An Equality, Disabled

Prior to the recent uproar of gender equality and feminism discussion on campus, another form of equality caused debates to stir and Facebook profile pictures to change. Marriage equality was a topic that ran rampant through our conversations at mealtimes and the feeds of our social network accounts. A few weeks ago, many people who supported gay marriage changed their profile pictures on Facebook to a picture of a red equals sign in response to the Defense of Marriage Act discussion.

Though the abolishment of DOMA would be one step in the positive direction, I do not believe that it will create marriage “equality,” because Americans with mental disabilities will still be denied the marriage rights given to non-disabled Americans. Those who suffer from a severe mental disability are forbidden by law to marry another mentally disabled person in more than 30 states, according to “Slate” magazine.

I understand that such a marriage could potentially be unsafe. For this reason, I am not arguing that mentally disabled people should be allowed to marry other mentally disabled people. Rather, I am acknowledging that this law is accepted in many states. It is imperative that we understand this before we use the term “equality” so lightly.

This fall, I began participating in the community service program ARC, which meets every Tuesday evening from 6:15 to 7:50. At ARC, each Andover student, or a duo of Andover students, is paired with a mentally disabled “buddy.” We spend our hour and a half with our buddies doing whatever they please, whether it be a sport, drawing or simply sitting and conversing.

This spring marks my third term involved with ARC. I would not say that my experience with ARC was as easy when I began in the fall as it is now. At first, I struggled to build a connection with my buddy. Although I have friends and family with mental disabilities, I worried that only spending an hour and a half per week with my ARC buddy would simply not be sufficient to create the bond I hoped for.

However, I slowly began to discover that, like any friendship, the limited time I had with my buddy did not stop me from forming a connection. I learned that each buddy at ARC has his or her own set of likes and dislikes. Simultaneously, I developed a deep respect for the ARC program. I grew to understand that, despite their challenges, each ARC buddy is just as much of a person as I am.

For ARC this term, I listened to a speaker named Keith Jones, a hip-hop artist and activist for disability-rights. Jones was born with a physical disability called cerebral palsy. During his speech, he voiced the idea that marriage equality must mean equality for all people, including the mentally disabled. He spoke about how we often classify the mentally disabled into a different section than the non-mentally disabled. We subconsciously treat the mentally disabled differently than we would our peers at Andover.

But in many ways, mentally disabled are people just like us. We often overlook this fact and believe that they require certain attention and must be treated differently. I, myself, have been guilty of this bias. But we must learn to treat the mentally disabled as they are: people. Consequently we must also consider the mentally-disabled when we speak of marriage “equality.” While abolishing DOMA makes the marriage rights of heterosexuals and homosexuals equal, it does not address the rights of the nearly 15 million Americans who suffer from mental disability.

I, like many of my peers, I assume, have a family member born with a mental disability. Though he may have different challenges than you or me, my uncle deserves the right to be considered a person just like the rest of us, and that includes the right to marry. Until we extend this right to everyone, including the mentally disabled, we have failed as a nation to bring true universal marriage equality.

Meera Patel is a two-year Lower from Andover, Mass.