All Men Are

 

Jefferson’s promise was scrawled across the board in half dead dry erase marker. Circled were the words all men. Our first day back for junior year of high school, the man in a sports coat at the front wasted no time in making us think. He demanded to know,  who was classified under the term “all men?” Did that include women, minorities, every age, creed? What about the fact that when these men wrote the Constitution, they clearly didn’t mean slaves, or women, or for that matter any white male who didn’t have the good fortune to own land? I looked out of the window at the rain pelting down, as it did every August to discourage us from even wanting to be outside. Summer was, without a doubt, over.

I didn’t know it then, but that was the first time I realized that I was entitled to certain rights, even if society refused to grant them.

Speed ahead six years and I’m in the so called “real world”. And I have discovered that certain bus drivers refuse to let me on their buses, in public there is a very vocal, albeit small, amount of people who don’t think I’m educated enough to go shopping on my own, and I am constantly plagued by experts telling me that they know more about my life than I do. A concerned teacher is continuously calling me and insisting, not suggesting, that I move out of my newly unpacked flat on the fourteenth floor of a high rise I love and into one that’s on the ground floor for “health and safety reasons.” When I try to tell her that I couldn’t find a ground floor flat which suited my needs, she told me I “don’t know how to go about looking properly.”

At twenty three, I’m wondering how to go about declaring my independence from the people out there who can’t stand the thought of me being independent.

Being a disabled woman these day is like living in your own private American Revolution without the petticoats and bayonets. It means starting from square one and having to convince every person you meet that you are, indeed intelligent, capable of making your own decisions, and deserving of being listened to. It means finding subtle ways to display your capacities. There are numerous daily examples of this. Calling a waitress by their name on the tag alludes to the fact you can read. You bring up current events and dare to debate where disagreement is uncommon (citing your sources of course). And if you can see from the onset that a person is going to be over bearing, you avoid them at all possible costs, even at the expense of being slightly aloof.

Not that I knew any of this my first day of junior year. Sitting, listening to the bald man at the front, I thought the idea that God made all men equal was just a given to Americans, excluding the bigoted idiots of course. We had the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights marches, and every amended law in between so that America was the land of opportunity for all people. I never thought that I would be one of the ones still having to fight for Jefferson’s promise to be fulfilled.

 

“What  kind of kooks would claim equality as a birthright? I mean the idea’s insane. Can anybody in this classroom, in 2000 give me any absolute proof that the man who wanted to wash my windshield for a buck this morning and Bill Gates have an equal chance in life? Anybody?” The teacher was already passionately walking around in circles and raising his voice. “You can’t do it, just look at the world.”

People who pass me on the street tend to see what I can’t do when really, they don’t know the half of what I can do. The idea that God made all men equal is great in theory, but hard to believe in practice, particularly at first glances of other people’s conditions. We live in a world, I came to find out later, where most people will define you by what your abilities are not, not what they are. Oddly enough, this way of defining humanity is precisely what splinters people so that we question the meaning of “all men.” By categorizing everyone so that “we are all different” there is no longer a solitary unit of mankind. If there was, nobody would question what was meant by “all men” in the first place. Thus we do not allow Jefferson’s ideal to be fully accomplished.

“I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what ‘all men’ means,” he says after a brief tangent about the Civil War. “Did the constitution change when we freed the slaves? Don’t think you are getting out of  here without answering the question. I don’t care if the bell does ring.”

I realize now, that my so called “America” ends with the first unramped sidewalk  I come across, regardless of what the law says. Certain doors, both metaphorically and physically, remain impossible to open and you can recite what lawmakers say until you are blue in the face, it doesn’t mean anything. If America is a place where people are “endowed by their creator to certain unalienable rights,” then you don’t realize how small America actually is when your are sitting in your high school U.S. History class in your wheelchair. You can’t know that, because all the same teachers see you everyday, they know you for you, meaning that there is nothing to prove, and every day you open every door, even if it means asking a janitor, in Spanish, how to unlock it. Then when you get through the graduation line and out into the public you’re shocked by how many variable friction door handles there are which, of course, you can’t hold onto, how many huge cracks there are in public sidewalks from endless cycles of ice freezing and melting, and how many oblivious people there are out there who don’t listen and can’t stand the thought of either themselves or me being independent . Outside of a classroom, American progress rarely goes in a straight line.

 

Back in the classroom, Socrates was relentless towards the mind of sixteen year olds.

“Can we ever be untied? Look on a map, America is huge. Alaska, Kansas, New York all in one country. Let’s be reasonable.” Now he was doing his best to push everyone’s buttons.

I’ve been out of college a short while now and already two of my friends have needed to apply for handicap parking placards. Two years ago it was unthinkable, now they are applying for the blue placards which are permanent, rather than the temporary red ones. For someone who has found how we are all alike more interesting than how we are all different, the connection is striking. For most of us, as we age, America will be shrinking. What is different about disability rights from most civil right battles is that nobody will wake up suddenly being a different race, gender, or creed than when they went to bed. Life can change in an instant in that going for a jog one morning may be the last time we ever do it. This may be as simple as a bad knee or as traumatic as a car accident, but everyone’s body will fail him. Moreover the inaccessible America you  permit today is going to be the same one you will inherit tomorrow when your body breaks down. I’m not just advocating for my rights. I’m advocating for yours

But even the politicians, the ones who are supposed to be directly enacting the Constitution, remain blissfully unaware of how small America is on this issue. In between welfare reform and environmentalism, gay marriage debates and school vouchers, when was the last time you heard a story about disability rights on a news station? I can think of only one politician who consistently brings up the issue in her platform. Other than that, I feel like everyone else’s issues get debated in Washington except mine. Even though all men are ultimately feeble, the needs of all men are ignored.

What I learned that day in the classroom, took an additional six years to finally reach its full meaning. Like so many other things in life, you don’t realize what rights are until they are taken away. It’s as simple as someone in the grocery store insisting that I really want skim milk when I’m reaching for the two percent. Most people when they think about disability rights think of assisted care or special services. I don’t need that. I just want to get where I’m going unimpeded by a staircase, someone who thinks they know my limitations, or even an overbearing special service. Don’t give me add on’s until you’ve figured out how to fully give me my unalienable rights. This doesn’t mean I don’t have those rights yet. I still have them, America (or anywhere else I’ve lived) just hasn’t figured out how to respect them. Special care facilities, special education, even special funding is no replacement for freedom. Any revolutionary in American  history could’ve told you that. They could also tell you that sooner or later, that freedom eventually came. Even after living in the real world, I cannot give up hope that I will join them.

“I’m still waiting for an answer.” He looks at what we are all looking at… the clock. Our books are still being clutched to our chests in anticipation. “Miss Stevens, you’ve had your hand up for some time now.”

“Maybe the phrase all men expands as civil rights expands… Uh… It could’ve meant all males with property then but now it means all humans… or-or at least it should.”

“Go on.”

“It just expanded to incorporate more and more people until today, everyone is equal.”

“So the history of America-“

“The history of America is the story of the phrase ‘all men’ expanding.” He looked at me and nodded approval. The bell rang.

That’s what I said one rainy August morning when I was sixteen. It would take me years to learn the weight of what it meant.

The preceding is a narrative from Athena’s book The Perfect Sole due out this winter.

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