: More on the Future of the Disability Rights Movement
 
JUSTICE FOR ALL -- A Free Service of the
American Association of People with Disabilities
www.aapd-dc.org  www.jfanow.org

"More on the Future of the Disability Rights Movement"

In the following compelling, insightful and provocative
narrative, Sarah Triano and Laura Obara of the National
Disabled Students Union describe their recent experience at
an ADAPT action. They reply, in part, to an earlier
article posted on JFA that criticized the disability
community for not supporting ADAPT in greater numbers. For
Sarah and Laura, however, the excitement of attending an
ADAPT action was squashed by feeling excluded by their own
community. Sarah and Laura offer an important challenge to
everyone in the disability community to strive for greater
unity. As someone with a spinal cord injury who uses a
wheelchair only part-time (I'm a "walking quad"), I can
relate well to their sentiments about pressures to "pass"
and facing a stigma of sorts for not being "truly"
disabled.

I hope everyone takes to heart Sarah and Laura's point that
they seek not to divide but, rather, "to challenge all of
us - NDSU included - to take the disability rights movement
to the next stage, to strive for a higher level of
inclusivity and equality that recognizes and celebrates, in
the words of Cal Montgomery, 'the many different fabrics
out of which the disability cloth is made.'"

Jonathan Young, JFA Editor

=========================

"Coming Home" to Disabled Country*

As we waited for the elevator in the San Francisco Muni
station the morning of October 21, Laura and I could barely
contain our excitement. After a long journey from Chicago,
we finally made it to San Francisco for our first national
ADAPT action. Even though we had both been actively
involved in the National Disabled Students Union, and in
the activities of Chicago ADAPT, we couldn't wait to
experience the "coming home" feeling that many people talk
about after attending their first national ADAPT action. It
was a typical foggy day in San Francisco, the type of day
that makes it very difficult for someone with an immune
system disability - like myself - to climb stairs, so Laura
and I decided to wait for the elevator. As we were waiting,
a voice from behind us said, "You know, you ABs should
really take the stairs and leave the elevator for those of
us who need and deserve it." After signing this message to
Laura, who is Deaf and uses hearing aids, she and I turned
around and found ourselves face to face with a white,
middle-aged man in a wheelchair. "We have a new name for
you ABs," a young woman in a chair beside him said to us.
"We call you Walkie-Talkies." These were the welcoming
words that greeted us when we arrived at our first national
ADAPT action. Needless to say, the "coming home" experience
for us was less than welcoming.

Laura and I are both young women who openly and proudly
identify as people with disabilities - young, disabled
women who experience disability discrimination in the wider
society on a daily basis. When the discrimination comes
from within your own community, though, it hurts, it hurts
really bad. It takes a lot for someone with a non-apparent
disability to get to a place where they openly and proudly
identify as disabled. The pressures for us to "pass" and
deny our disability - and our community - are tremendous.
But to finally get to that place of power and pride and
then be called an AB or a "walkie-talkie" by someone who
you consider to be your sister or brother is both
disempowering and devastating.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated instance of
ignorance - which is evident in every community, no matter
how "progressive" - but I can't. This "culture of internal
exclusion" that we experienced at the national ADAPT action
is something that people with non-apparent disabilities
deal with all the time within the US disability rights
movement. Take, for example, the time when I shared on
the Berkeley disabled mailing listserv about the person who
glued a sign to my car windshield - after I parked in a
disabled parking space - that read, "Mentally Handicapped,"
only to receive the following response from one of my
"brothers" with a disability: "Oh no, it's another one of
those 'supposed' invisibly disabled people trying to jump
on the disability bandwagon again."

