Mouth asks,

Nat, You're an outsider, a journalist. What would it take to get non-diabled people to see us?

I wish I had an easy — or even a difficult — answer to that.

It seems to me that people are really self-absorbed. Self absorption is understandable to a large extent if you have to work two or three jobs, and if your focus is on getting enough money to eat and for the basic medical care for your kids.
But what about the people who read the New York Times and watch public television?
There was an English movie years ago called "I'm All Right, Jack," the idea being that if everything's cooking all right for me, then I don't want to think about other people who may have other problems.
Most of the people I know, they probably don't think about it much. If you ask them, they say, 'Oh, yeah. I'm for disability rights and we've got a law, haven't we?' So that takes care of that. It's not in the forefront of their thinking.

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an interview with Nat Henthoff
by Josie Byzek
photo by Meg Handler

This interview first appeared in Mouth magazine in November 2000

photo of nat, taken by Meg Handler

Nat Henthoff is columnist and staff writer for the Village Voice, and also writes a column for the United Media News Syndicate which may appear in your local paper. He has published more than two dozen books, among them a number of books on jazz and on freedom of speech, two subjects on which he is considered expert. Hentoff describes himself as "an atheist. I'm Jewish, I'm a civil libertarian. And I am, unlike most people I know including my wife, pro-life."
Josie Byzek, who conducted this interview, describes him as "a man who speaks in complete sentences and whole thoughts."





What made you see us yourself?





I grew up in Boston, during the Depression. Boston was a very anti Semitic city. People would come out at night, thugs, and they'd beat up Jews because Jews were Christ-killers.
I saw some kids ‹ one who had had something thrust in his head. He was 'never the same.' His parents would not send him away to some institution, so he grew up in the neighborhood.
But one thing that alerted me to the disability rights movement was when I went to a disability conference in Minnesota and met a lot of people who had all kinds of disabilities. They were functioning quite well, a lot sharper, mentally, than a lot of other people that I know -- including politicians and even judges.
The mind set that operated in me after that was, when I would go to a theater, or night club, or on subways, I would think almost automatically, how can people who can't get up those stairs... where is the provision for them?
Then of course I found out a lot about Adapt, and the kind of direct action and civil disobedience they were doing. It struck me as entirely within the Gandhi-Martin Luther King, Jr., tradition, so that's part of it.
I've gotten to know people, including the editor of Mouth, and Mary Jane Owen. So I keep getting educated, I hope.

How do you talk about this to the non-disabled?

I get to be kind of a nudge.

When I go someplace, even with my kids, I have to go, 'Hey! Suppose you were in a wheelchair, or suppose you couldn't do this or that, how would you get around here?
It becomes automatic after a while. It's like I'm on a train, and I go into a station where there are no elevators. I wonder how people get up. How can they take the damn train to begin with?
Once you begin thinking that way... I think at least my kids think that way now.

How do you think we should go about getting non-disabled people to wake up?s

The way to get people to think is to catch them unawares. Not to preach to them, or try to reach their 'inner moral center' if you can find it, but to do something like a comic strip.

If there were a really sharp, funny but serious comic strip about disability... Have you seen 'Boondocks?' It isn't very funny. It's mordant, the kind of humor that stings.
There are ways of showing the injustices that will get people involved -- not because they care to begin with. The best way to do it is telling stories about people. If you get more journalists to do that, that would be a help.
The death penalty, which I've been writing about for years, it's only recently that a human face has been put on people who are about to be killed. Increasingly, when they find out through DNA that the person didn't do the crime at all, that's when the general population gets to know, three-dimensionally, who people are. That can begin to bridge the distance that people have between 'their own kinds of people' and people who are not like themselves.
If there were a way to get Mouth into the classrooms... It could reach a lot more people who are not predisposed to understand what it says. So I don't know how to do that, but I would look for a way to distribute the magazine more outside the disability community.
Where I live, in the Village, I see a fair number of people in these motorized chairs. It's not that people either want or don't want to see them. They're there!
It's part of the regular way of looking at things, with people in chairs just whizzing along doing what they want to do. They're seen as normal. They don't stick out because they're part of the scene.

'Are people still saying, 'I'd rather be dead than be disabled'?

That's 'Death with Dignity.'

When there is this predilection to keep people away who are disabled, you can go further and say we'd have a better society if we bred people who are more perfect. There's an undercurrent of that going on now.
I know a fair number of people who say that if they get a stroke, or Lou Gehrig's disease, they'd rather die.
This culture is becoming, to some extent, a culture of death. We have this in Oregon now, with assisted suicide. It's really frightening to me, what's happening in the Netherlands. They set it up originally so that the patient had to be competent, had to ask for it, and have a long period of time to think about it. But now they're using this 'assisted suicide' on children, very young children with disabilities.
There are parents in the Netherlands who concur in that and sometimes ask for it. Then if other parents say, 'No, we love our children, they're people too,' they're regarded as sort of odd, like, 'Well, why don't you?' You know, the Peter Singer approach: Why not try again and get a perfect child, a normal child?
The kernel at the center of the whole Nazi movement was that certain people did not have lives worth living. They were 'useless eaters.'

How does that tie in with managed care?

We have medical rationing. We've had it for a long time.

Even before HMOs, if you were poor, or if you were working class, you would get fewer medical benefits, or less access to medical treatment, than people who were middle class or upper.
There are recent studies that show Blacks get even less! -- that doctors tend not to pay as much attention to black patients because the doctors figure, 'Well, their conditions are such that they'd relapse anyway' or something like that.
And then, of course, there are some doctors who really think the best, the 'most merciful' way out for people with so-called severe disabilities is for them to die ‹ either by assisted suicide or not-assisted suicide.
Like Cardinal Bernardine used to say to pro-lifers, 'If you're pro life, it's not enough to be against abortion. You have to be against assisted suicide, euthanasia, war, poverty, anything that diminishes life.' He called it 'The Seamless Garment' and there's a network of that name now. They put out a very good publication called Harmony.
It used to be that almost everybody was at least treasured, and respected the life force in themselves and others ‹ at least some of the others like themselves. But the idea is increasing that if you're not able to function the way most people function, then maybe the best way is for you to die with dignity.

So abortion is somehow related to euthanasia?

Respect for life cuts across all other forms of respect.

The Supreme Court decision that came down the same day as Roe v. Wade in 1973 is called Doe v. Bolton. It says that the woman's health should be a factor. 'Health' includes not only serious damage to the woman's health, but anything that's emotionally or otherwise burdensome about having a child. Anything that's irritating, anything that would get in the way of self-fulfillment.
That's one of the reasons I'm pro-life. The Court created a big, open door, as I see it, to killing human beings.
It's not a direct connection, but sort of a subtext. The ease with which Roe v. Wade allows millions of potential human beings to be killed has helped accelerate the culture of death. Once you get used to killing in that way, it's not so difficult to move on, to disrespect human life that's unlike yours or doesn't look like it's going to develop the way you think human life should develop.
The first feminists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were almost violently pro-life. They felt that abortion was a further exploitation of women by men.-




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