10 November 2017

Mixed Feelings

by Cecily
I'm in Helena. Winter on this side of the Divide is a different place. It's very, very sunny and very, very cold. The mountains are beautiful, the sky is bright blue, the sunshine is reflected off dazzlingly white snow on every surface. When your eyes start watering from how sunny and cold it is, and your eyelashes get wet, they freeze. The inside of your nose freezes. The lock mechanism on your car door freezes. And it's hard to look at anything because it is so sunny. It's really pretty, and a little difficult to deal with.

I'm here for the state basketball tournament, for Special Olympics. Special Olympics Montana (SOMT) also has some positive aspects, and some negative ones. JUST LIKE THE WEATHER did you guys notice my smooth metaphor skills?

I love hanging out with the athletes. They are hilarious and exhausting and kind and loving and irritating and demanding and a lot of fun. Everyone asks for a lot of help, and everyone helps a lot. They all step in to help without being asked, all the time. Everyone tells each other that I didn't hear them, and what everybody else just said. If someone is unhappy, or scared, or confused, someone else notices, and helps solve the problem (or helps find someone who can).

The coaches are also lovely people. Generous and silly and kind and patient and helpful. It is a fun crowd. Most of my social life in Missoula this year has revolved around people I've met through Special Olympics.

It is really nice to hang out with so many people who are so kind and enthusiastic and happy to see me.

Last week I went to Great Falls twice. The first time was to testify in an ongoing hearing, against SOMT. (The second time was unrelated. Both times were cold.) I had spent the spring and summer doing what I thought was collaborative and supported work on improving accessibility within the organization, for athletes and volunteers who have disabilities that are not intellectual. I thought we were making progress. Then I asked them to set up an intepreter for the coaches' meeting at the basketball tournament.

It turns out that SOMT decided, at some point in the past few months, that they do not have to, do not want to, and will not, provide interpreters "for individual athletes or volunteers." This means that they have repeatedly asked me to attend meetings for which they refused to provide interpreters. (I didn't attend the meetings.) It also means that Special Olympics athletes who are deaf are expected to either provide their own interpreters or go without. (Mostly, they go without.) The family of a Deaf athlete has been fighting for his access for years, and finally resorted to a lawsuit. In a spectacularly poorly-thought-out strategy, SOMT's response to this was to shut down interpreter access wholesale.

The State Office (that is, the paid employees of the organization) seems to be under some kind of decree to give me the silent treatment, since around the time I told them I was testifying on behalf of the plaintiff. SOMT employees have unfriended me on Facebook, I've been cut dead in hallways, and my emails go unanswered. It is so petty and absurd that I stopped being angry a long time ago. I'm appalled and disappointed and embarrassed (for them), but I also think it's hilarious. The Silent Treatment! No one has given me the Silent Treatment for years! Is this supposed to make me rethink my position on a key area of civil rights that impacts me directly? Maybe run that one by your PR directors again, guys. You can't give the Silent Treatment to people who are volunteering for you, for free, and have it go well.

Sitting through the Opening Ceremonies last night was interesting. There was an interpreter, bus she was unqualified, incompetent, and not visible. Two giant screens showed magnified versions of speakers and audience members, but not of the interpreter. No videos were captioned. VIP speakers spent a lot of time talking about inclusion, and perseverance in the face of discrimination, and courage, and breaking down barriers. The deaf people in the audience watched the mascots and twiddled our thumbs and daydreamed about the blog posts we were going to write the next day. (And contemplated the arrogance and hypocrisy of an organization, ostensibly dedicated to inclusion and access for people with disabilities, in the midst of a lawsuit accusing them of refusing to provide said inclusion/access, peacocking around on stage pontificating about inclusion and access all while willfully disregarding the inclusion and access over which they are being sued.)

Here's a sentence I didn't expect to say, ever: I will not support an organization that discriminates on the basis of disability, and therefore, unfortunately, my tenure as a volunteer for Special Olympics is coming to an end.


  1. Well said! Thanks for being brave!

    1. You're welcome!

      I've been thinking a lot about how many people have been telling me I'm being brave, and thanking me. I feel pretty weird about it. On the one hand, I don't feel like I'm being particularly brave: I'm not the one suing anyone, and I am not the one being treated as though I'm not worthy of basic human rights*. On the other hand, nobody else is talking about it, so I guess I'm doing at least one thing differently. Maybe it will make a difference! Maybe everyone else is too intimidated by the threat of the Silent Treatment to write complainy blog posts.

      This post is getting substantially more attention than my scrappy little blog usually does, though. Which is at least a baby step in the right direction. Maybe.

      *I'm being told I don't get interpreters because the organization with a $4-million budget can't afford them, and wants to spend its money on athletes, not volunteers. The athletes don't get interpreters because people with intellectual disabilities should shut up and take what they're offered, and could they really understand, or benefit from, an interpreter anyway? And wouldn't that money be better used to reach more additonal [hearing] athletes? Wouldn't the money spent on interpreters for athletes really just be a waste, because really how much "interpreting" do these people really need?

      I'm irritated on my own behalf. I'm outraged on behalf of the athletes- and not even just the deaf/hh ones. The attitudes behind the policy are incredibly insulting to all of the rest of the athletes, too. The whole thing is very dispiriting.