I came across Jay Ruckelshaus’ op-ed in the New York Times, “The Non-Politics of Disability”, a day after the Women’s March a few weeks ago. While I agree with Ruckelshaus on the need for disability issues to be politicalized, I must be acknowledged that, even though he has a disability, he still comes from a privileged background, being a white, male graduate student at the University of Oxford. Therefore, he cannot possibly take a stance for all people with disabilities, since a vast majority of them are underprivileged in many aspects, such as not having a college degree, living in poverty, and for some, living in isolation and confinement. Even within the disabled community, men with disabilities are more than twice as likely than their female counterparts to participate in political engagements and to voice their concerns. You experience a “double handicap,” or a double discrimination, if you are a woman with a disability; the layers of discrimination triples if you are a woman of color with a disability. The advocacy and creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 were largely led by male lawyers and politicians. Although the ADA brought disability issues in the national spotlight, the organizers of the movement failed to realize that many of the issues experienced by people with disabilities overlapped with women’s rights issues. For example, both parties deal with a wage gap, low representation in leadership roles in the government, and the risk of poverty. Thus, before disability issues become a matter of politics, the disability rights movement needs to be more inclusive of all people with disabilities, and have a more visible and loud appearance in society.
Perhaps this unrealized connection inevitably, and unknowingly, created the exclusion of women with disabilities in mainstream feminist movements. Besides the Women’s March on Washington, there was a severe lack in representation of women with disabilities in corresponding marches in other cities, both in terms of participants and rally speeches. Speakers and marchers emphasized the notion of women’s rights being the same thing as human rights, which means the right of owning our own bodies, loving whomever we choose, and practicing whichever religion we follow, along with immigration rights and protection. However, there was very little dialogue about disabilities, and even when a speaker mentioned it in a speech, it seemed like merely a footnote. There is an apparent detachment of disabilities in the discussion of diversity, which centers on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, gender, and sexuality. Why are disabilities still a taboo topic to talk about? Women with disabilities experience the exact same hardships and problems women without disabilities experience, and often times on a magnified scale. For example, according to a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2012, women with disabilities are three times more likely to experience sexual violence than women without a disability.
Before we bring disability to the frontlines of politics, society as a whole must recognize that issues experienced by people with disabilities are just as important as issues experienced by other minority groups. Ruckelshaus argues that in order to get people talking about disability rights, there needs to be some level of controversy surrounding it. I beg to differ. Before there are any disagreements, people first need to recognize the gravity and urgency for a disability rights reform. In fact, people with disabilities constitute the largest minority group in the United States, but they receive the least amount of attention from society and the government. Instead of constantly picking out the differences in each other, society needs to start realizing that there are many intersectionalities in our individual identities, in terms of gender, class, race and disabilities. So, when tackling issues related to women’s rights, poverty, and racial discrimination, discussions about disability rights should be woven into those activisms and advocacies, since people of those respective marginalized identities could potentially have disabilities as well.
There is not one simple solution to the lack of recognition for disability issues, as Ruckelshaus admits, “I’m still thinking through how this might work, and I recognize that any such efforts will require real trade-offs and difficult conversations. Politics — when put into action — always does.” However, the fundamental change has to come from the thought patterns of our society. We should not uphold a mechanic solidarity, which Durkheim defined as social cohesion from the homogeneity of individuals, but rather an organic solidarity. In organic solidarity, social cohesion comes from the dependence individuals have on each other and focuses on the interdependence that arises from specialization of work and the complementarities among people. Society needs to start viewing people with disabilities as equal contributors, rather than burdens. A recent example of the power of allies and solidarity is the fight that eventually got gay marriage legalized in the United States. Such a movement was as successful as it was because of the support of the allies, which amplified the voices. This battle was far too big for the gay people to fight on their own, and it became as successful as it was because there were allies to help them carry the weight. If there are more allies and supporters fighting alongside people with disabilities, their unheard voices will be heard and their unrecognized problems will be recognized and addressed.
Along with many other marginalized groups, the disabled community were offended by President Trump’s unethical and demeaning comments about people with disabilities. However, those comments did not receive as much attention or backfire as his offensive comments about other groups have. Throughout Trump’s campaign, people associated only his instance of mocking a reporter with a congenital joint disorder to the President’s nature of ableism. But the conversation about how his presidency would affect the disabled stopped there. There was nothing said about how the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would disproportionately affect people with disabilities; what defunding Planned Parenthood would mean to women with disabilities, who are at a greater risk of being sexually abused than their non-disabled counterparts; or how privatizing education would further complicate the access to schools for student with disabilities.
Ultimately, because disability issues don’t create a partisan divide that other issues, like race, religion, and reproductive rights do, there is no motivation to include them in the political arena. Today, the country is severely divided by opposing political views, and that is somehow attractive to news media outlets and their viewers. Other underprivileged groups must check their privilege and incorporate disabilities in their platforms and movements. When disability rights are included across platforms, there will be an apparent common denominator in all of their respective missions. They should take advantage of the fact that most people (hopefully) are going to be pro-disability rights, and that both parties are going to agree that disability policies is an area that needs work. If disability rights are advocated by all kinds of social groups, then it will be amplified throughout the realms of politics. Perhaps this common agreement can make the country regain its unity and democracy. This tactic will be more effective than having a bunch of white, college-educated men marching to Washington and demanding change, without taking into consideration the highly intersectional identities all the people in the disabled community encompass. Although it is very crucial to have educated, white male allies and advocates, there should not be the sole faces and voices of the movement because that doesn’t create adequate space for hidden voices to be revealed and heard.