To Bear Witness
July 31, 2019 by Guest Writer Carolyn Tyjewski / accessibility
"You got jury duty?" my neighbor asked.
"Yeah, it's finally over; what a nightmare...." I said, my head throbbing from the migraine I had for the past day and a half.
"Shoot, you shouldn't have gone. I told them off last time they sent me a summons. Told them to come arrest me; put out a warrant for my arrest!" He shifted in his chair, "I don't care! I'm not wasting money to pay for a ride to go down to a courthouse that I can't get into to get told that I can't be on a jury but I got to pay for rides to get down there every day to sit in a room. You should've told them that, too!"
My neighbor uses a wheelchair to get around in this world; I don't. I'm blind (among other things). However, we both understand the indignities and the injustices that institutionalized discrimination does to people with disabilities. While I understand his position (neither one of us can afford to be paying private companies to cart us hither, thither and yon), I can ride the city bus relatively easily enough, while he cannot. So, I went to attempt to serve, as is my duty as a citizen of this country, but, perhaps I shouldn't have. Perhaps I should have saved myself the time, effort and the three wasted days (not to mention the migraine) and stayed home.
This is the choice Disabled people make virtually every day: is activity worth effort, energy, time and frustration? Institutionalized discrimination is a foregone conclusion. The risk assessment choice is daunting; not unlike Christine Miserandino's Spoon Theory (2003), one has a limited amount of energy to expend in any given 24-hour period. For a non-disabled person, doing the everyday tasks aren't that big a deal: run to the store, go to school, read a book, meet with friends, call several people on the phone, meet with a business associate, etc. For example, for me, going to the store means taking public transportation. I live in what scholars refer to as a "food desert" (there aren't any grocery stores within my local area); so, I must take several buses to go outside of my neighborhood to the grocery store. Because the buses don't run very often, and I must transfer buses, this trip can take anywhere from 4 to 5 hours just to go to and from the grocery store for one bag of groceries, which may last a day or two. What if I'm sick or my asthma is acting up; do I make the 4 to 5-hour trek for food? What's the cost then? Is it worth it?
This is the type of decision I made when I went to the the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas courthouse. I knew it would be problematic when I called the court after I received my summons (as is required by law) to make arrangements for reasonable accommodations. I was rebuffed for making the call and was told by the staff that I didn't need to ask in advance (not true - the law requires it). I was told that everything would be accessible; it wasn't (of course). I was told that they had blind people serving as jurors all the time (which was particularly odd considering the responses I received from staff). So, I knew when I made the decision to go downtown to the courthouse it was going to be bad; I knew I was going to face discrimination. It wasn't a matter of "if" it was a matter of "how much." So, why did I go, you ask? Good question.
Part of me (mostly my pain receptors) didn't want to. Logic says my behind would have been better served staying home, safe in my apartment: no pain, no fuss, no muss. However, the scholar, activist, and other logical side of my brain won this decision. History shows us that for institutions to change, people must be willing to stand up against the status quo. While I'm not particularly fond of antagonizing the institution, I am willing to stand and bear witness, and that's what I was doing at that courthouse: bearing witness. Bearing witness to institutionalized discrimination, for better and worse, is the only way our system allows for the People to seek change within this society, to find justice. I shouldn't be denied the right to read information given to all other prospective jurors simply because either the court had no ADA coordinator or the staff member didn't transfer me to them so that I could request that documents be put in a format that I could use. Or, any one of a wide variety of other things that occurred while I was sitting in the courthouse.
Rabbi Hillel wrote, "If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?" I think this rather famous quote speaks to my two minds on this. Personal preservation logic (if you will) dictates that I stay home; however, what does that make me, knowing full well what the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas is doing? On the other hand, personal and community responsibility says go to that courthouse and do something about it even if it means I risk getting sick, being in pain, etc. Hillel's words suggest that one act not solely based upon one's own self-care but in relationship to others as well. My neighbor can't get on the bus to go to that courthouse, but I can. I bore witness because someone must.
Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) attempted to get the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas to contact them to provide accommodations to me while I did my three days of jury service; they didn't respond to DRO's phone call until over a month after my service had ended. However, I never expected a resolution to my problems; my goal was always to rectify the institutionalized discrimination so that others never experienced these issues in Cuyahoga County courts again. Sometimes, it is necessary to simply bear witness.
Editor's Note: The Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas has since told DRO that they plan to revise their website and procedures for handling accommodation requests. They will also provide training for all staff.
Carolyn Tyjewski has been an activist, scholar and published writer for well over 20 years. She has degrees in Black Studies and English from Ohio State University and did her PhD work at the University of California, Davis. Some of her publications include: "Complexities and Messiness: Race, Gender, Disability and the Carceral State" (two-part series) (https://thefeministwire.com/2015/08/race-gender-disability-carceral-state-part-i/, https://thefeministwire.com/2015/08/race-gender-disability-carceral-state-part-ii/), "The Male Rapunzel in Film: The Intersections of Disability, Gender, Race, and Sexuality," co-authored with Johnson Cheu (Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture. Eds. Elwood Watson and Mark Shaw. Bloomington: Indiana UP. 2011), "Ghosts in the Machine: Civil Rights Laws and the Hybrid 'Invisible Other'" (Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy and Law. Eds. Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin. Vancouver: U British Columbia Press, 2006) and various creative non-fiction pieces like, "Learning Within the Lines: Disability, Education and Possibilities," co-authored with Johnson Cheu (Delirium: An Interdisciplinary Webzine of Culture and Criticism. Disability Culture Issue. 1:4, May 2002).