Today we celebrate the birthday of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Although in some circles this has been reduced to a good excuse for a day off work, it remains an important day to commemorate civil rights for all and the human spirit’s beauty and dignity. A quick disclaimer: I am a white woman. I don’t have any African-American blood inside me, and although I am 1/16 Cherokee, I would not consider myself a Native American. So I don’t know firsthand what it is to be discriminated against and thought less of due to skin color. However, I do know what it is to belong to a people group struggling for civil rights.
There are those who claim disability is not a civil rights issue and that those who say otherwise are deluding themselves. Some of these people are written about in Mary Johnson’s book Make Them Go Away. The general thought process is that because persons with disabilities cannot access certain buildings, cannot perform certain jobs, and cannot walk, talk, move, eat, or go to the bathroom in the same way as every other person on the planet, they should not complain that the world is not built around them. There is also a thought process that says, people with disabilities already have equal rights because unlike skin color, their disabilities can be helped or fixed. If they would just get up off their lazy butts and exercise more, work harder to walk and talk, work harder to read, and learn to clean up after themselves, they’d be equal. They shouldn’t expect the rest of us to cater to them.
Two thoughts on that. One, it’s a bunch of baloney, and two, that’s essentially what we used to say about blacks. If they would get better educations and learn to act like white people, they could be equal, right? Wrong! So why do we continue to insist things should be different for PWDs?
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Parts of it have been accomplished. Parts of it we are still waiting for, because human nature is to judge, to put down, to harm, and to kill. Parts of it have been misrepresented or twisted to fit other people’s agendas. But we’re a lot closer to his dream of equality based on skin color than we used to be. If you can walk down the street and no longer see “Colored Entrance” on buildings, if you have dark skin and can vote without taking a bizarre literacy test, if teachers and principals warn parents about racist material in textbooks and reading assignments–that is progress. Not enough in a lot of cases, yes. But progress.
I have a dream, too, and I want to examine the progress we’ve made toward it. As you might guess, the dream is to see PWDs treated as equal to their temporarily able-bodied peers. To see them judged not by the limb that is missing, the mouth or eyes or ears that work differently, the tasks they cannot complete, but by the tasks they can complete, the talents they possess, their character and integrity, and their hearts.
In a lot of ways, we’re already there. Back in the 1920s, for example, a boy who used a wheelchair was denied access to public school because “his presence would depress and nauseate the other children.” In the 1940s-’60s, it was not only commonplace but considered completely normal to immediately institutionalize, for life, any child born with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, degree of severity notwithstanding. We didn’t even have an Americans with Disabilities Act or an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act until the 1990s. Many schools are moving from segregated special classrooms to partial or full inclusion. Transportation workers who deny PWDs access to their vehicles are disciplined for it. Universal design is slowly becoming considered in more housing options. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got plenty to do.
A Texas mother was offered eighty-six thousand dollars to keep her son with autism out of school.
A woman with a physical disability named Ellen Nuzzi was called selfish for wanting to ride a public bus.
Persons with disabilities in New York have to ask kiosk attendants for bathroom access in public, open spaces such as street fairs–and that’s if the attendant even bothers to show up.
People with disabilities are regularly discriminated against at work, placed on arbitrary discipline plans, and fired.
High school graduates with disabilities are maligned because their “life skills curriculum” offered little to no preparation for real-world experiences.
In foreign countries, children with disabilities are kept in cages due to “behavioral and emotional issues.” They are left chained to bus stops during the day because no one is available to care for them.
Some adults with disabilities are America’s slaves. Why? Because they are placed in sheltered workshops, forced to make widgets or pack boxes, for no pay or sub-minimum compensatory wages (compensatory to the supervisor, not them)
People with disabilities are still placed in corners. They’re told to sit down, shut up, do menial work, and accept the crumbs society gives them.
Celebrate civil rights today. As you do, please join me in continuing to raise awareness. Disability is a big civil rights issue. It’s time we came out from underground, turned traditional thinking on its head, and kept working to finish the movement. Will it ever be finished? Sadly, probably not. But we can make great strides while we’re here.