally abolished in the year 2024, but already long before that nobody lived in institutions anymore. There was simply no need. Already shortly after the turn of the century, after years of hard work by the Independent Living Movement all who needed personal assistance services, assistive devices or transportation were entitled to direct payments from the government that enabled them to purchase these services from the provider of their choice, at sufficient quantity, regardless of income. At last, 'quality through competition' and 'consumer power' had become buzz words for politicians ."
The historian got up from his chair and continued to talk while walking back and forth.
"You raise an interesting point, Crip. Do you remember how politicians in your days used to mobilize taxpayers by talking about the "weakest of society" depicting you as hopeless, helpless objects who needed yet another tax-funded reform to have a dignified life? And at the same time, people wondered why nobody - not even the government itself - would employ the "weakest of the weak"? Researchers found that in countries where politicians succeeded best in passing such tax-funded reforms, the image of disabled people suffered most. Thus, the intended positive results of these reforms - improving some material aspect of disabled people's lives - were offset by the unintended, negative effects like ruining their image and making them unattractive for employment, partnership and marriage."
"Hmm, you might have a point there", Crip van Winkle admitted, "but how did you finally resolve that dilemma, what was your solution?"
"At first, the solution was hard to accept, it sounded archaic and regressive to most people. Instead of tax funds, a mandatory disability insurance was proposed. Here is the idea. You buy into the insurance and when you get disabled, you receive money from it for the extra costs of living caused by your disability. No paternalistic taxpayer can have any views about the amounts you get or the way you use the money. Take car insurance. Say, your car is stolen and the insurance company compensates you with the contractual amount. Nobody cares whether you buy a Volkswagen or a Rolls with the money. Your neighbors don't talk behind your back about how much you cost the state."
"The downside, of course, is that everybody - regardless of income - pays the same insurance premium. Those who do not work or have no other income must pay it from their citizen's wage. Red-blooded Marxists like myself did not like the idea at first. But, since mandatory disability insurance was introduced, the disability community has noticed the change in the general attitude towards disabled people, in the pride and self-respect disabled people have developed. Becoming disabled no longer implies a traumatic loss of social status and turning into a welfare case and an object of every taxpayer's opinions."
Crip van Winkle was quiet for a while. You could tell that he was really thinking. Finally, he burst out:
"So, what am I supposed to do here? All I know is how to fight the system, stop busses, throw paint, organize the community. My meaning in life was to fight for justice shoulder to shoulder, wheel to wheel with my fellow soldiers-in-arms. "
The historian put his arm around Crip's shoulder and said softly: "Hey, Crip, you are still on earth and far from paradise. That insurance fund is run by humans, pretty mean ones at that. The movement will always need tough fighters like you. You still can have fun in the streets. In fact, this evening I can take you to the local Direct Action organizing committee."