Accessing The College Experience

Photo of a green highway-type sign with white letters reading "College Just Ahead", in front of a partly cloudy sky background

It’s just about college starting time, so I am sharing two very different videos that have me thinking back to when I started college.

The first is an advice video by Robyn Lambird, for disabled people getting ready to go to college:

This is all excellent advice. I'm not even sure I would add anything to Robyn's five points. Anything more would be either general life advice, or the thick weeds of self-advocacy strategy and tactics ... which would really require several more videos. This is a great start for anyone with a disability getting ready to go to college.

The next video I think calls for something like a “Privilege Warning,” because I’m going to talk about accessibility of a very elite and exclusive college experience. You’ll either find the video charming or disgusting, probably based on your view of the relative nature of social privilege and top-dollar private colleges.

This is a video about Freshman Trips at Dartmouth College, which is where I graduated. A friend of my mother’s brought her daughter to visit Dartmouth back in the Spring, and I drove over to have lunch with them. Going back to visit Dartmouth always makes me nostalgic. Dartmouth is really good at doing that, and it’s entirely deliberate. It all starts with those Freshman Trips … a variety of hiking, biking, canoeing, and other outdoor activities organized by the Dartmouth Outing Club. The idea is to initiate, (indoctrinate?), incoming Freshmen to the Dartmouth culture, and bond them as a class, while introducing them to the natural beauty of New Hampshire that surrounds Dartmouth.

My connection to Freshman Trips at Dartmouth is complicated. I signed up to go on a beginner-level hike, which seemed at the time like the only physically feasible option for me. As I have written about before though, I got very sick a few weeks before starting Dartmouth, and so acute illness prevented me from going on a trip. So, I missed this pivotal bonding experience, in a way because of my disabilities, in a way not. I would have missed it still, even if it was Measles or Mono or something like that. However, it seems pretty obvious to me now that the trip might have been a disaster anyway. There were no adaptations planned, and I don’t know what they could have done to accommodate me even if I had asked. I do remember that some arrangements were made for me to join in the final evening’s activities at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, so at least some people there knew that being included would be important for me. I don’t recall exactly why I didn’t end up going even to that event, but it was probably health related. As I said, I was dealing with a mix of my underlying disabilities and acute illness nobody could really do anything about. Sometimes, when you’re sick, you’re just plain sick.

Watching this video now, I wonder whether the Freshman Trips at Dartmouth today accommodate students with disabilities. The campus is much more accessible today than it was when I was there in the late ‘80s, so it seems reasonable that there are mechanisms to ensure that the full Freshman Trip experience is accessible to disabled students. But I don’t see any evidence of this in the video. Although Dartmouth is, by some measures, one of the more conservative of the stodgy, elitist Ivy League colleges, the actual, on-campus culture includes a strong interest in social justice. Of course, as we all know, politically progressive cultures don’t always have a clue about disability rights. It's equally possible I would find the current arrangements really impressive, or completely unchanged 31 years later.

I should probably send an email to the Alumni Magazine or something and ask about it. In fact, I am curious now about all sorts of things having to do with disability at Dartmouth. Despite missing out on a few things, my experience as a disabled student at Dartmouth was very positive. As I think I have mentioned in this blog before, at the time, Dartmouth dealt with disability mostly on an ad hoc, accommodative basis. There wasn’t much accessibility and consideration of rights built into the system yet, but the general attitude of the administration and faculty was to be responsive to student’s needs. That fits with the overall culture of Dartmouth. They are very selective about who they admit, but once you’re in, they want you to succeed and will do a lot to see that it happens.

I wonder how much of that has changed, and if it is all for the better. My worry is that there may be more institutionalized supports and recognition of rights, but also more bureaucracy defensiveness surrounding it.

I’m definitely going to try to find out.

Weekly Reading List: Air Travel Edition

Illustration of a two-engine airliner viewed face-on in flight, with a blue sky background and a few wispy white clouds

Games They Play
Athena Stevens, Center for Disability Rights - June 10, 2016

The Others: The Disabled and United Airlines
Brian Rivera, Medium - June 6, 2016

Get Wheelchair Travel Tips on Airports and Plane Flights: check-in, security, aisle chairs and more!
Wheelchair Traveling - October 25, 2012

All Wheels Up, Inc.

