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What Do You Mean By “Civilized”?
Feb 28th, 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I’ve been distributing lunches to homeless and hungry people for six months. After a night and a morning of driving rain, I brought food today to people living under the Water Street bridge on either side of the river. Two things struck me:

1) I have no idea how we can call our society “civilized” when we allow people to live under bridges, in parks, and on the street.

2) I continue to be amazed at how kindly, how respectfully, and how courteously I’m treated by people who have nothing. Only occasionally have I been met with disrespect, and it’s generally by people who are traumatized and mentally ill. Everyone else? They are so kind that they put people who have everything to shame.

The contrast was very apparent today. After distributing lunches and having some really wonderful contact with people, I headed home. I was standing at the corner, across from my apartment building, when a large truck came into the intersection and then stopped just before the crosswalk. I made eye contact with the driver and he let me know it was okay to cross. Once I was across the street, an older gentlemen saw fit to mansplain to me about traffic laws, saying, “That truck had the right of way. He was already in the intersection. You shouldn’t have crossed.”

I have no idea why people think it’s a public service to police the behavior of other pedestrians on a public street, but it’s happened to me before — again, after someone driving a vehicle stopped, made eye contact, and let me know it was fine to cross in front of them. I find this kind of behavior annoying. So I interrupted him and said, in my most cheery and assertive voice:

HEY! ENJOY YOUR DAY, WON’T YOU?

I can’t wait to get back to the park to distribute lunches on Monday.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

If You Don’t Provide Accessibility, Your Message is “You Don’t Matter”
Feb 4th, 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

You never know when a lack of accessibility — and the message that you are not important enough for someone to provide it — is about to hit you in the face.

Case in point: On Sunday, I was having a lovely day, minding my own business, working out, studying ASL, writing my thesis, and otherwise enjoying the serenity of a rainy, overcast afternoon. In the evening, my husband told me about a conversation he’d had with one of his relatives that day. She had called him to apologize for not showing up to various important events in our lives. And from there, the day derailed into grief and utter frustration.

The conversation had begun well. She’d apologized. He’d thanked her for her apology. Everybody was happy. And then she said, “And tell Rachel I apologize, too.”

My husband, being a kind and thoughtful man, knows better than to accept a second-hand apology on anyone’s behalf. So he told his relative to apologize to me directly. She asked if he’d put me on the phone. I wasn’t there, and my husband mentioned to her that the phone doesn’t work for me. He really need not have mentioned it. She knows about my audiological issues. She knows how bad my hearing is when it comes to degraded sound on the telephone. She knows how exhausting it is for me to use the phone at all. She knows that I communicate in text when I am not standing face-to-face with someone. She knows all of this. I told her directly when she called me a few years back.

So my husband asked her to email me. Her response? “No, that’s not going to work for me.”

Why? Because she would have to walk up two flights of stairs to the computer.

I kid you not.

This is a person who has emailed me in the past. This is a person with all of her fingers, who is perfectly capable of climbing stairs, and who was simply refusing to use my best and most comfortable means of communication in order to make an apology I could take in without getting a headache. In other words, if she couldn’t use the telephone to make an apology for ignoring me and failing to show up, she was just going to … ignore me and fail to show up.

This situation has hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s not just the lack of communication. It’s the message that my feelings, my dignity, and my personhood are not sufficiently valuable for someone to write me an email. How much more marginalized in the family could I possibly be? How much clearer could the message be that I am not valued, that I am not important, that I do not matter?

This is not the first time I have felt marginalized in the family. For many years, I reached out to everyone and, with only a few exceptions, got little in response. I sent emails that went unanswered. I sent around pictures of my kid’s soccer games and dances and other life events and got no response. I shared events from my life to the sound of crickets. I offered to be of support in various family crises, to no avail. Only two of Bob’s family members showed up to our wedding; only one showed up to my kid’s high school graduation. Except for Bob’s kids, no one ever came to visit us in our house in Brattleboro, even though they were traveling in the area and we had told them that they were welcome to stop by.

And yet, for years, whenever someone has contacted me, I followed up. I did not leave emails unanswered. Why would I? Having lost my own family, I was so hungry for contact from my husband’s family that there was no way I would have risked any of them thinking that the contact wasn’t important to me. There is no way I would have missed an opportunity to connect.

And what have my husband and I done together? We have traveled down the east coast countless times over the past ten years to see relatives. I can’t even keep track of how many times I’ve gotten in the car and gone to New York — with my multiple disabilities, my super-sensitive neurology, my PTSD, and all of the pain and fatigue that derive from them. I’ve gone to a wedding crowded with people in a small space, where I could barely hear what anyone was saying. I’ve gone to parties and shiva minyans in noisy venues. I’ve helped lead a baby naming ceremony. I’ve helped to care for my father-in-law while his body and mind were falling apart. I’ve gone out to restaurants with family members and was utterly exhausted from the sheer noise. I’ve gone down to New York to visit family in the midst of a hideous, eight-month-long withdrawal from benzos. I’ve gone way, way, way past my comfort zone in the service of connecting with them.

But someone can’t walk upstairs to send me an email? Because it’s too hard?

My 69-year-old husband flew 3000 miles last month to go to an anniversary party for his relatives, after a whole year of flying back east every month to care for his dad.

But someone can’t walk upstairs to send me an email? At my husband’s request?

It’s so absurd that it doesn’t even compute. My brain is almost on fire trying to grok it. I have to stretch and stretch and stretch to meet the demands of the able-bodied world, and I’ve done it for 55 years, and I’ve done it without any support from my original family. In fact, I’ve done it in the face of a legacy of protracted abuse and all that it does to the body and mind.

But someone can’t walk upstairs to send me an email? Because it’s too uncomfortable?

Could the nature of able-bodied privilege be any clearer? Could the message of “You don’t matter” be any more apparent?

I am absolutely beside myself.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Autism, Homelessness, and Kindness
Feb 2nd, 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

A few weeks back, I was walking in the park, delivering lunches, when one of the homeless women there asked a young man if he wanted a lunch. The young man said yes, and he came over and got one. We smiled at each other, and then the woman and I kept walking.

“Paul* is autistic, you know,” she said. “He won’t ask you for anything, but if you go up to him, he’ll respond to you.”

“He’s autistic?” I said. “Homeless and autistic? That’s got to be rough. He’s especially vulnerable out here.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s why we watch out for him.”

It was such a simple exchange, and yet it broke down every stereotype about homeless people out there — that they’re all lazy bums, that they’re all criminals, that they’re all dangerous, and that none of them are fit to be in community with the rest of us. I have not found the average homeless person to be lazy, criminal, or dangerous; in fact, I have met a number of kind, caring, and thoughtful people. I’ve had conversations about politics, religion, disability, and art, and I’ve seen more than one example of people looking out for one another.

It always takes my breath away when people in crisis look out for one another. It reminds me of the goodness of people, and how we can care for one another, even in dire circumstances. I wish we did more of it. The world would be a kinder and more life-affirming place.

*a pseudonym

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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