Opinion: Hamtramck city attorney comments about disabled man is example of systemic ableism

click to enlarge Hamtramck's city attorney's repugnant comments about a man who uses a wheelchair are an example of ableism — the systemic oppression of disabled people. - Shutterstock.com
Hamtramck's city attorney's repugnant comments about a man who uses a wheelchair are an example of ableism — the systemic oppression of disabled people.

Dessa Cosma is the executive director of Detroit Disability Power. Detroit Disability Power's mission is to leverage and build the organizing and political power of the disability community to ensure the full inclusion of people with disabilities in metro Detroit.

I was appalled by the recent news exposing the horrifying behavior by James Allen, Sr., the city attorney for Hamtramck, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, and Inkster, as well as Wayne County. When a wheelchair-using activist sought public information, Allen was irritated; his reaction was to repeatedly email disgusting slurs and insults. One example: “Sit down and stay down where that bullet justly put you, punk.” He also addressed this citizen as “pathetic little wheel boy” and speculated about his sex life.

As a wheelchair user, I’ve received similar nastiness from others. And I’ve seen it aimed at people with every kind of disability. These comments clearly show Allen is unfit to represent or serve the public in any capacity.

Those of us with disabilities face ignorant and cruel remarks hurled at us regularly.

Currently, disabled people are typically understood as broken or deficient.




Pathetic or pitiable.

And/or abnormal.

On the other side of the coin, we are described as inspirational simply for living our lives. Yet we are no more those things than anyone else. We are not less than non-disabled people, nor are we tools for their spiritual progress.

But we live with physical and social structures that ignore our needs — with deadly consequences. Widespread perception of people with disabilities as less than human is reflected in not only neglect, but harassment. We face unnecessary and dehumanizing institutionalization, and high rates of sexual abuse, murder, and suicide. Among the deadly results of the systemic oppression of disabled people — called “ableism” — are the following cold, hard facts:

• Disabled people represent about a quarter of the population in the U.S., but 50 percent of people killed by police are disabled.

• Disabled people are more vulnerable to COVID. Those of us with intellectual disabilities are 6 times more likely to die from Covid-19. Disabled people have less access to the vaccine — so our rates of death and severe illness from COVID are substantially higher.

Like white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and poverty, ableism costs its victims opportunities, joy, and growth as well as simple safety and human dignity. And many people live under the weight of these oppressive systems combined.

The repugnant comments of James Allen, Sr., aren’t an anomaly. They are examples of systemic ableism that has real impacts on real people.

More than 275,590 disabled people live in Wayne County. It’s unacceptable to spend public resources from the county and some of its most populous cities to pay for legal representation that clearly doesn’t serve the best interests of all residents. Every public entity that employs Allen’s firm, Allen Brothers PLLC, owes their disabled residents and all citizens a public condemnation of James Allen, Sr. 's ableist attitudes and actions, and to end contracts with Allen Brothers PLLC.

If any of this is news to you, let it soak in. And then take action.

If you live in one of the places that employ Allen Brothers PLLC, take a couple of minutes to call your elected officials (see info below) and demand they find a new lawyer. Your own dignity and that of every resident depend on representation by attorneys who understand human decency.

But beyond this one flashpoint, there’s a larger way you can make a difference in the longer term. Those who represent our community — whether in courtrooms or in lawmaking — must be accountable to everyone.

We are 1 in 4 citizens in the United States with a disability. While we may be weighed down by a system that works against us, we still fight, advocate, and show up for ourselves. If we had representation that reflected our communities, we wouldn’t be compelled to react and write this statement. You and I can ensure ableism is no longer tolerated and paid for by our tax dollars.

We have municipal elections this November 2nd, 2021. Over 60 percent of polling stations across the country have barriers to accessible voting. That’s why Detroit Disability Power has launched a campaign — PowerPledgeVote.org — to make voting more accessible to everyone. Once you’ve called your local government, please join us by taking this pledge.

Today, it’s simple: if you’re offended by the exclusion and denigration of people with disabilities, you can take action now. Call your elected officials, and sign the Power Pledge for Disabled Voters and Allies. Your choices make a difference.

Call your local government:

Dearborn: 313-943-2300
Dearborn Heights: 313-791-3490
Hamtramck: 313-800-5233 ext 361
Inkster: 313-563-4234
Wayne Co.: 313-224-0286

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