I recently started watching YouTube videos of high-end air travel experiences. There’s something almost obsessively indulgent about vicariously enjoying a luxury flight from London to Los Angeles, or flying to New Zealand with a couple of fun, carefree young travelers lucky enough to to get a Business Class upgrade. The only thing I’d like better would be videos of disabled people traveling this way, with this kind of pampering and enjoyment. I've seen wheelchair travel videos on YouTube that are basically "how to" guides, like the video linked above, but none that show either really good wheelchair flying experiences, or any that document how badly things can and often do go wrong.

Of all the consumer service businesses, airlines may be the worst when it comes to accommodating customers with disabilities, especially significant mobility impairments. The only wheelchair users I have met who haven’t had at least one spectacularly bad experience with air travel are those who have never flown.

There are probably several reasons for this.

Airlines aren't known for flawless service as it is, at least for passengers flying Coach. While the industry does manage to move millions of people a week over miraculous distances, with just a tiny number of catastrophic failures, most fliers with or without disabilities have stories about being treated like cattle, or worse.

It’s also undeniably true that the way airliners are designed makes real, independent accessibility extremely difficult, at least from the airlines’ perspective. Aircraft aisles are narrow, and the only way to accommodate peoples own wheelchairs in-flight would be to remove seats, which is something airlines simply can’t fathom ever doing … except for the notable fact that First Class sections are comfortable precisely because they put in fewer seats.

Finally, based on the articles linked above, it appears that airlines cope with the accessibility and accommodation requirements that are imposed on them by dividing responsibility among several adjunct service providers. Flight attendants aren’t responsible for getting disabled passengers on and off planes. Wheelchairs are handled by baggage people who have no contact with the wheelchair users themselves, or even the airlines. There are probably mundane business reasons to run things this way, but intentionally or not, it also everyone involved with deniability. Everyone is responsible and nobody is responsible.

The upshot is that disabled people, especially those with wheelchairs, almost have to expect to be treated terribly, and possibly suffer significant physical and financial harm, if they attempt to fly as freely as everyone else does. It seems like no amount of advance preparation and perfect self-advocacy has much effect at all on outcomes. Sometimes everything works our fine. Sometimes everything goes wrong. It’s a crap shoot with at best even odds.

Aside from the physical failures, disabled people also end up feeling that they are simply not wanted. By and large, it just seems like airlines would rather that disabled people didn’t fly at all. They certainly don't seem to try very hard to make disabled passengers feel welcomed, or to feel that anything but absolutely essential air travel is ever a good idea. And for what it's worth, I think a lot of non-disabled frequent fliers feel the same way. Read an article on the perils of flying with a disability, and if there's a comment section, someone will post something to the effect that people who can't hack flying shouldn't fly.

When a restaurant has steps to get in or an accessible restroom blocked by delivery boxes and highchairs, it’s still possible to believe that the staff do want you as a customer, but are just too ignorant or apathetic to make it work when it counts.

But when these enormous airline businesses with massively expensive, highly complex systems, and a remarkable record of moving millions of people all over the globe, in the air, at hundreds of miles per hour, safely … when they can’t manage to get a wheelchair off a plane without breaking it … it sure seems like they fundamentally would prefer you’d just stay home.

This is where we run into the hard limits of civil rights laws. If you can force or partially coerce a restaurant to be accessible, chances are the people running the place will then at least go ahead and make a personal effort to give you a good dining experience. But when you force an airline to provide accommodations they basically believe are infeasible, they’re going to do it in the most grudging and negligent way they can get away with. It’s their conscious or unconscious way of doing it under protest and sending the signal that you’re not wanted.

If that makes it all sound hopeless, I don’t mean it to be. Affordable air travel is a miracle. I, personally, have never had a really bad flying experience because of my disabilities. But I can walk. I can fend for myself with just a tiny bit of extra help. As far as the airlines are concerned, I'm not really disabled ... just a bit high maintenance. I have traveled with wheelchair users though, and the callousness, stupidity, and low-tech-ness involved astounded me.

It seems to me the best answer is some combination of creating more space so wheelchair users can fly in their wheelchairs, and making all airline personnel directly responsible for ensuring positive outcomes with disabled travelers … passing the buck absolutely not allowed.

