In What Ways Does Disability Activism Get Left Out of the Political Conversation?

Disability activism has always had trouble finding a home within and alongside other social movements, leading many disabled reformers to feel like the marginalized of the marginalized.

Today, social activism has taken on a new life. Inspired by global networks of activists connected by the internet, issues are gaining momentum and followers at an unprecedented rate, ballooning previously obscure matters into prominence. Formerly marginalized movements — such as transgender rights — have been thrust into the spotlight for the first time. Meanwhile, racial and gender activism is continuing to garner followers from all over.

Through all this, one movement has faltered. Disability activism has always had trouble finding a home within and alongside other social movements, leading many disabled reformers to feel like the marginalized of the marginalized. In the advent of the internet and thousands of micro-movements and sensations all converging into several main activism umbrellas, disability rights have been left out of the conversation.

Disability Activism

Across the world, millions of individuals fall into the designation of “disabled.” Some are born with a disability, others are injured in accidents or war, and still others develop symptoms from genetic preconditions or illnesses. Whatever the circumstance, disability activism exists as the pushback against some of the most harmful and damning designations, conditions, and situations facing this group.

Perhaps the most slippery issue facing disabled persons is one of dignity. For many decades — to the chagrin of many disabled activists — the public perception of the disabled has fallen into one of two camps: pity or inspiration.

On the one hand, benefits and fundraising events are held across the globe with the goals of raising money for the disabled cause. To accomplish this, many organizations rely on pictures and film heavy on the guilt and pity, showing disfigured individuals to persuade wealthy donors to cut a check. This approach is inherently demeaning to the disabled community because it paints the wrong picture.

On the other hand, many modern narratives have focused on the inspiration stories — in which a disabled individual rises above his or her physical or mental limitations and succeeds. This narrative is often the target of disability activism efforts. While the stories of success in the face of long odds make for a wonderful story and can inspire individuals, it also detracts from the greater issue at hand: securing equal rights and accommodations for those with physical and/or mental impairments.

Exclusion From Other Movements

Even as other movements have grown and expanded to include secondary and related activist movements, no one seems to have any room for disability activism. Some of the big issues today — gun violence, transgender and gender rights, and racial prejudice — all ignore or negatively associate with disabled rights.

Women’s rights and feminism also refuses to make room for disabled individuals, often perversely claiming that expanding to include this demographic will divert attention from the issues at hand. Unfortunately, disabled women are often the brunt of the worst offenses feminism is working to combat. A considerable percentage of disabled women admit to being sexually assaulted — significantly higher percentages than the overall female population. Violence is also a significant concern and also substantially impacts disabled women.

Even the movements focused on disability reform often fall short. For example, those focused on Social Security reform talk about “average Americans” and tend to ignore the marginalized and inordinately affected demographics. Social Security Disability (SSDI) is often not an adequate source of income for a reasonable quality of life, and disabled activists have been working around the clock to secure more rights for themselves on this front, with little to no support from the mainstream movement.

The Conversation

While the social activism scene is a chaotic one these days, some movements have been continually ignored. Larger movements consistently shun disability activism. Some claim it is from muddying the waters and distracting from the goals of the campaign. Others actively blame those with mental or physical disabilities for the continuation of the issues.

Whatever the case, disability activism is not going away, and ignoring the movement and the ways many issues impact disabled individuals uniquely is a severe disservice to them.

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Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston is a political writer with an interest in social justice and human rights. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, “Only Slightly Biased.”
Kate Harveston