Finding Obama’s Reality Check at a gathering of disabled people in Second Life

Last night, as I sat at a gathering of disabled people in Second Life, friends were providing me quotes from Sen. Obama’s speech at the Wisconsin Founders Dinner via Twitter. The juxtaposition was striking.

Those who read my blog know that I write about whatever strikes my fancy, from technology, to Second Life, to group dynamics, to politics, to the personal. I seek to draw themes from all of them to mix them together and the combination of Obama’s speech and the talk in Second Life provides a wonderful opportunity.

In politics, I supported Sen. Edwards this time around. Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama both seem a little too conservative for me, a little too closely connected to the corporate interests and existing power structure. Yet the current criticisms of Obama actually lead me to be more supportive of him. His critics talk about all that he has to offer is just words. Well, as a writer, I find that criticism offensive. Legislation is, after all, just words. The landmark civil rights bill of the 1960s is just words. More importantly, it is the ‘just words’ of Martin Luther King, Jr. that helped bring about such legislation. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail was just words. The “I have a dream” speech was just words. No, if you want to alienate people, disparaging other for having just words seems like a good starting point. Maybe that is part of why Oprah has endorsed Obama. She realizes that words are important, that they can move people to action.

Yet more importantly is the question of Barack Obama needing a ‘reality check’. Personally, I think we’ve had a few too many reality checks of late. We do need a little more hope. Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail was a response to those asking for reality checks back then. Critics were calling the actions of Dr. King that landed him in Birmingham jail, “unwise and untimely” and the calls for a reality check on Sen. Obama sound very similar.

So, let’s take a reality check from an unlikely and unreal venue, Second Life. Second Life is a place where people can create avatars, representations of themselves, that interact with one another. These avatars can be different from how people are in real life. The unattractive can become more attractive, people can become animals, they can change genders and they can experience disabilities or freedom from disabilities that they can’t in real life. The woman with a fused backbone can jump on a trampoline, a wheelchair bound person fighting MS can go down a waterslide.

More importantly, people can connect with one another and share experiences and perspectives that they normally don’t share. The other day, I heard a joke from a wheel chair bound person that those of us who are temporarily able bodied may never have heard, but apparently is well known by wheelchair bound people.

Actually, let me take a moment before I go on with the joke. You see, the phrase “Temporarily Able Bodied” is one that I learned last night as I sat with my disabled friends in Second Life. It is an important perspective. During this time of Lent, Christians are reminded that “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” However, we are rarely reminded that our journey back to dust often comes with the loss of abilities we’ve taken for granted. My mother who was the able bodied homemaker of my childhood has tremors now and can no longer even knit, let alone do many of the tasks that were essential to my childhood.

Back to the joke. The wheelchair bound person is quoted as saying, “I don’t know the name, but the belt buckle looks familiar.” We too rarely look at the world from the perspective of those around us.

So, last night, I listened to Nick Dupree talk about advocacy on behalf of the disabled. Nick “won a change in Alabama Medicaid policy through his two-year one-man national campaign labeled “Nick’s Crusade” which resulted in a special program for up to 25 ventilator-dependent Alabamians to continue home care after they turn 21.”

I showed up a bit late, but in time for hear him say, “once we see disability issues as a root segregation issue, we can be much more effective advocates”. I listened to him talk about segregation, isolation, and how segregation leads people to think that those being segregated are somehow not equal. Nick’s description on Wikipedia talks about him receiving “the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems (NAPAS) award for Advocate of the Year in Washington, DC” and giving “keynote speeches at conferences all over the country, including in Chicago, Minneapolis, DC, and even in Dr. Martin Luther King's church in Montgomery.”

As I read his biography and listened to him speak, quotes from Obama’s speech came in via twitter. With that, let me provide an edited mashup of the messages I received while Nick and Barack where speaking:

Nick: we ALL want to be included. it is an inseperable part of our humanness
Twitter: Obama lists accomplishments at state and Senate.. The most important thing that we can do is reengage Am people, get them interested again
Twitter: boy do I agree with that, getting the people involved in government, that's what it's all about.
Twitter: Don't tell me words don't matter! I have a dream. Just words? We hold these truths to be self-evident. Nothing to fear but.. Just words?
Nick: to deny inclusion is to deny humanity
Nick: what is inclusion---real inclusion?
Twitter: If we cannot inspire the country to believe again it doesn't matter how many policies and plans we have.
Twitter: Don't tell me ideals and inspiration don't matter. His head's in the clouds, needs reality check. Peddling false hopes.
Twitter: The notion is that if you talk about hope you must not have a clear view of reality
Nick: people need real connection
Nick: real relationships
Twitter: Hope is not shirking from a fight, blind optimism. I know how hard it will be to bring about change in this country
Nick: not "potemkin village" inclusion---institutions set up to look like fake towns, etc
Nick: by saying "real life" I am trying to say that there is no substitute for real relationships and supports
Nick: self-determination means, I CHOOSE
Twitter: fixing schools is not just a question of money, we're going to have to change the culture. I've fought as organizer, as civil rights atty.
Nick: the basic human right of freedom
Nick: a freaking committee doesnt choose my life, I choose
Nick: I've seen how fear clouds our judgment. I know how hard change is!
Nick: we can heal the world
Nick: hard advocacy makes it possible
Twitter: Hope is imagining and fighting for, working for what has not been done before.
Nick: I can't use a keyboard, lift my hands at all. I type with my thumb on a trackball mouse and click out text by hitting letters on onscreen keyboard software.
Nick: I can't move or breathe on my own

So, for those of you who want a reality check, I present Nick Dupree. Nick presents the reality of struggling against disabilities that may seem overwhelming, and out of that making meaningful changes.

I don’t know who Nick is supporting for President. I’ve not read the policy statements by Obama or Clinton on disability issues. Yet the underlying message strikingly similar. We need to fight hard against the fears that cloud our judgments, embrace our common humanity and fight together for a better world for all people. Nick Dupree and Barack Obama are both doing that in their own ways, and we should too.

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