The Crip Elite

by Ed Heaton

I have just spent a year on a fellowship in public policy in Washington,
DC. For those of you who may not know, the District is one of the most
accessible cities in the country for people with disabilities. It is also
the home of the "Crip Elite."

What do I mean by this term? Studies have shown that 30% of people with
work disabilities have incomes below the poverty level, as compared to
10.2% of the working age population who do not have work disabilities. The
average income for all families in 1995 was $46, 478. However, for
families of people with disabilities, the average income was $28,067.

These are well-known facts. The reason these income figures are important
is that people with disabilities in the top echelon of the government who
actually make recommendations on implementation and federal enforcement of
such laws as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of
the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, are earning $63,000 and above. In other
words, the top 1% of the disability population is making policy for the
other 99%. Combine the income disparity with the ease of mobility in
Washington, and you have the makings of a "Crip Elite."

My Disabled Dealer colleague, Michele Leahy (Chelly in the City) spent a
few months working in Washington this past year. To paraphrase her, "Ed,
they just don't get it. They make too much money and the city is just so
accessible that they forget what it's like living in the 'real' world."

Having met with some of the policy makers in Washington over the past year,
in the course of my fellowship, I am not totally sure I agree with Michele
completely. However, it does raise a very interesting question. Can people
who make more than twice as much money as the average person with a
disability truly represent the needs of that community? Or, has their view
become skewed by their lifestyle?

Usually my column deals with issues in a black and white way, with a very
pointed opinion. On this issue, I myself am conflicted because I respect
the persons I have just called the "Crip Elite", yet the question of their
income level ? and my income level for the past year ? bothers me. I am
not sure if extra income and accessibility lead to elitism. I hope it
didn't in my case, and I hope it doesn't in theirs.

With the first generation of leaders of the independent living movement of
the 1970s reaching middle age, this question becomes even more important.
At least these leaders fought their way to the policy positions they now
hold. The next generation of leadership in the disability community in
Washington will have it easier because of them, but may also need a
reality check about what life is really like out in the hinterlands.


Recently, on my local PBS station, I was watching one of those '50s/'60s
music shows that PBS has taken to showing during pledge drives. You know
the shows: old rock stars of yesteryear come out of retirement to sing
their one major hit. The way these shows are formatted by PBS is as
follows: 20 minutes of music followed by 20 minutes of pledge drive. In a
three-hour time slot, you could have as much as an hour and 20 minutes of
begging for money.

I am not the first person to be annoyed by this, and certainly won't be the
last. However, what really bothers me is the pomposity of the local station
hosts begging for money. "Support us, so we can bring you more shows like
this on your PBS station!" "If you don't support us, we can't do more
shows like this." What the hosts neglect to mention is usually shows like
this are not on PBS except for pledge drives. The usual PBS program
schedule consists of programs like "Quilt in a Day", or, "Cooking Secrets
of the CIA." The fact of the matter is that most of the audience does not
watch PBS except when they do shows like "Doo-Wop and Rock 'n' Roll". It
is the classic "bait and switch" routine, done on a grand scale, by a
publicly supported enterprise. The only thing I can say is thank God for
the clicker