"I'm glad I don't have to cover social services budget hearings," a friend told me at the capitol recently. "I hate it when they trot out the handicapped to get funding."
It was the echo of a sentiment I heard earlier in the year, when one of the chief proponents of the tax initiative movement explained that he skipped a meeting with low-income advocacy groups that he'd agreed to attend because, "I knew they'd just trot out a bunch of poor or handicapped people and try to make me feel bad."I view the testimony process at appropriations meetings a bit differently. I actually look forward to them, although I am sometimes depressed by what I hear. Like most people, I don't like to see people in pain or dire need.
On the other hand, the hearings are an eye-opener. They force us - lawmakers and private citizens alike - to acknowledge things we might otherwise ignore or gloss over.
Let me put it on a more personal level. My parents are both totally blind. And it used to really irritate me when people would ask questions that I viewed as stupid, like "How do they dial the phone?" (The appropriate answer, I thought, was "with their fingers." To my father, the answer was always, "I know where the buttons are; it's like touch-typing.")
I remember expressing my irritation to Mom. Her reply gave me a whole new perspective.
"How," she wondered, "will people know if they don't ask? You grew up with us, but they didn't. You know Dad and I are very capable. But if no one else ever saw us or talked to us, how would they have any idea about our capabilities, or the things we can't do?"
The appropriations meetings are like that.
And in the process of introducing us to people who live different lives with different limitations, they knock over some of our preconceptions and misconceptions about such people.
It's hard to hold onto a stereotype when you're looking straight at a person who has tangible problems, dreams, and feelings, a person who doesn't match your expectations.
I'm sure, for example, that we've all heard someone talk about "welfare bums" - people who are too lazy to work and would rather spend the poor taxpayer's money on cigarettes, soda pop and chocolates.
By a huge majority, the people who benefit from Aid to Families with Dependent Children are just people who need help to get out of a situation.
When you talk to them and learn that the benefits don't even raise recipients to poverty level, your viewpoint changes. No one is living in luxury at the taxpayer's expense. At least not in Utah.
But to see people as they really are, we have to humanize the process.
There's no better way to do that than to let the people speak for themselves, to share a little of their lives and experiences so that we can learn from them.
I resent the perception that when someone who is disadvantaged in some way speaks out for programs or services, he is playing for sympathy or manipulating the system. But if Allan Average speaks, he's lobbying, doing his duty, exercising his rights.
I've learned alot from the so-called "trotting out of the handicapped," which is, incidentally, an incredibly offensive term.
Just last week, I listened to a man who is himself a taxpayer, but lives in a wheelchair, has terrible medical problems, and must rely on a paid attendant for basic things, like a drink or to position his arms.
The attendant, he said, is only paid $6,000 a year and consequently it is very hard to keep the position filled. It's a real problem, he told lawmakers, but not as serious as not having the program that enables him to hire an attendant.
It takes incredible courage for these people to appear in a public meeting before legislators (and I find that a lot of people hold lawmakers in awe, earned or not) and tell their stories.
I've heard people talk about their mental illnesses, their battles with drugs or alcohol, about the difficulty they experience getting into a public bathroom with their wheelchairs.
They give up a piece of the privacy they deserve so that a group of senators and representatives can have the information they need to make logical, humane and extremely important decisions.
They remind old Allan Average that their lives may be different but are still important and to be treasured and protected.
And finally, who has a better right to speak for the needs of the handicapped or the disadvantaged than the people themselves?
I like the system where everyone can be heard - if they make the effort to speak up.