Inspiration Porn: High School Gestures

Silhouette illustration of a young man and woman dancing at a formal dance
I am still working on a sort of master post on Inspiration Porn, but I want to take another detour to talk about a subset of this loosely defined phenomenon. I'll call it High School Gestures, referring to three practices that have become popular in American high schools and a familiar trope in "feel good" media:

2. Organizing and hosting "special" prom events, specifically for disabled students.

3. Allowing a disabled student to "run a play" with a sports team.

Three key factors make these practices a type of Inspiration Porn:

1. They are all intended to be “good deeds” for people assumed to be stigmatized and unable to make satisfying social lives for themselves.

2. Media coverage of these events almost always focuses on the kindness of the organizers, relatively little on the disabled individuals these events are supposed to benefit, and not at all on the stigmas and barriers disabled students face every day in their effort to participate in school social life.

3. The events are often further interpreted as encouraging signs that "the kids today" may not be going to Hell after all ... the premise being that on every other day it seems like they are, an unfair and insulting idea in itself.

Labeling these kinds of events Inspiration Porn obviously indicates that I have problems with them, and I do. They are usually well meaning, but contrived and, in a sense, fake. I worry that later in life, some of these disabled youth will look back on these “feel good” events and and cringe at how patronizing they were, and wonder how they allowed themselves to be treated as objects of pity and charity. No matter what the specifics, these events are almost always reported in the same sentimental way, so that even when a specific event is really sincere, it still comes off as weepy Inspiration Porn. The worst thing, in a way, is that these are usually “one off” gestures that benefit one especially loved disabled person, while most disabled kids are unaffected.

Let’s be clear. An unstated premise of these gestures is that “normal” high school social rituals are inherently exclusive and off-limits to most disabled students. That is the problem, and these flashy gestures don’t do much to change the situation. It’s like giving a box of extra-tasty chocolates, just once, to starving person, instead of what they need, which is a reliable diet of nutritious food.

In addition, a lot of disabled people themselves find these kinds of practices truly vile and offensive, in a very personal way. And I think it’s important to emphasize that this feeling is real, not intellectualized or theoretical, or deployed merely for rhetorical purposes. And no, it doesnt matter that the intentions are good. We feel it like a gut punch.

On the other hand, I have started thinking that the acts themselves aren’t always so terrible; it’s the way they are reported that makes us gag. In a couple of cases about prom court elections, it seemed like the students sincerely voted for people they genuinely liked, almost without reference to their disability. It's just that the media covered it like it was a charitable act. Still, one or two isolated examples just don’t go far enough when the majority of disabled students are entirely left out of extracurricular activities and social life.

Instead, I would prefer schools to discourage these types of grand, benevolent gestures, and instead take up the long-term and less immediately gratifying job of removing barriers to a full social life for all disabled students.

How? Here are some ideas:

1. Schools should support a wider variety of extracurricular activities, besides the prom and the the most popular sports programs. "Schools should support" means school district taxpayers should demand and agree to pay for more diverse, robust social options that appeal to all kinds of students, including those with disabilities.

2. Schools should create clubs and organizations that are associated with the top sports programs, but serve peripheral support functions and can accommodate non-athletic participants. It's unrealistic to think that chess club, theater companies, and community service groups are ever going to be as popular as football and basketball, so let's create and recognize some real support roles that disabled students ... and other non-athletic students … can play.

3. Make it absolutely clear that all students … including those who don't have dates and just want to go and have fun … are welcomed to attend all of the proms, formals, and other social events. The long term goal here might be to permanently de-emphasize the "coupling up" aspect. Also, it would help to downplay the most expensive aspects, like tuxes, gowns, and limos. Don't ban them, but don't glorify them.

4. Instead of charitably giving awards and honors to disabled people who would probably not qualify under ordinary circumstances, create a wider variety of awards and honors that are honest and real, and which disabled students (and others) can more frequently earn without anyone having to make a “special” effort.

One argument against these suggestions might be that they shortchange students on learning valuable lessons about kindness and generosity. For one thing, that's like saying that we need people to be in poverty so that everyone else can learn to be generous. I would also counter that there are much more important lessons to learn about respecting and including all kinds of people and normalizing those values, rather than treating ordinary decency as some kind special gift that privileged people occasionally bestow on those deemed “less fortunate.”

