Docent Training at USHMM

Today I got the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I had met with the staffer who helps to train docents for the Guided Highlights Tour. One of the things she encouranges is to have actual people with disabilities visit the trainees and do a “walk-through” of the tour to give the trainees the opportunity to see what it is like and (for the visually impaired visitor) learn what kinds of information they need to explain visually.

It is a fantastic 2-3 hour tour. Granted, I was only there to assist in the training so it was much shorter, about an hour or so. But the opportunity to actually work with guides and talk to them about what is good to explain and what they might not think of was just invaluable. A good example might be in their “meditation” area. Which is this area with seats. It has white abstract art on white walls. It was the trainer who pointed it out to the docents and even me that the white art would be something that they might have to explain. I had not even known it was there so I couldn’t have even pointed out to them and asked them to explain it! But you can bet those guides would make sure it was mentioned the next time.

On a purely personal level, the museum was fascinating. Not the depressing, sad tour I imagined. Sobering yes, meaningful yes, but not the dreariness that I expected. I encourage any blind or visually impaired person, or actually any person, visiting Washington DC to call the Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask for Guided Highlights Tour. They have really gone out of their way to make it as accessible as possible. No mean feat considering the amount of pictures, and videos and information that is “under glass.” But they gave good solid explanations and even had tactile items at various points in the tour. I am definitely going to visit again.

Perhaps I can explore some other sights in the DC area and compile a list of museums and art galleries that are accessible and/or visual impairment friendly.

New York Times Magazine Article

Wow. The New York Times Magazine had an article that was published on September 25th. The content of the article has gone through the blind and visually impaired community like wildfire.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/25/magazine/25food.html?oref=login
Is the URL and it is called Eat, Memory: Line of Sight

The article involves the owner/manager/head chef of a restaurant who had placed an add for a line cook and a blind man applied for the position. I have to admit that initially I thought the article only mildly offensive (not to mention I didn’t think much of the blind individual mentioned in the story). It was well written and told an anecdote in an “amusing” (not necessarily funny) manner with the writer using a lot of self-deprecating humor.

The narrator of the tale, although taken aback by having a blind applicant for the position of line cook seemed more than open-minded about giving the man a trial. Something most employers don’t even bother with. Having had that experience many times of “the position has just been filled” or “we don’t think you’d be a good match” or “your qualifications aren’t quite what we are looking for” I thought this was at least a positive image of a potential employers. And in fact Gabrielle Hamilton was quite good about pointing out her own stereotypical perspectives on ability and again, using the self-deprecating humor to put it in a positive light.

However, let me just say that prejudice and discrimination come in all forms and what is acceptable in some perspectives, when viewed through another lens, can suddenly be for what it is…offensive and in VERY poor taste.

Let me encourage you to read the entire article for yourself but please allow me to submit a few quotes:

“His eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby.”

“At each station, he bent over and put his forehead against everything I showed him. It was fascinating at first – and later, heartbreaking – to note the angle at which he scrutinized each item in the refrigerator.”

“And instead of holding the pan of pork belly close under his nose and squinting down upon it – like a very old man might do trying to read his train ticket – he instead held each item up to his forehead, above his eyebrows, and stared up imploringly into it.”

“…painful to watch him bent in half, killing his back in order to have his untethered eyes close up to the cutting board.”

“But I understood 25 minutes into his trail that there was no system of compensation, that he had not become hypersensate and that he had not, emphatically, evolved into a superior cooking machine. Sadly, the guy was just plain blind.”

“Eventually we fell into a kind of spontaneous, unfunny Vaudeville routine in which I shadowed him, without his knowing, and seasoned the meat he missed, turned the fish he couldn’t, moved the plate under his approaching spatula to receive the pork, like an outfielder judging a fly ball in Candlestick Park.”

“The guy spent the rest of his trail with his back up against the wall in all the stations, eyes rolling around in his head, pretending to apprehend how each station worked. I spent the remainder of his trail wrestling meat and unattractive feelings triggered by this insane predicament in which we had found ourselves.”

Although believe it or not I can understand the humor in the piece, I find it inappropriate. Particularly for something such as the New York Times magazine. I see this being forwarded on the Internet and have heard the irate responses from the visually impaired community.  But I also have an ugly suspicion as to what the rest of the world will say:

“You blind people are being too sensitive.”

“It is just a story”

“It is supposed to be funny, that’s all”

“No one is getting hurt, and the guy was offered a chance”

But we aren’t being too sensitive. What really brought home to me the question of poor taste and the appropriateness of the piece was simply asking the question:

“What if he were black?”

What if this story was about a black person and the humor revolved around some personal or cultural attribute related to race? If that were the case, the Times Magazine would never have published such a piece. Gender,race, religion and in many cases, even sexual orientation have been removed as sources of such humor in mainstream media and yet, in this case, disability…it is considered acceptable. At the end of the day…I ask, what was the point of the article? Was it some great revelation about disability? About cooking? About stereotypes? About someone wholly incapable of doing the job blind or not? Other than what comes across as humor derived at the cost of an entire class of individuals there was no specific point that could find.

Little Black Sambo is dead, but Little Blind Guy obviously is still a source of amusement.

The Sound and the Fury

Well, since so many other people are writing about Hurricane Katrina, I guess I will too. But it is not my intent to fill this blog with work-related items and….it will probably just work me up into a frenzy again.

I am so frustrated.  I just sat in a 2 hour conference call on trying to get emergency relief aid down to LA (and MS, GA, TX and AL) and it amazes me the amount of red tape involved.

It isn’t just one state, it is the others that are trying to handle the refugees…oops, excuse me, “displaced persons”  – PC language, who cares…there are people out there who need assistance and they are NOT getting it because SOME people in Washington are too busy worrying about what they are going to do for their long weekend.

The organization I work for has numerous members in the affected areas, many of which we have not heard from and some of whom we do know did not have the ability to leave. Talking to FEMA and the Red Cross and other agencies…after a while my policy analyst and I, in frustration were indulging ourselves in fantasies of getting a boat and going down there ourselves!

The rest of the bureaucrats are all going down there to gawk and stand in front of the cameras and seem like they are doing something instead of working here in Washington DC to try and get some things actually working.

Just as a nice simple example. So many of the people are sick. Or what about the elderly or disabled? Many of them will have run out of the medicine stores that they brought with them, but even those who GOT out…how are they going to get more? What about insulin? What about mental illness? Heart meds? Blood Pressure? Cholesterol? Louisiana Medicaid cards are NOT good in Mississippi. They are NOT good in Texas. If they want to do something useful here in the capital…maybe creating an emergency Medicaid waiver might be good. Or allowing the states, at least temporarily to accept each others cards. One small simple almost “easy” thing. Put that political clout to some GOOD use!!!! 

But no, they are down there wading around in hip boots feeling self-important.

Ruminations

There used to be rivers of butterflies, but now there are years when there are no butterflies at all. This is a village full of ghosts, not of people, but of nature, a paradise lost. -HOMERO ARIDJIS, a naturalist in Contepec, Mexico.

There is something about that quote that makes one unutterably sad.