Letter from MHAP to City Hall about Office of Equity

Sam Adams, Mayor
Amanda Fritz, Commissioner
Portland City Hall

Dear Sam and Amanda:

Congratulations and thanks to you both for developing Portland’s Office of Equity, which we’re certain will be a success. Moving this Office from idea to reality took courage, determination and perseverance. We are confident the Office of Equity will be a thriving centerpiece of our city, signifying and building upon Portland’s commitment to diversity — and continuing weirdness.

We support you especially in recognizing persons with a diagnosis of mental illness or addiction as the most discriminated-against underclass in Portland, a group that has long needed the support and protection potently offered by an Office of Equity. We encourage the city to actively include people with lived experience of mental illness and/or addiction who are open about it and willing to identify in this way.

We recognize there are certain challenges in making sure people with mental illness and /or addiction have a voice in the Office of Equity. In order to support the new Office, we offer a few suggestions to welcome citizens with mental illness and /or addiction, and to accommodate them in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Our barriers are invisible

With rare exception, people with mental illness and/or addiction have no associated physical or intellectual limitations. We can’t be distinguished by wheelchairs, gender preference, white canes, skin color or accent. Most of us, most of the time, look and act as normal (or as weird) as any other Portlander.

The only reliable way to tell a person has a mental illness or addiction is their own self-identification. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to populate the Office of Equity with people who have a mental illness and will say so.

Include us explicitly

The main difficulty with getting people with mental illness to participate in the Office of Equity is the same reason the Office of Equity exists in the first place: discrimination.

The message that you welcome us must compete with multiple daily messages that we’re NOT welcome, especially in City Hall.

In a single morning, it’s possible we could read an Oregonian article describing us collectively as “Portland’s mental illness problem”; overhear a reference to a deranged troublemaker being ejected from a public meeting; and lose a job or housing opportunity because of our diagnosis. Then, if we mention to our case manager or other professional that the Office of Equity might want input from people like us, we are likely to hear a variety of reasons it would not be in our best interests.

To counter these messages, it will be insufficient to make an announcement and toss out a welcome mat. It is necessary to let us know we’re included — explicitly, emphatically, and repeatedly.

Address our challenges

Many in our community have genuine contributions to make, but might never do so because of internal and external barriers. However, no two people with mental illness and/or addiction have the same set of challenges. Addressing them will take your best creative thinking on an ongoing basis.

One common barrier is that many of us live so far below the poverty line even a bus ticket is prohibitively expensive. Another barrier: some of us have specific fears about being in groups of people.

Surprisingly, both of these challenges could be eased the same way, by providing alternative ways to participate, such as attendance via the Internet or teleconference.

Choose your words

Often, well-meaning plans for persons with mental illness are couched in the language of waste management: “We need to get these people off the streets.” First, we are not “these people” (nor, for that matter, “the mentally ill”). Second, it’s axiomatic that “getting us off the streets” is primarily of benefit to so-called normal persons; if it does happen to benefit us, it’s usually accidental. Words matter. Treat us as individuals. Call us by name. When referring to us as a group, use People-First Language. Find more information at www.DisabilityIsNatural.com.

Ask us what we need.

The above suggestions are barely a start, so this final one is the most important: Ask us. This is key. It is the only way to know what we need, and thus the only way to find proper accommodations. This must be done, and not just once.

Amanda and Sam, thank you again for your work and expertise, and your assistance bringing our community to the table. We look forward to helping in any way we can, including any needed assistance in finding representative citizens with mental illness to help enrich the Office of Equity.


Mental Health Association of Portland