In short, a little less “Make-A-Wish” and a lot more commitment to deep integration and equality. That’s what we should be shooting for. It’s harder to accomplish, but the long term benefits are far greater than the fleeting results of one or two big, short-term gestures per year. And although wholesale culture change sounds like a near-impossible task, these specific steps in that direction are eminently achievable.

We have to insist on it, not just for our disabled students, but for all of them.


I Was So Young ...

This morning, a disability activist here in Plattsburgh emailed a bunch of people this Op Ed piece I wrote for the Plattsburgh Press-Republican newspaper about the Americans with Disabilities Act, just before it was signed into law on July 26, 1990.

When I saw what it was, I had a moment of dread. I couldn’t remember writing it, and I wondered if it would be embarrassing. In fact, it’s not bad.

On thing I noticed is that there are actually very few people making the libertarian argument against the ADA anymore. Apart from a few think-tank theorists, hardly anyone uses the ADA as an example of government overreach anymore. That’s a good thing, but also a bad thing. It’s good that we mostly don’t have to deal with ideological opposition anymore. But it’s also disturbing because it is further evidence that most people don’t see the government as an active participant … a cheerleader maybe, but nothing anyone feels afraid of anymore.

Any residual venom seems to be reserved for a few lawyers, and for disability activists.

Anyway, enjoy this pre-ADA, pre-Web, pre-Blog, pre-Disability Thinking snapshot from the archives.


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Weekly Reading List - Happy Birthday ADA Edition

This week I am posting links to articles I have collected the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The “mainstream” press rarely covers disability issues in any sort of depth. That’s why I decided to stick with the more journalistic pieces, even though most of what I have read about the ADA this week was on personal disability blogs and social media sites.

Joseph P. Shapiro, Washington Post - March 29, 1988

This is a good place to start … an article on the ADA from 1988, just before the first bill was introduced for the first time.

Samantha Michaels, Mother Jones - July 25, 2015

It’s all about the video above, which I have posted before on this blog. As the man in the video says, there’s a fine line between empowerment and pity. I think there are two key factors. First, it seems like the capitol crawlers wanted to do it, and came up with the idea themselves. Second, they did it for their community, not for themselves.

Robert L. Burgdorf Jr., Washington Post - July 24, 2015

This is the kind of history I love, and I’m amazed at how little I knew about the origins of the ADA. But to me, this is the most important sentence:
“After conducting consumer forums around the country, NCD concluded that discrimination was the biggest problem facing those with disabilities."
It’s easy to forget what a radical conclusion that was at the time. For many today, it’s still a surprise and a revelation that disability discrimination is, in fact, worse than disability itself.
Joseph Shapiro, - July 24, 2015

News stories about ADA lawsuits usually make them sound either vaguely sleazy or unrealistic and selfish. This article shows how lawsuits are sometimes necessary to move progress along, and ensure justice for individuals who need it.

David Crary, Fox Business / Associated Press - July 25, 2015

This is a very good overview of the ADA’s history and effect, taking into account both praise and criticism.

Lorraine Mirabella, Baltimore Sun - July 25, 2015

The Title I employment provisions may be the least successful part of the ADA, if success means a major shift towards employment for all people with disabilities. But I don’t think the ADA was really designed to deal with macro-level employment gaps. It’s better suited to dealing with very specific individual employment matters. And as a civil rights law, the ADA has nothing at all to do with preparing people for jobs. It removed some barriers to entry, but it was never meant to push people through.

Ananya Bhattacharya and Heather Long, CNN Money - July 26, 2015

Reading about the blind man at the start of this article, I wonder for the millionth time why there aren’t more disabled people who file complaints and sue under the ADA when faced with such straightforward discrimination and lack of accessibility. But it takes resources to pursue complaints and lawsuits, neither of which are likely to make the plaintiff more employable. Especially with employment discrimination, there’s something missing in the ADA, but I don’t know how it could be fixed.

