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Time Has Come to Embrace Disability Justice Movement

By Janine Bertram Kemp

The younger movers and shakers of disability nation are challenging the movement. They are asking tough questions and pushing the traditional leaders of disability rights to act with integrity in the interests of the whole community. Savvy leaders should listen to them and facilitate significant growth in the disability movement.

Community is at the core of the movement for disability justice, and it is in rather stark contrast to the basis for disability rights. The disability rights movement was founded by college-educated people of European descent. They used the model of individual civil rights as applied to the disability community. The independent living movement was a logical extension. It was a progressive model for its time. Independent living and the slogan “Nothing about us without us” was progressive policy for people with disabilities who were treated with pity and abhorrence by the non-disabled.

Now, decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and more than 40 years since the passage of the Architectural Barriers Act, most nationally recognized leaders in disability rights are white. It is fair to say that the movement has done a poor job of recruiting people of color in a way that is not tokenism.

Disability justice is a movement founded by younger folks with disabilities, the majority of whom are people of color. Several are part of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. Greater inclusion is one of the core values of disability justice.

Leroy Moore is a San Francisco Bay Area artist with a disability who was drawn to the movement for disability justice. He is of African-American descent. “Through my art and activism, I have always been involved in disability rights, but I have also always questioned how welcome people of color are in that movement,” Moore said.

Moore is an artist who was deeply involved in the issue of violence against people with disabilities, especially police brutality. He believes that police brutality is an area that current leaders of the disability movement avoid. Moore does a monthly article for POOR Magazine, whose name is an acronym for “protest, organize, observe and report.”

“POOR Magazine is on the front lines with social justice,” Moore said. “Disability justice is challenging the disability rights movement to open up their thinking on how disability affects poor people of color and (gays who have a) disability.”

Disability justice was the brainchild of Naomi Ortiz, a young disability activist of Hispanic descent. In 2009, there was a disability justice Labor Day retreat in Michigan, where the principles and program were created, articulated and thoroughly flushed out. Rahnee Patrick of Chicago ADAPT participated in it by phone.

“One of the most powerful components of the disability community is our ideal of inclusion,” Patrick said. “For us to realize inclusion, we have to address white privilege. We need to address economic oppression. This may be hard for us to do. We talk about inclusion as a core principle. The disability justice movement is extending an invitation to the disability community to challenge ourselves and really do inclusion.”

Participants at the Michigan retreat who called themselves the Disability Activist Collective mentioned groups traditionally excluded from the disability rights power structure, such as Native American, Pacific Islander, Latino and Middle Eastern communities. The independent living philosophy doesn’t always resonate with all cultural groups; in some cases, they are forced to conform to Caucasian ideologies or methods and then go back to their communities to translate.

According to the collective, other excluded groups include:

  • People with intellectual disabilities
  • People with chronic health disabilities
  • Young people
  • People with high levels of support needs
  • People with multiple disabilities
  • People with invisible disabilities
  • People in institutions
  • Older adults
  • People who are interested in things besides rights
  • People who can’t work
  • LGBT people
  • Poor people
  • People who speak English as a second language
  • Disability-specific communities (such as deaf, blind and little people)
  • Women
  • Members of the HIV/AIDS community
  • Substance- or chemically dependent people

The Disability Activist Collective identified power brokers in the disability community as middle-aged white folks identified with physical disabilities; research centers; national organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, AAPD, NCIL, UCP and MDA; government programs; disability studies; doctors; parent communities; and Special Olympics.

Disability justice isn’t an indictment of who is in power. Rather, it is an invitation to each organization and individual to evolve into a progressive movement that holds the core values of community and interdependence as opposed to individual rights and independence. For centers for independent living, the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center (SVILC) is an example of a group that has adopted the core values of disability justice.

being included on workshop agendas in some national conferences. Ortiz was the keynote speaker at the Pacific Rim Conference for People with Disabilities in 2010. The torch has been lit. The challenge to evolve from rights to justice and inclusion has been issued. Where will you, as readers and leaders, take it?

Janine Bertram Kemp, a writer and activist, took refuge from Washington, D.C., in the wilds of Zigzag, Oregon. She is president of the Disability Rights Center and a member of ADAPT and Not Dead Yet.

disability Justice graphic

Disability Justice is grounded in (everything comes from) doing our own work, self care and safe spaces. Doing our own work means we challenge ourselves as individuals and as a community to learn about, explore and understand our own privilege, internalized oppression, values, pride, etc. Self care means paying attention to what our own bodies, minds and spirits need to feel balanced, because in order to be good (responsible) to each other we need to take care of our own needs. (This can include rest, time to reflect or think, exercise, etc.) Disability justice grows from other justice movements (Gay, racial, reproductive, poor people and feminist frameworks).

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