Lamar white jr 2015-06-29 04:31:36
“I AM INVISIBLE, UNDERSTAND, SIMPLY BECAUSE PEOPLE REFUSE TO SEE ME.” —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man Rain suddenly hammers the windows of the second-floor classroom. It is 9 p.m. on a Tuesday at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, and even though my professor continues her lecture, the rain is the only thing I can hear. I need to mentally prepare myself for the walk back to my car, which is parked about 150 yards away in the closest handicapped spot. I plot out the logistics: I will carry my heavy backpack in front of me, instead of strapping it to my back, and then I’ll go down the exterior elevator, which had obviously been built as an afterthought, back inside the building and through the hallway, then out the very last door, which will put me within eyesight of my car and minimize my exposure to the elements. I was born with cerebral palsy, and even though I live independently, walk without assistance, and drive my own car, I am prone to falling. My body is riddled with scars from the surgeries I had as a child. My knees are numb. I am always making a scene. Sometimes, my falls elicit laughter from strangers; sometimes they are met with urgent concern. I’ve learned to ignore those who laugh, because I know they don’t understand that they’re laughing at my disability. They think, instead, that they’ve just witnessed the kind of thing you see on America’s Funniest Home Videos. I’ve also learned how to quell the worries of those who see me fall and immediately want to rush me to the nearest emergency room. “I’m made of rubber,” I say. When my falls break skin, when my knuckles bleed, I quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail—“It’s just a flesh wound!” The class lets out at 9:50 p.m., and the rain is relentless. I am conscious of my every step, the weight of my backpack and my books, the location of puddles and potential hazards. But it is dark outside. The campus is empty. I miss a step, and then I am alone, on the grass. My elbows are both red with blood, and the rain is assaulting me. I cannot stand up on my own, so I crawl toward a nearby lamppost and attempt to pull myself up. But it’s too slippery. Two students walk by—teenage undergraduates, both boys. “Can one of you give me a hand?” I ask. They ignore me. I spend 10 more minutes on the ground before a maintenance man in a golf cart finally sees me. He doesn’t speak a word of English, and my Spanish is atrocious. But he lifts me up, takes my bag from me, and helps me into his cart. “Por ahí,” I say, pointing to my car. I am the only student in my law school with his own Wikipedia entry (that I know of). During my four years as a student in the evening program at SMU, my writing, scholarship, and advocacy have made international news on at least five separate occasions, and I’ve been the subject of profiles by several major media outlets. I’m proud of my work, but I’ve purposely tried to not draw attention to myself in law school. So, I am quiet. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m living a secret double life. The vast and overwhelming majority of my peers and my professors have no idea who I am. I am almost invisible. To be sure, my invisibility is partially my own fault: At 33, I’m a few years older than most of my classmates, and I’ve never been particularly interested in competing for prominence in student life. But I also know that my invisibility isn’t completely of my own making. I don’t think I am intimidating at all, but I’ve learned that my disability can make me seem intimidating, particularly to those who have never really interacted with a disabled person. I know that some may perceive me either as a misanthropic genius or, alternately, as a student who was admitted for the sake of diversity. But I am neither of these. My maternal grandfather, father, sister, brother-in-law, two aunts, and two uncles all graduated from SMU. For two weeks in 1915, when she was 18 years old, my maternal great-grandmother was a member of SMU’s very first class. Her great-uncle John founded the city of Dallas. In 2001, after my father died at the age of 41, his parents privately gave the divinity school a sizable donation in his honor, named the Lamar White Endowed Fund for Preaching Excellence. My beloved late grandmother, Joanne, is interred in Highland Park United Methodist on the grounds of campus. I doubt SMU law school admitted me because they thought I was a genius; my undergraduate record at Rice University was impressive enough, but my LSAT scores were mediocre. I am not naive; my multi-generational connection to this school is important. I wasn’t a diversity selection. I was the very definition of a legacy selection, and I was proud to carry on my father’s name while also being unsure of how to reconcile or fully understand this vestige of privilege. I doubt there are many other families with such strong ties to SMU, and the vast and overwhelming majority of my peers and professors don’t know this about me either. Perhaps ironically, I’ve also never felt completely comfortable or welcomed at SMU. I am sure that other disabled law students have had entirely opposite experiences. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve received a stellar education, yet there is nothing I can do to prevent my invisibility, despite my national profile. For me, law school has been a strangely depersonalizing and humbling experience, as it is for many, though not necessarily for the same reasons. I stand out in a crowd, but often, people simply refuse to see me. Last year, I spoke at a press conference for Wendy Davis’s gubernatorial campaign. Before the event had even ended, I was being mocked by political commentators online. But I wasn’t being criticized for what I said; instead, I was being criticized for how I moved on stage. To them, I was nothing more than a “campaign prop.” I was seen as an object, not as a human being. It was a revelatory experience for me: There was a reflexive assumption that because I am disabled I somehow lack agency. On this 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act—a law that changed my life and quite literally opened doors of opportunity for me—it is critical we remember that elevators and ramps do not necessarily make a place accessible. There are persistent, deeply ingrained preconceptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities—that they are inferior, stupid, in need of pity—which laws alone cannot change. I know this because I’ve seen it my entire life. But I also know how incredibly lucky I am—to have been born in this country, to have had a loving and supportive family, to have received the best education in the world. My experiences have not embittered or angered me. They have only bolstered my earnest belief in the transformative power of empathy. Sixty percent of disabled children, at some point, are bullied, and a disabled child is more than two and a half times more likely to be the victim of chronic bullying. A couple of years ago, after his classmates beat him, broke his teeth, and smashed his cellphone, 11-year-old Mitchell Wilson, who had muscular dystrophy, ended his own life by suffocating himself. Again, elevators and ramps do not necessarily make a place accessible. Our public institutions, particularly our schools, must strive to be inclusive, and this requires more than cosmetic changes. Even though I supported Gov. Greg Abbott’s opponent in the last election, I have never believed this to be a partisan issue. In 1990, the year the ADA was signed, my first-grade teacher had the class trace our hands in crayons. It was Thanksgiving so, naturally, our tracings became turkeys. She asked us to then name five things for which we were thankful, one for each finger. My turkey read, “My mom, my dad, my brother, my sister, and President Bush.” My teacher sent my artwork to the White House, and a few months after, I received a letter and signed picture from the president himself. Twenty-five years later, I am compelled to say it again: I am thankful to President George H. W. Bush. I always will be. LAMAR WHITE JR. is a disability rights advocate and investigative journalist who has been writing about his home state of Louisiana for nearly a decade. He is a recent graduate of Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law and earned his bachelor's degree from Rice University. He is currently a doctoral candidate in political communication at Louisiana State University.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://mydigimag.rrd.com/article/A+Proud+Legacy/2045309/264105/article.html.