When I teach my students about universal design, I ask the pointed question: “How many of you are handicapped?” In two decades of asking the question, not one student has ever raised a hand. We then talk about universal design—the notion that products, spaces, places, and systems should be usable by people of all types, equally. It’s a lofty and near impossible goal for designers to strive, but one that nearly everyone agrees is a responsible and good idea. After we discuss the basics, I then introduce the students to the World Health Organization of disability, which is quite broad. It includes (what I term) situational impairments, temporary impairments as well as permanent impairments. By the end of the class period, most students begin to recognize that nearly all people have some sort of disability and they begin to understand that the semantics of “othering” are as absurd as they are unproductive.
Growing up, when America was “great,” I had the good fortune to live in a suburb that was diverse. My immediate neighbors and neighborhood friends came from a broad cross-section of backgrounds: kids with a white mom and a black dad, kids that were “born-again” christians, kids from Jewish families, gay kids, WASP-y Luthern kids that went to Vacation Bible School, Japanese-American kids, kids with Polish immigrant parents that didn’t speak English very well, kids with Italian immigrant parents that didn’t speak English very well, kids with Hungarian immigrant parents that didn’t speak English very well, kids with German immigrant parents that didn’t speak English very well, kids with Greek immigrant parents that didn’t speak English very well, poor kids that lived in the apartments at the end of the street, kids that had only single moms as parents… the list went on, and we all got along. Despite the fact that some of our grandparents had fought the most bloody war in the history of human civilization, we, as kids, played in the same dirt, ate the same ice cream from the same store on the corner, swam in the same pool, got in the same scuffles, and all played hide-and-go-seek-in-the-dark on the same block. We got along and we were better together than divided. Looking back, America wasn’t all that great, even though it seemed so at the time, in the forty years that preceded my presence on this earth, our country was embroiled in World War II, started fighting the Cold War, weathered Watergate, and was in the midst of both a hostage and oil crisis. Despite that, life seemed good. The people on Sesame Street were are varied as the people in my suburban neighborhood and I never thought to give it a second glance.
As a Doctor of American Studies, I watch our electoral process with great interest and this year, with great disgust. I am fond of saying, in reference to politics: you can root for the Miami Dolphins or the Cleveland Browns, but in the end, all the players work for the NFL—“they” are all on the same team. At the end of the football game, you walk away $250 poorer after paying for your ticket, tailgating, hot dog, and beer, and the players (whether they are winners or losers that week) walk way with a $1 million salary. Who wins? They do. Who loses? You do. Despite that, professional football—and professional sports writ large—continues to be a huge industry around the world.
The shame of this election cycle is that our civility has taken a significant knock. The fact of the matter, folks, is that regardless of who claims victory tomorrow, we—you, and I, and everyone that you know and love and even people that you don’t—will need to weather the next four years together. If we spend our time and energy bickering and rooting for “your” team over “my” team, we lose sight of the big picture: that our political system is irreparably broken, about to come to a grinding halt, and in need of some significant attention. The losers in this situation are not “them,” the loser is you, and me, and us. It’s time to reject partisan rhetoric and propaganda and begin to work for long-term, sustainable change.
The necessary attention to fix this broken system won’t come from “them” it comes from “you.” We have been selfishly damaged by the political industrial complex. We have been divided by a desperate political system that is no longer working. We have been “othered” and the belief has been cultivated that we—as either Democrats or Republicans—are somehow fundamentally different. We’re not. We’re the same. We’re American. We share far more commonality than we may realize, but we have lost sight of the realities and civilities, in favor of rooting for “our team.” Something similar has happened in this election. The problem is, just like the NFL, all those folks are on the same team. Has there been some sort of collective amnesia that has caused everyone to forget that Hillary and Donald were friendly until about two years ago? Neither Donald nor Hillary are like you and I. They are part of an elite machine that controls our society, and no matter the outcome of the vote tomorrow, the loser is already clear. The loser of this election will not be Donald or Hillary. The loser will be, sadly, you. And me. And everyone else in this country.
Tomorrow, when you vote, consider voting for candidates that aren’t on the party line. Many candidates receive split endorsements (e.g., they run as a Republican and a Conservative; a Democrat and a Green.) Instead of voting across the R or D line, vote for the same candidates on third party lines. That will ensure that our electoral process opens up and provides the opportunity for more voices, not fewer, to make it to the ballot on our next election day. Voting is just the easiest step, but it is not a solution to the problem.
Understanding is the first step toward a sustainable and longer-term solution. Understanding the real issues that confront real people every day—not the “issues” or propaganda that paid commentators, political operatives, and millionaire talking heads present as “news” on CNN or MSNBC or Fox or “report” from the posh offices of the The New York Times, Associated Press, The Washington Post or Bloomberg or that is regurgitated to us from those sources via bloggers and armchair political pundits, or worse, unfiltered or completed adulterated through Facebook and Twitter. Instead, try watching the most boring channel on TV: C-SPAN. I would bet that you’ll find that the coverage (minus on-screen graphics, sound effects, and sensational headlines) is quite enlightening and allows you to balance the facts of the issue without being told (or strongly persuaded) what to think.
In a world where American Idol, Project Runway, the Voice, the X-Factor, Survivor, Dance Moms, the Bachelor(ette) and other maniacal reality-based dramas stoke our hunger for back-biting, cut-downs, and stinging one-liners, and the simplicity of the binary. Life is rarely binary, and despite this, the constant stream of deluded media have pervaded our sense of reality and we have begun to mimic what we see and hear. Our “news” channels reflect this distorted sense of reality. The problem is that reality TV is not reality, and the viability of our system of government cannot be fueled on one-liners, sound bites, and platitudes. The challenge of our next leader (who may or may not be the person we elect as our next president), will be to break through this cycle of empty rhetoric, reject the politics of division, and live up to the call of challenging the American people to be stronger together in working toward making this country great again.