Martin Luther King and disability rights

Today it is 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King held his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Fifty years where many people have worked to expand equality around the World. And great progress has been made but even more needs to be done before we can call ourselves just somewhat equal. So I rejoice in the advancement that has been achieved. But I also weep when I re-read Dr. King’s speech. In particular, I weep reading passage:

“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.”

I weep because when I replace the word ‘disabled’ for ‘negro’ things are truly looking sad. Not just in the United States but in all the Western countries where I know disabled people – not to mention third world countries. In the intervening 50 years we truly have not come far when it comes to segregation, discrimination, poverty and misery for disabled people.

As a group we have poorer education than average, we have far poorer health (on top of our disability), we earn less money, we have a poorer social life and most importantly, we have much less access to things in our societies that others take for granted. Services are off limits for many disabled people. Stores, cinemas, museums, police stations, yes even hospitals are often off limits for those of us with different kinds of disabilities.

I am not here to compare the living conditions of disabled people in the 21st century to the black people in the 1960’s. I do not know what appalling conditions they lived under and quite honestly I dare not think about it. But I know a few things about what I and many of my peers have to endure. And that is enough to make Dr. King’s words ring equally true in our day and age as they did 50 years ago.

What my mission is today is to point out some of the subtle forms of discrimination and segregation experienced by disabled people on a daily basis. Things that were all addressed in that speech when it came to race; same things that are far from being solved today when it comes to disability.

Why is it that we are still not acknowledged as equals by others here 50 years after the civil rights movement? The easy answer is ableism, a term that is not very well known to those outside of disability circles. And if it is not known who is to blame?

I am sure I could point the finger at many groups in our societies. But I also think we have to look inwards on a day like this.

The black people of the 60’s worked diligently to be recognized. They formed groups, they took to the streets, they made their voices be heard loud and clear.

We have simply not been good enough to gather
as a coherent group to fight for the things that are blatantly wrong. Yes, we are surrounded by all kinds of discriminating practices and poor legislation. We are at the back of the line when jobs are created and we are the first ones to go when they disappear. We are dispensable in a lot of situations.

But we are also perpetuating that discrimination. We have internalized the oppression that we are faced with by accepting that we do not have the same rights as other citizens. And we have been conditioned to accept this as a fact of our societies. Too often we bow our heads and let the abuse continue – because what can we do? We don’t have a strong human rights organization behind us. We are not even a cohesive whole, being all segregated in our little individual organizations.

For a long time I have wished that we could gather enough people to engage in a march on our respective capitals. That we could be enough people to form a crip pride parade and proudly display our natural diversity. Where the wheelchair users held signs about “standing up for your rights” where the blind were wearing t-shirts saying “Blind is beautiful” where the folks with learning disabilities shouted: “I know things that you will never learn” to the tune of the deaf singing songs of their freedom.

However, I don’t have high hopes for any of that to happen. We are moving towards a world where it is survival of the fittest and where money talks. If anything we are heading for a cut-throat world where the so-called weak are going to be culled and there will be no room for individual differences.

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