HomeactivistOrganizing A Disability Movement Pt 1: What’s Wrong?

Darker pink letters on a deep red background, "Organizing a disability movement: what's wrong?"This week’s topic for #AbilityChat was suggested to me a few months ago. Disability in general has been mostly ignored in the greater world of civil rights from the start, despite the fact it’s present in every single demographic. Why is that?

Isolation and Inaccessibility
A massive part of the problem is the simple fact that many folks with disabilities are effectively isolated due to the inaccessibility of the world at large. Yes, there are people who are absolutely working to change this for many groups, but that doesn’t change the fact there’s still a lot left to do.

A tragic example of general inaccessibility happened recently in my town recently. A gentleman in a wheelchair got stuck on the light rail’s tracks while he was in the cross walk just before the warning lights turned on. He couldn’t get free, and all of the people who tried to help him couldn’t do anything, because the train came so quickly and couldn’t stop in time. Unfortunately, he passed away from his injuries.

They’re still investigating exactly what happened so Metro Transit and the city can make changes, but they think a buildup of ice and poorly cleared snow had something to do with it.

A downwards slanting pathway that's only partially plowed. In the background are trees backlit by the setting sun.

Snow and ice removal is tricky, but for an area to be accessible, it must be cleared.

Another example happened during one of the local Black Lives Matters protests. Back when they were occupying the 4th precinct, they used portable fire-pits to stay warm in the cold Minnesota autumn days. The problem was how quickly the air quality declined. If you look at any of the pictures taken, you’ll see the near constant haze of smoke, which triggers asthma and worsens other breathing problems.

The same point holds true for the usage of things like pepper spray on peaceful protesters. Although pepper spray is generally regarded as safe, I strongly question its safety in relation to asthma and other lung diseases. Breathing difficulties can be disabling in and of themselves, and exacerbated by certain physical disabilities.

These issues are only a few of the many ways protest is inaccessible for a big portion of the disabled individuals, due to serious risk of injury, illness or death. If protest is too dangerous or inaccessible, how can folks with disabilities lift their voices in that powerful medium?

The term “disability” covers everything from wheelchair users to those of us with cognitive challenges. Although these points of view and strengths add valuable insights to our culture, it still poses a challenge when it comes to formulating accommodations for large groups.

Some things, like ramps or closed caption options in videos, are relatively simple to put in place once resources are available, but what happens when conflicting needs arise? That’s where planning, communication and smart resource implementation comes in.

The problem is that people just aren’t very good at planning for things they don’t automatically think about. If mobility has never been an issue for you, you won’t know to address it until the concern is brought to light. The same goes for sensory avoidance or seeking, and countless other concerns.

This is a huge challenge from the beginning, and it’s intimidating to tackle. That may be a big part of why there is no single Disability Movement, but multiple, specialized movements.

Cultural Invisibility
When it comes to the mainstream world, we’re still pretty invisible. Most people don’t know how to address disability in general, and a minority are still outright cruel when it comes to trying to join them. These are both symptoms ignorance born from the long-held custom of separating the so-called “normal” population from those who “are not”.

Those who have invisible disabilities are also encouraged to remain silent about their needs. They may live within the mainstream population, but they either go to great lengths to hide their struggles for fear of backlash, or are stifled whenever they bring them up.

Unfortunately, this extends into the successful civil rights movements, too. When I’ve discussed the issue in the past, I’ve repeatedly come across the defensive line, “Well, it has to start somewhere!” Sure, the demographic that starts the movement naturally represents themselves first, because that’s what they can do best. However, it’s long past time those who happen to fall into more than one demographic are allowed to speak up as well.

Disabled women shouldn’t have to fight those who are already fighting for gender-based equality to join the ongoing battle. The same goes with all other civil rights issues, including race and income levels. Furthermore, we must respect all voices within the existing disability rights movement. The experiences do change when gender, race and income level are added to the equation.

So, how do we fix this? Is it possible? I’ll talk about some ideas in part two on Monday.


Organizing A Disability Movement Pt 1: What’s Wrong? — 2 Comments

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