An interview with Heiwa Salovitz: why oral history matters to me

Date: Tuesday, October 11, 2011, evening
Context: Listen for a Change: Oral History & Social Justice Workshop Series
Location: ADAPT of Texas office, 1640-A East Second Street, Austin, Texas 78702
Interviewer/Facilitator: Erica Suprenant
Videographer: Shannon Elizondo
Camera: Flip
External Microphone: None
Lights: Existing office lights
Transcriber: Virginia Marie Raymond, October 13, 2011
Approved: Heiwa Saolvitz, November 17, 2011
Posted: Virginia Marie Raymond, November 18, 2011

ERICA SURPRENANT: Ready? Okay!

[nod]

SURPRENANT: We have Heiwa here. He is going to be interviewed.

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Yes.

ES: We are at the ADAPT offices in East Austin. It’s October 11, 2011. I’m Erica and I have Shannon working the camera.

HEIWA SALOVITZ: What brings me to oral history? Well as a person with a disability, I’ve had my disability all my life, people with disabilities tend to be seen as the invisible people. We tend not to document their stories; we tend not to listen to them; we tend not to think their lives are interesting. So that’s what brings me to oral history, cause I want people to learn about my story. I want to learn about theirs, and so we can see the commonality in the struggle, because we all have struggle. We all have things we can learn from each other, things we can contribute to society, and hopefully change society for the better.

And it’s just interesting to hear different people’s perspectives on their life and their world experiences.

Let’s see. What else?

ES: Do you want to talk a little bit about how your experience brought you..

HEIWA SALOVITZ: My experience brought me..

ES: …here?

HEIWA SALOVITZ: ..to ADAPT of Texas. I actually learned about ADAPT many years ago but didn’t start going to what we call “national actions” – we have two national actions a year, usually in D.C. ‘cause that’s where all these nice little laws are made that we have to fight – I started in 2009. I took an eighteen-hour train trip from Connecticut to Atlanta. It was my first national action and it was, well it was life-changing.

And about a year ago I decided to come from Connecticut, where I was living at the time, to Austin. And that’s also interesting. It’s an interesting dichotomy of people and perspectives. I hear that, “Well, you’re from the East Coast” – and I’m actually from California – and I hear “you’re from the East Coast”; I’m from the East Coast and rude. Or, rude and stupid, don’t say “thank you,” don’t have manners. And some of that’s true but that’s also a broad generalization like saying all people from Texas are racists.

It’s been interesting deal with the governor of Texas, Rick Perry. And I dealt with him during the legislative session. ADAPT and other disability groups were trying to change policy of the various budget cuts, cause he was ready to slash community-based services, which are basically attendant services that keep us in our homes and are a fifth of the cost of institutional care.

There’s institutional bias. What I mean by that is the only entitlement someone with a disability has, when they are born, when they come into this world, is basically to go into a nursing home or what we here call “state schools.” And we in Texas have thirteen of them, which is much larger than any other state, and there’s about four thousand people right now imprisoned.

And as I do this, and later in the evening, I can decide what to say, and I can decide what to wear, and I can decide when to go outside and what to eat. And some people in institutions, the high point of their day is whether they have green Jello on the menu, and they’re not listened to, so that’s why I find oral history interesting.

ES: Do you feel, how does it make you feel — you said you experience these freedoms that some four-thousand people don’t —

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Yeah

ES: How do you compare yourself to that? Or what do you see as your role. .

HEIWA SALOWITZ: Well

ES: ..in that regard?

HEIWA SALOVITZ: I see my role, I think I said before. If I didn’t I’ll say it again or I will clarify. I am one voice that speaks for them. So when I’m speaking, I’m not just speaking Heiwa’s perspective, although I have my own vantage point and my own experiences. I am speaking for the people you don’t hear: the people in the state schools, the people in the nursing homes, the people that are too afraid and beat down by life. It’s just, “Well, you person with a disability, we don’t want to hear from you” and you have to be nice and polite. You have to follow the rules and don’t rock the boat.

Well, ADAPT does a four-pronged approach to advocacy. One of the prongs, and what we’re most known for, is non-violent civil disobedience, which basically means we’re willing to get arrested for what we believe in.

I’ve been arrested here in Austin protesting the governor, and arrested in D.C. In fact, right now I’m supposed to be behaving until the end of January, because I can’t be arrested. So that was sort of difficult this last action that we had back in September, a couple of weeks ago.

ES: Do you want to talk a little more about that experience, or about being arrested and what that meant..

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Being arrested is. .

ES: ..or

HEIWA SALOVITZ:. .a level of commitment. We don’t force people to do it, but we strongly encourage it, because that lets people that aren’t with ADAPT and with the disability rights movement understand that we’re willing to go to that level to get ourselves heard.

And still to this day, you don’t see us primarily on the news. You don’t see us on CNN, although when we were in Atlanta we took over CNN’s lobby in protest over some of the idiotic statements they made in public about people with disabilities.

ES: Do you see the arrests and the protests as part of the movement and as part of your place in the movement as well?