Are we at a place in our movement where the efforts to
police the boundaries (of who is and is not disabled) are
overtaking our initial vision of equality and inclusion for
all? At the center of many of our struggles in the
international disability rights movement is a fight against
exclusion and segregation. National ADAPT's on-going
commitment to this fight is what motivated Laura and I to
travel all the way from Chicago and participate in the San
Francisco action. We - and 20 other members of NDSU from
across the country - were there to make a statement against
exclusion and segregation everywhere, yet that is exactly
what we experienced while there in a very real and hurtful
way. So the next time the question is asked, "Where were
the NDSU representatives and people from California at the
ADAPT action," or "what is the future of the disability
rights movement and what seems to be the problem," remember
that we were there - we are here - but perhaps you can't
see us because of the preoccupation within the movement
with patrolling the boundaries of disability and ensuring
that one's own piece of the pie (or elevator or parking
space, as the case may be) is not threatened. If we
perpetuate the same discrimination within the
movement that we are trying to fight externally, our
efforts to combat societal segregation and exclusion will
be limited and hollow.

In his message entitled, "The Future of the Disability
Rights Movement," George Kerford asked, "can we use the
excuse that ADAPT is too radical. Are we afraid to be
called radical?" That depends on your definition of
"radical." The prominent civil rights activist, Ella
Baker, once defined "radical" as "getting down to and
understanding the root causes." "It means facing a system
that does not lend itself to your needs," she said, "and
devising means by which you change that system." Perhaps
there is a more "radical" way of looking at this issue.
Rather than pointing fingers and accusing each other of not
being supportive in typical medical model fashion, why
don't we - as a community - try to get down to and
understand the root causes of the lack of participation
within the larger movement. We need to face a system - the
US Disability Rights Movement - that is not currently
lending itself to the needs of many and devise a means by
which to change that system.

And if you don't believe that the disability rights
movement itself constitutes a system that has been
institutionalized, then just ask those of us who have been
- and continue to be - excluded and left out. Just ask
someone who has a non-apparent disability, a disabled
person who is from a non-Western culture, someone with a
cognitive disability, a psychiatric survivor, or someone
who is an atheist, a queer disabled person, or someone in
the community who is non-white or poor. When I refer to the
"malestream disability rights movement" and receive hate
mail, I know we still have a long way to go. When the woman
with breast cancer and the African-American janitor with
asthma are denied equal justice, but the white, privileged,
Stanford male graduate who can afford to play golf is not,
I know we still have a long way to go. When Laura and I can
finally attend a national disability rights action and not
be called ABs and "Walkie-Talkies" but be considered
equal partners in the fight for social justice and
disability rights, I will then know that we - as a
community - have finally started to effectively address not
only the systemic exclusion that we experience at the hands
of the broader society, but also the systemic exclusion and
segregation that has been institutionalized within our own
movement.

Hannah Arendt once said that, "the most radical
revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the
revolution." Since its founding, the disability rights
movement in the US has served as a strong voice for radical
revolutionary change. But no radical revolutionary force
can remain so as long as it refuses to constantly
evaluate itself and adapt according to the demands and
needs of the changing times. When the strategies we use
start to exclude and offend key segments of our community,
allow participation by only those privileged members who
can afford to participate, and rely on a tactic of secrecy
to the point where it becomes an access barrier for members
of our community with cognitive and other disabilities,
then we have ceased to be radical and revolutionary.

We hope this statement will not be viewed as an effort to
tear apart the movement or to create unnecessary internal
divisiveness. Instead, our purpose with this statement is
to challenge all of us - NDSU included - to take the
disability rights movement to the next stage, to strive for
a higher level of inclusivity and equality that recognizes
and celebrates, in the words of Cal Montgomery, "the many
different fabrics out of which the disability cloth is
made." This is a challenge to make participation in the
disability rights movement the "coming home" experience
that it should be for all Americans with disabilities -
those with apparent and non-apparent disabilities alike.
No one should be treated like a second-class citizen in
this, the country of disability - a land we someday hope to
call home.

In solidarity,

Sarah Triano and Laura Obara
Members, National Disabled Students Union (NDSU)
Deaf, Disabled and Proud Women!

*The phrase "disabled country" comes from a poem by Neil
Marcus entitled, "disabled country."

###

=====================

There's strength in numbers! Be a part of a national
coalition of people with disabilities and join AAPD today.
www.aapd-dc.org