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What polio taught me about injustice

September 27, 2021

The Polio pandemic affected many people, killing thousands and paralyzing many more. My mother contracted polio in 1961 and spent the next 4 years in hospitals to learn to breathe again. She was released in a wheelchair 4 years later and lived paralyzed from the waist down with many other health issues for the rest of her life. Polio was a horrible disease and I am thankful that vaccines were created that helped reduce that risk.

But there are some valuable lessons I learned. I was 6 when my mother was released from the hosptial and we moved into a home that was wheelchair accessible. At that time in Germany we did not have any disability protections that would give equal access. The sidewalks did not have ramps that she could use, there was no way to use public transportation, the bathrooms were too small for getting a wheelchair in, no official buildings had elevators or ways to get wheelchair bound people into the right offices, and the list goes on. I remember as a little girl helping my mother and feeling embarrassed when we had to hold the public bathroom doors open to squeeze my mother in. I remember the limits that my mother had, doors were not wide enough, restaurants were in booths and impossible to be used by other-abled people.

Nobody did this on purpose, the builders of side walks, the architects of buildings, the designers of bathrooms…. Nobody build things to purposely keep polio victims out… because it was never even on their minds. BUT, then came a time when we knew better, when we recognized that everyone should be able to enjoy sidewalks, everyone should have access to buildings and public transportation, everyone should be able to enjoy a meal at a restaurant.

Changes had to be made. My mother was instrumental in making some of the adjustments, she met with officials and leaders to start making plans that were more inclusive. It was a long and often frustrating process, but now Germany leads in its accessibility rules and outcomes.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Mayo Angelo

The same is true for the many obstacles we face today. I put something on facebook the other day about white supremacy and got a lot of feedback (in both directions) but it made me think about the ignorance of German’s to not have good Disability Acts in place. They never even saw it as a problem. Were there handicapped people before the Polio outbreak, yes, of course, but it was not in the forefront of minds and maybe it did not effect them personally. But then Germany could not unsee the injustice and had to do something. Until it was pointed out, and we finally saw the injustice, we did not do anything.

Until recently we were not aware of some of the injustices in this country that would create a greater divide between white people and POC (people of color). Yes, there have been people speaking out for years (and we are thankful for it), but recently this has come more to a head and we are made more aware of the injustices that have plagued the US since it’s birth. Now we know better, and we need to do better. US forefathers have created rules and systems that would govern the US for centuries and some of those rules (written or just culturally adopted) were created by mostly European descent people and it is human to create rules that they would be comfortable with and that would benefit them.

I think we need to evaluate some of the ways we have done things and find ways that are more just. I think about the GI bill that was created as a benefit for all soldiers returning from service to have opportunities for purchasing a home etc., but while black people fought right alongside whites on enemy lines, they could not purchase a home, because there were few banks that would allow black home ownership at that time, or the neighborhoods they could access were of lesser value. Look up “redlining.”

The time has come where we need to review the way we have done things, the process on how people are treated, the way people have access to resources and ensure that justice is done well.

When I think back at growing up, the names my mother was called, the stares my mother got, the way she was often treated, the humiliating experiences she had, reminded me that we all ignorant and biased at times, that we tend to focus on the things that we are familiar with and ‘other’ anyone not fitting that norm.

America is an amazing country and people from all over the world want be to part of this opportunity, but America is also growing and changing and some people are effected by some of the rules in ways that are not right and we now know.

Germany had to adjust; changes had to be made. They might not effect everyone, but there were enough people who had loved ones with Polio who spoke up to make it happen. Did it cost Germany? Yes, I am sure it was a difficult journey, but Germany and for many years my mother had a better life because of it.

As we learn more about some of the unwritten rules, let’s review them, keep the ones that benefit everyone and throw out the ones that discriminate. We might not have known better in the past, but now we must do better.

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