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Yes. And it’s also part of the bigger social justice movement, and what irritates me – ‘cause I also come from a social justice movement of prisoner rights also, on the East Coast — they did not understand the commonality of people with disabilities being in, the commonality of the social justice movement, and of exclusion.

So whether you were talking the anti-war movement or prisoner rights movement or gay rights movement, very few people I dealt with, although I was close to them, dealt with all the various groups, the Socialist groups, the Marxist groups, they still didn’t get the need for just basic accessibility. Well…example: Why should the bus that we’re taking to D.C. be accessible?

And that’s one of the reasons – there are many – but that’s one of the reasons I left Connecticut and came down here to Austin, because I knew fighting with ADAPT I’d be fighting not only with a purpose, but with people with common goals, people with disabilities and people without disabilities.

ES: So seeing yourself, or disabled people in general, as an oppressed people, and oppressed people in a social justice movement. I think you’re right about that.

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Yes.

ES: Yeah.

HEIWA SALOVITZ: And also, all people can learn from other people. ADAPT is the one group that takes everyone. We take people with disabilities, we take people without disabilities, we take people with psychiatric disabilities and other pretty intense issues. And it’s pretty well-known that we will accept you, and we will figure out a place for you in this movement. And it’s very family-oriented.

ES: Great. Well, what else would you like to share about your time with ADAPT and how –? You did say that you went to one of the national meetings and that it was life-changing.

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Oh. Yeah. Well, my first national action was, as I said, in oh-nine (09) and I’ve been to several since then. It was life-changing. I already had a pretty substantial social justice background, so I understood what I was in for and what was expected of me.

And then now because I’m part of what we call one of the ADAPT chapters here in Austin. We have a very, in some ways, military structure where we have color leaders which are responsible for about forty different other people. And you’re responsible for making sure they’re okay and make sure they follow directions and make sure everybody gets home safe.

We also have a saying that “No one is left behind.” We are family and we will make sure that nothing bad ever happens to you. And when someone gets arrested – I was on the other side of that fence this time in that I was one of the people that waited out all night for them to be released. And the first person was released at 2:30 that morning. The last person was released at 9:30 that morning.

And you just don’t understand the feeling of that when you’re inside, and you see these people just outside, ready to greet you with open arms, ready to tell you how you how proud they are of you, ready to feed you even if it’s cold pizza. So that’s a great part of being part of the social justice movement and part of ADAPT.

ES: Great. Great. So just in my personal experience with ADAPT, the brief experience that I have had, I’ve felt just welcome, completely welcome, completely at home.

And so tell me a little bit more – you did speak to a little bit – but tell me a little bit more about what being part of the ADAPT community has meant to you personally, and then also to what it means to further your personal or your movement with disability rights.

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Well, myself in particular and most of us — I will speak to this — we have very complex family issues so ADAPT becomes not like family; they become our family in fact. We refer to each other as brother and sisters, and when we have birthdays or the good times, we make sure those are celebrated, but even the bad times – when we lose somebody, when somebody dies, when somebody gets really sick, and we don’t see them on a national action, or locally, we make sure they’re okay.

If they’ve passed on, we make sure to tell their story. There are people that have died who have had a tremendous impact on me as an ADAPTer and I hope we, still living on this earth, I do them justice by speaking.

ES: Heiwa, I actually had the pleasure of seeing you last session almost every single day at the Capitol…

[Laughter]

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Yes.

ES: ..I wasn’t working on the same issue but we were also there fighting budget cuts and I think I saw you to communities across the board, and I think I saw you more than anyone else, so it was always a pleasure of mine.

But can you talk a little bit about your experience last session at the Capitol, and the feeling that you got up there and what you experienced personally and how things went in general for you.

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Well, the legislative visits – and that’s a good question – the legislative visits are important. They’re not as glamorous or as fun or as dramatic sometimes, but they are important and they are part of advocacy, the “pitchfork” approach in that we will go and try to have the meetings with the senators and the representatives. We will go once a week, or twice a week. One time we had actually been arrested the night before, and to get to a budget hearing for Health and Human Services Committee, we stayed up all night and were there at 7:30 in the morning in order to do that.

So that’s important because if the halls of power don’t see you there, they also don’t understand that you, as I said before, don’t just represent yourself, but also represent the people they don’t see. I think it was Senator Whitmire who said, “Put a face to the issue.”

And testified, that, well, I’m one of the faces. This is a face to the issue. This is what’s going to happen with these budget cuts.

ES: And so it really is important to the movement I think, especially for something so critical as cuts, budget, it’s always about money..

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Yes.

ES: ..but if you bring people into it – do you want to talk a little bit more about that importance?

HEIWA SALOVITZ: Well, because as you said, it’s always about money, so they either don’t see or forget that there’s human, a human component to it. If my services – community-based services – are cut, or my Medicaid is cut, I can’t be an active part of the community, as Texas as a state. And that diminishes Texas and that diminishes me. It does a disservice to our nation.

And our nation tends to like to consider ourselves as above everybody in social justice issues. We are far below other nations, other countries. Hopefully, by my small part in this movement, I’ve made a difference.

Copyright Heiwa Salowitz and ADAPT of Texas, 2012.