Disability rights professor shares his story at Watson Symposium

The daylong conference featured speakers who talked about topics including bio-ethics and contemporary medicine.

In 2010, William J. Peace was critically ill with a badly infected wound. Doctors told him he would be bed-bound for at least six months, maybe a year. But, they said, the wound might never heal. He might never be able to sit in his wheelchair or work again. Then they said the words that Peace said people with disabilities hear too often, “we can make you comfortable.”

They said it was his choice – he could stay on his current treatment track and risk being dependent on other people for the rest of his life, or he could stop all treatment and die comfortably. Peace chose to live.

Four years later, he sat in his wheelchair at the head of room 304 in Schine Student Center and told this story as an example of how society undervalues disabled lives. Peace was this year’s Jeannette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities. His speech kicked off last Friday’s daylong 2014 Watson Symposium in the Humanities, which held the theme “Lives Worth Living,” and focused on topics of disability and bioethics.

After Peace’s speech, Brenda Brueggemann, an English studies professor at the University of Louisville, discussed the Nazi T-4 Project. Barbara Farlow, whose 3-month-old daughter Annie died of Trisomy 13/18, a life-threatening condition, spoke about the disease and its effect on children. Pulitzer Prize winning author Sherri Fink closed out the symposium with a reading from her book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.

Fink, whose book looks into patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina, said that Peace’s speech was “terrific” and “eye-opening.” She linked Peace’s view of disability, to focus on the positive rather than negative, to her research in disaster situations. If a hospital loses power, for example, Fink said they should be innovative and think of all of the things they can do instead of focusing on what they can’t.

In addition to his own story, Peace told the audience about Tim Bowers. In November of last year, Bowers fell out of a tree while on a hunting trip. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down and needed a ventilator to breathe. Bowers’s family asked his doctors to take him out of sedation and to give him the choice to live or die. Peace said that the family framed Bowers’s decision. They told him that he would never hold his child, would never hunt again and would never give anyone a hug. They focused on the negative. Bowers, unlike Peace, chose to die.

“I look at a person in that situation and I don’t see all the things they can’t do,” Peace said. “I see all the things a vent-dependent person can do.”

Disability, Peace said, is a social problem. Many issues people with disabilities have with mobility and accessibility, Peace said, do not stem from their medical history, but instead from a society set up to favor the non-disabled. He gave the example of curb cuts, the little dip in sidewalks that lets wheelchairs—and suitcases, strollers, and anything else with wheels—move easily from the sidewalk onto the street. While many people take curb cuts for granted, Peace said that they are a fight for people with disabilities. A big fight.

Peace said that people with disabilities have to fight daily, sometimes just to muster the strength to leave their homes and face the negative social atmosphere that the non-disabled culture creates. Facing that culture, Peace said, is like “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this struggle, Peace continues to fight for disability rights. He made two things clear about his experience having a disability in society. Toward the end of his speech Peace said, “I’m glad to be alive.” He also said, “Paralyses was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

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