As I was watching the New York gubernatorial debate, a thought occurred to me-one that has come to mind many times over the years-people with disabilities cannot afford to have a single focus about political or social issues. By this, I mean that concerning ourselves only with disability rights is shortsighted and possibly dangerous.
I am not referring to disability groups or the Disability Rights Movement. It is essential that a group stays strongly focused on one or two major issues, thus preventing confusion and ensuring that its message is clear. However, we disabled people who are a part of these groups and movements must, in our personal lives, learn about other groups, movements and social or political issues so that we may become well-rounded and informed thinkers. This is true for non-activist people with disabilities, as well.
Being cognizant of issues that seem unrelated to disability is important for another reason-one can gain insight into how those issues affect people with disabilities. That knowledge can then be used to educate others and help to shape policy.
Some might say that being able to look outside of your own box or comfort zone means that you have a certain amount of privilege. Why bother with voting or the environment when you can barely put food on your table? What do you care about high property taxes when your home is a cardboard box over a grate, and no shelter will take you because you use a wheelchair? Does it really matter whether you have health insurance or not, when no doctor will treat you once they find out that you are Trans? Why should you worry that the bus service on your street will be eliminated when you live in a nursing home, and cannot leave the premises?
I understand those feelings because I’ve been there. As a young teenager, I ran away from home due to the horrible abuse that was happening to me. Unfortunately, I ended up sleeping on and under park benches. My only thoughts were about getting something to eat, and ducking the pimps, who thought nothing of putting a disabled girl on the streets for their own gain. By day, I went to school, and since I wasn’t reported missing, my teachers never suspected anything. There, I took showers and begged food from my friends during lunch. In the evenings, I hung out at the library, doing homework and reading; when the library closed for the night, it was back to one of my park benches and the nightly ordeal of hide-and-seek. This continued for a couple of months until I was rescued, if you will, and taken to a shelter run by nuns. My life changed for the better; I was placed with a loving family and eventually adopted, and I managed to finish high school a year early and go on to college. Shortly before running away, I learned about social justice and political issues, but while I was on the street, it was all about survival. There was no way that I could get involved in the social change/social justice movement until my situation changed.
It is to those of us with disabilities that have the time, energy, and ability to get involved in sociopolitical activities that I am addressing these thoughts. As wonderful and fulfilling as it is to be involved in the fight for disability rights, especially since the general public usually only thinks of disability in terms of revulsion, pity, or a cure, it is imperative that we look for intersections between ourselves and the world at large, be it cultural, socioeconomic, geopolitical, or environmental. We can then learn about groups working on those issues, even joining with them in their struggles, while educating them about disability issues. If in time, it is felt that the group is too ableist and therefore, incompatible, there is nothing to prevent you from forming a group of people with disabilities and allies to carry out the mission of the original group within a disability framework.
It is rare to see people with disabilities involved in group or movements outside of the disability arena. When I was active in anti-nuclear, women’s and Latin American solidarity groups, I was the only disabled person in those groups. Currently, I am involved in two local groups outside of work, and once again, I am the only person with a disability there.
We cannot wait for groups to reach out to us because most of them never will. Disabled people are so far off of their radar that we are never thought of. If we are interested in a cause or group, it is up to us to do the approaching. The importance of doing this cannot be overstated. Presently, we are being left out of vital conversations due to our lack of interest in things other than ourselves, quite apart from hostility, ableism, or lack of physical access to meeting spaces that we may also encounter. Participation in the political process means more than just physical access to polling places and voting machines; it also means educating oneself about each of the candidates, as well as each of the issues. 50,000 high-tech jobs coming into my state is great, but how many of those jobs will go to people with disabilities who are qualified to do that work? Immigration reform is important, but what about thousands of disabled people who are denied entry to our country based on their disability, alone? If Mayoral control of Rochester Public Schools goes through, how will it affect students with disabilities? What is hydrofracking, and should I be concerned about it? By educating ourselves about other issues and getting involved we, too, can throw in our solutions and participate in the bettering of our world on a grander scale.