When Social Justice Activism Excludes People With Disabilities
I write this as someone who has heard countless stories of people being discriminated against, but not in the usual sense. In this case, it is because they are trying to help a cause, only to be shunned or pushed away for various inexcusable reasons. This has happened to me too.
With the way things are in American society these days, many people are asking the question, “What can I do to help create change?” Some of us are individuals with disabilities. Whether visible or not, we come to the activist community with a gamut of injustices we have dealt with for days, months and years, from within our own families to society. Then pile on top of this the following: our ethnicities, age, race, where we live in the country, how we identify ourselves according to gender, how we look, etc. Take all of this together and you have a group of people who have a lot to bring to the table. Many of us are skilled at assisting and teaching others. We know how to get others to listen, how to make waves within the macrocosm and microcosm of society, and how to live with changes (subtle or grand) on a daily basis.
But for some of us, what happens when we want to participate in that march for a cause we care about? What happens when we want to be a part of that fundraiser or help to create materials that can help educate others about an issue? What happens when we want to take part in community discussions?
The responses are often not supportive. The sheer number of hurtful responses to human beings who are trying to ease the suffering of other human beings and the planet by making a contribution of their time and skills is staggering. Sometimes the judgments are blatantly said. Other times they are whispered and we overhear, or we are told by someone else later. Or we are able to put two and two together and figure out what is going on.
“Make sure that person is in back, so she will not be seen in her wheelchair.”
“What can you offer? You can barely walk and when you do, it is slowly.”
“How is this person going to have a voice? He can’t even speak.”
“Are you sure you are in your ‘right mind’ to do this today? I cannot risk a liability here.”
The discrimination you are fighting against is the same discrimination you are showing to us — your fellow colleagues, as you like to say — because we do not look, speak, or act the way you think people for this particular cause “should.”
The damn shoulds again.
Let me share a little something with you. Even though you may believe our contribution is minuscule or nothing at all, you’re wrong. We as folk with visible and invisible disabilities can share a lot about struggles, suffering, and finding balance within the rising and falling of all these things. Add all the other multifaceted layers I mentioned earlier and you’ll see we have a lot to give.
We have rough days just like everyone else. But we also know how to educate, gain support from others, and make a difference within our own communities. Your cause needs people like us.
This is not intended to be a bashing or rant. In order for change to happen, you have to be inclusive. You have to include people who look different from you, talk different from you and act different from you. Pushing these people out does not make you any better.
Think about it. If you are looking to keep your group homogeneous, what does that make you? Individuals who are utilizing their privilege for the sake and betterment of a certain group of people, not for all. It makes you no different than the other side, the group you are standing up to, who are saying the same thing.
Getty image by Sleepy Z.