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As I was writing this month’s column, so many events were takin place that I was hard pressed to decide which topic to cover. One topic that was hard for me to ignore was the Terri Schiavo case. 

The implications of that case may be far-reaching for much of the homeless community because Terry Schiavo was not terminally ill; she was disabled. She was in a vegetative state, but the law defi9ned here as disabled. Much of the homeless community is also defined as disabled; therefore, any court ruling that can take steps to terminate the life of a disabled person can also easily impact other disabled persons in the future and, but extension, a large number of homeless people. 

Some people might say that is stretching things, but the discussions that took place up to the moment of her death were pretty emotional, especially the argument that many mothers might see the Schiavo case as an excuse to leave their babies in hospital to die. Suddenly I was hearing talk that sounded like Brave New World, and I was getting most unnerved.  

Dealing with the disabled is a topic that always arouses a lot of sensitivity in the public and with the government. It is a topic to which I relate, as I am included in the disabled population as well. Were it not for my disabling conditions, I would probably have been long since out of the homeless world and returned to normal life. 

Finding a way to cope with disabilities requires considerable help. That help is not always so accessible, and the providers are not always sensitive to the needs of the disabled either, especially if a disabling condition is a psychiatric condition. War veter5ans, for example, often hear that they need to “snap out of i” when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms impair their functioning, as if it were really so simple to do. 

For the disabled, ending up homeless is very possible, as the difficulty in finding employment is far greater for them. Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a very comprehensive law designed to prevent discrimination against the disabled, employers frequently discriminate anyway. And as I have discovered, filing a complaint guarantees the disabled person very little protection. Complaints take forever to process, and unless the disabled complainant can afford counsel, the chances are the complaint will be thrown out of court. Even though the ADA ensures a complainant that he/she can have the court appoint an attorney for representation, that happens only if the court hears the case. 

For the disabled person who cannot work, receiving disability income from the Social Security Administration can be an incredibly long, protracted battle. The Social Security Administration almost always denies initial claims and forces persons filing to appeal, and the appeals process can be quite lengthy and most often requires the services of attorneys. Many attorneys will work on a pro bono basis, but the process can still go on for months and even years. 

In the meantime, the disabled applicant must survive on a shoestring budget. In the District of Columbia, the Department of Human Services does give interim disability assistance to persons waiting to receive disability income from the Social Security Administration, but the amount is quite low ($239 per month at present, not an amount on which anyone could expect to live). Even with the addition of food stamps, the amount is insufficient. 

For anybody who thinks erroneously that the disabled have an easy life, I can assure you there is nothing glamorous or attractive about being disabled. Too often I have heard the Victorians of the Bush era say that all benefits to the disabled should be cut and that the disabled should be left to starve, very much as Terri Schiavo was allowed to die of starvation. 

It is easy to hit at the weak part of the population that is least able to defend itself, and no doubt the elderly could be next. However, that would not happen without a revolution. 

I still remember a delightful Belgian film that I saw when I lived abroad, about a retirement home in Brussels in which the residents, fed up with the abuse from the staff, revolted and took over, displaying signs that read, “Les Vieux au Pouvoir” (“The Elderly in Power”) as they stood on the rooftop. If the elderly and disabled are threatened too much, such a scenario could well take place; many of the disabled and elderly are people who have served this country faithfully and are not about to be marginalized because of an arbitrary decision. 

Even though the Bush administration decided to express outrage after Terri Schiavo’s death, that did not bring her back to life. A lot of people are not sleeping as easily now as they did before because of that story. I seriously doubt that many people will be able to put the matter aside and move on very easily.