Pam Fessler, - July 23, 2015

Did the ADA make it harder for disabled people get jobs? It’s an interesting thought that makes some kind of sense, but I’m not convinced the law has been a net negative. After reading this article, I have the feeling that for many of us, the problem is that we are distracted by so many little inaccessibilities, discriminations, and disincentives before we even get to the workplace, and I think employers sense that. They might not think, “I don’t want to hire a disabled person,” but they will think, “This person’s life is too complicated, how would she stay focused on the job?” If the rest of our lives were smoother and more secure, I think we’d be more convincing in the job market.

Petula Dvorak, Washington Post - July 20, 2015

I agree with Dot Nary’s strategy of letting smaller businesses go with some education, while saving really aggressive advocacy for the big companies that “should know better.” In rural towns like mine, though, that might not be enough. The bigger companies are all on the outskirts of town, and are mostly accessible by now. It’s just that a lot of disabled people can’t get there. The businesses they can reach tend to be smaller, in those old downtown buildings that ALL have steps up and narrow doorways. Eventually, something has to be done about them, too. And after 25 years, “eventually” is, arguably, now.


I have to say I’m disappointed that neither of my two favorite news websites, and have posted anything about the ADA anniversary. I wonder if these were conscious editorial decisions, or just carelessness.


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9 Ways America Would Be Different Without The ADA

#AmericaWithoutADA - How would America be different if the Americans with Disabilities Act had never passed?
It is hard to get a handle on what the Americans with Disabilities Act has accomplished and meant to disabled Americans for the last 25 years. As a disabled person myself, I have been trying to think of a way to sum up the ADA’s importance.

Pretty much everyone in the disability community celebrates the ADA, but it’s a very glass half full / glass half empty thing for us. How each of us evaluates the ADA says as much about our own personalities and individual experiences than about the law itself. Unfortunately there aren’t many objective measures of the ADA's success or failure. How do we assess the value of the ADA? Has it really made much of a difference?

Maybe we should ask, “What would America be like today, if the ADA had not become law in 1990?"

Set aside the very strong possibility that an ADA of some kind would have passed eventually, in 1995 or maybe 2000. Let’s suppose instead that after failing to pass in 1990, the whole idea of a civil rights law to cover disabled Americans falls out of favor entirely.

Here are 9 ways America would be different today, without the ADA:

1. Most buildings of all kinds built after 1992 would have unnecessary barriers like narrow doorways and steps at entrances. Facilities and features for disabled people would be rare, separate, hidden from view, and hard to find.

2. Disabled people would only venture out into the community or travel for bare essentials. Most recreational places like restaurants, theaters, stadiums, hotels and motels would lack accessibility restrooms, restricting disabled people to only the briefest visits.

3. Sidewalk curb ramps would be rare, and wheelchair users riding in the street would be a major local irritant issue, similar to cars vs. bikes.

4. A handful of colleges and universities would be known for their accessibility and accommodation practices, and disabled people would have to go to them or not go to college at all. A few very expensive private colleges would probably be founded just for students with specific kinds of disabilities.

5. Virtually all disability activism would consist of groups representing specific disabilities lobbying for very targeted benefits and privileges, plus individuals raising money to pay for personal needs. The concept of “disability rights” would be viewed abstractly, discussed mainly by theorists and academics but unfamiliar to most disabled people.

6. There would be huge opportunity and participation gaps between disabled people with some wealth, who could pay for their own accommodations in workplaces and other areas, and those too poor to do so.

7. Far fewer disabled people would even attempt to get jobs, since they would be told quite plainly that they are not being hired because of their disabilities. Mentally ill people would find it almost impossible to get jobs of any kind, as employers would regularly and legally probe into whether applicants had any mental health histories.

8. Elderly people would move into nursing homes and similar facilities sooner and in much higher numbers, due in part to less accessible communities, and also because of the lack of any meaningful commitment to the principals of “most integrated setting."

9. Very few buses trains, or subways would be wheelchair accessible, mostly in the biggest cities and on a handful of the busiest routes. Accessible, affordable public transportation in rural areas would not exist, apart from a few vans operated irregularly by disability non-profits, nursing homes, and churches.

