During the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC last Sunday a diverse group of panelists began a discussion around the role of celebrities and other “people of privilege” in social justice movements, stemming from the participation of Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the New York rally for Trayvon Martin. You can and should view the full clip here, but here are the quotes I want to focus on:
Tim Wise, author of Dear White America, “Here we are all able-bodied. We all have able-bodied privilege and we don’t think about that. It doesn’t make us ableist. It doesn’t make us discriminatory.”
Melissa Harris-Perry “To get on this stage you have to walk down three stairs…That means I have not once booked someone in a wheelchair to sit on this stage and the reason that I cannot is that my building is built in a way that makes it impossible for a person dealing with disability to show up at my table and that is privilege.”
This discussion, coming from a show that I watch in large part due to the panelist diversity and forward-thinking, was at first somewhat gratifying and yet deeply unsettling. I say gratifying because so rarely is disability even considered among the other major civil rights movements in our nation. Yet it’s unsettling because, 23 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), how is it that three steps are keeping people with disabilities from having a seat at the table?
It is possible that ramping those three steps may not be required according to the letter of the law, which provides for loopholes in many instances, but it certainly is required in order to fulfill the spirit of the law of equal access and equal opportunity.
I’m sure it was the hope of Justin Dart, Pat Wright, Tony Coelho, and the many others that fought for our future that by now we would not still be dealing with such minor physical access issues – because this generation has a new fight. Young people with disabilities have to advocate for high expectations from our school systems, progress in accessible technology, and in support of the proposed 503 regulations. We have to defend ourselves through budget cuts to long-term services and supports, attempted repeals of the Affordable Care Act, and horrifying instances of restraint and seclusion in schools. We have to come together as a community and embrace people with disabilities and allies who do not yet feel that they are a part of a movement. This is the struggle for our generation, yet sometimes we’re still just trying to get a seat at the table.
So how do we move forward? Should we despair because our champion in Congress, Senator Tom Harkin, won’t be seeking re-election or do we look to see who can become our new allies and then how we can garner support for people with disabilities who want to run for office? Do we live in fear of losing our benefits or do we work to create mechanisms so people with disabilities can work, earn, and save toward more fulfilled lives?
I am not discouraged by this conversation because I live in the words of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, “the business of civil rights remains the unfinished business of America.” We are 57 million strong in America and even as young people we have power and influence so instead of ramping just those three steps, let’s build a ramp all the way to the top of MSNBC, or Microsoft Headquarters or culinary school or even to the Oval Office.
Happy ADA Anniversary to ALL!
- Nothing About Youth with Disabilities Without Youth with Disabilities: A Guide to Legislative Advocacy, developed by the National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth
- Youth in Action! – Becoming a Stronger Self-Advocate, Tip Sheet for Youth
- Disability History Timeline and interactive disability history quiz, developed by the National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth
- NCWD/Youth’s Disability Legislation webpage includes information on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the ADA Amendments Act
By Dana Fink, Assistant Project Coordinator with the National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.