Disability, poverty, and Hurricane Katrina

Disability, poverty, and Hurricane Katrina

Michael Millington

Time Picayune, November 17th, 2005. The arrest of parish councilman Joe Impastato on extortion charges took the headlines today. According to the FBI, my representative was videotaped pocketing a $100,000 mark up on a $200,000 trash hauling contract. Authorities note that this is only the first installment on indictments to come as the Hurricane Fraud Task Force cracks down on public piracy and corruption. Beneath the headline and the fold is the story of Ethel Mayo Freeman, 91, who was finally laid to rest at Mt. Olivet Cemetery … two months after her death. You may remember the photo of the anonymous corpse in the wheelchair, shrouded with an afghan, outside of the Morial Convention center. That was Ethel Freeman. “She was calling out for a doctor or a nurse,” said her son as he recalled how his mother died, “but there was nothing there”.

I live in a world where these headlines coexist peacefully on the same page, day after day. As Billy Tauzin was quoted as saying in the Time magazine special issue on Hurricane Katrina, “Half of Louisiana is underwater, and the other half is under indictment.” Katrina did not cause our problems, but exposed them. Katrina ripped the roof off of New Orleans and showed us the consequences of moral, political, and economic poverty played out over decades of abuse. The diaspora of the poor was no accident. We knew that the hurricane would come one day. We knew what areas of the city would flood. We knew lives would be lost, families destroyed and communities decimated–but they were poor families, impoverished communities who never had a voice with which to object. We, as a state and as a nation simply did not care enough to stop the corruption that would lead inevitably to Mt. Olivet Cemetery. The root of poverty is not with the working poor and the disenfranchised, but in the hearts and minds of people like Joe Impastato, who, generation after generation have been allowed to fashion the kleptocracy of neglect that now hangs like dark shroud over the City that Care Forgot.

To be honest, I am less interested in the dynamics of poverty and disability than I am in the refutation of the class system that supports it. Dwelling on the evil does not extinguish it. We need a revolution down here, one that offers an inclusive community, not a gated one. I have seen much in the response of those who stayed, and those who came to help to give me hope that such a soft revolution could occur.

Although less well reported, Katrina also revealed our strengths. The countless acts of heroism large and small are in each case a response to the call of community. Friends who have lost everything tell stories of rescue. Families take in strangers. Cities across the nation marshal resources to take in thousands of evacuees. Rehabilitation professionals manned special needs shelters, filling in as PCA’s … Mobile career centers, totally accessible and manned with navigators, are set up and linked by satellite, expressedly to ensure that people with disabilities are included in the reconstituted workforce. Websites proliferate with disability-related information and access to service. Service Agencies are collaborating across borders. The National Organization on Disability has already moved through an initial needs assessment and towards strategic improvement of response in emergency planning. For a shining moment, everyone has dropped their political baggage, rolled up their sleeves, and gone to work to bring New Orleans and the gulf coast back to life. It is a sometimes chaotic but aggressively appropriate response of a people to a grave and existential threat. I am proud to be here, and I am proud of the community of professionals who are working out of the back of their cars for the cause of community inclusion. Now, if we can only make the moment last. That would be a topic worth researching.

–Michael Millington, Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Millington was asked by the Editors of the Journal of Rehabilitation to write a guest editorial on disability, poverty, and Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Millington lives and works in New Orleans. During his twenty years of professional experience dealing with issues of employment for people with disabilities he has emphasized a systemic, ecological, and market driven approach to service delivery. He taught for nine years at Louisiana State University and Auburn University and has published 26 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, focusing primarily on employment and ethics. Currently he works in partnership with the Louisiana Business Leadership Network and consults with the Jefferson Parish Chamber of Commerce in its efforts to rebuild opportunities for people with disabilities in the Post-Katrina New Orleans Metropolitan area.

COPYRIGHT 2005 National Rehabilitation Association

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