What do you think would be different today without the ADA? Join a Twitter hashtag … #AmericaWithoutADA


ADA Anniversary Twitter Event

Logo in black, blue, and red reading ADA 25 - Americans with Disabilities Act - 1990-2015
Ellen Blasco, National Museum of American History - July 8, 2015

As I post this, we are only days away from the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you have disabilities, if you are related to someone with a disability, or if you are just interested in disability issues and culture, I encourage you to join in a day of Twitter discussion about the ADA, hosted by the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

I am still working on a complete ADA Anniversary post, with useful information about the law, memories of when it first passed, and an assessment of how effective, or not, it has been. For now, I will just say that I feel like the Americans with Disabilities Act has had more impact as a moral, almost spiritual victory for the disability community, than as an actual civil rights law.

What do you think? What does the ADA mean to you? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How much of a difference has it made in the lives of Americans with Disabilities?

It looks like the Twitter chats happening all day on July 15th will be a great place to talk about it and find out what others think.


Poly Sci For Disabled People - Part 2: Rights, Not Privileges

Word cloud around the word Politics
This is the second part of a multi-part series of posts on disability and politics. My aim is to air out some thoughts and ideas that I think are important for disabled people to consider as we here in the U.S. gear up for another General Election in 2016. We all have our own political beliefs and natural leanings, which probably don’t change much just because we have disabilities. Still, having disabilities does give us insight into some important political and policy questions … insight that others might not have.

At the same time, I think that we are also sometimes vulnerable to some popular political opinions that tend to make us feel less important, less worthy of consideration and even political power than we should be as disabled citizens.

Take these thoughts for what they are, ideas to chew over.

Part 2: Rights, Not Privileges

- As disabled people, we sometimes get confused about the difference between rights and privileges, between accommodation and favors.

- Because equality for disabled people usually requires being treated differently, you will sometimes hear accessibility, accommodations, and supports described, in a mean way, as “special privileges.” The idea is that things like handicapped parking, workplace accommodations, and financial supports make our lives easier than everyone else’s. 

- You have the right to accessibility and individual accommodations to your disability. These are not privileges you have to earn. They are not favors you have to rely on kind people to do for you. They get you closer to equality, not superiority or higher privilege.

- You earn human kindness and friendships by being a nice person. You may find you can earn an easier life, including some luxuries, by hard work and ingenuity. But you don’t have to earn your continued existence, or equal respect and opportunity.


ADA 25th Anniversary

ADA Americans with Disabilities Act 25 1990-2015
Emily Ladau, Words I Wheel By - April 20, 2015

Cara Liebowitz, That Crazy Crippled Chick - April 20, 2015

I’m sick, I guess, and I have a doctor’s appointment today, but I’m at least going to start working on my own thoughts on positive effects of the ADA. Emily and Cara want bloggers to send them articles on this topic, that they will put into a link-up, to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Meanwhile, if you want, use this post’s Comments to offer your thoughts on the ADA. Of course, you may also want to write own post for the link-up. If you do, email it to:


Let's Be Complainers

Nobody actually likes a complainer, even when they're right. That's one reason why relatively few disabled people ever actually complain in a meaningful way.

We should never feel bad about making informal and formal complaints about poor accessibility or disability discrimination. Complaints are not lawsuits. I’m not suggesting they are pleasant, or that a business you file a complaint about will be totally cool with it. They’ll probably be offended and hurt. But later they may be a little embarrassed, and that’s a good thing. We need a little more shame and feelings of inadequacy in business and local governments when it comes to ADA compliance. In most cases, the worst thing that will happen if you file a complaint is that someone will get a stern but informative notice from the U.S. Department of Justice. The won't be fined or go to jail, and it may not solve the problem right away. But the Justice Department gets a better picture of compliance around the country, and ADA violators will know that they are noticed.

By all means, try to work it out person-to-person at first. Point people to the resources easily accessible online on how to make buildings more accessible, and how to accommodate workers with different kinds of disabilities.
If you run into people who have still never heard of the ADA, (theyre out there, believe me!), or who wildly misunderstand what it says, direct them to the easy-to-remember "
And if you dont get a reasonable response, go ahead and file a complaint, using the new, (this month!), Justice Department online complaint form.
Dont forget the customer review” option. There are at least two online databases where you can rate the accessibility and responsiveness of any business that can be mapped. Try one or both of these two sites:
I feel very strongly that ableism wont go away on its own, through everyone becoming more aware. We have to make it go away, and we have the legal and informal tools to do it. The only thing really holding us back, I think, is our own hesitation. So lets all quit complaining, and start filing actual complaints.