Disability activism: The movement America forgets too often

Disability activism — Americans advocating for policies that are in the best interest of those living with disabilities — has floundered where other movements have soared.


In recent years, the fight for equality has focused in on a few major fronts. With a slew of racially motivated police shootings over the past decade, the African-American civil rights movement has been a huge rallying point, reaching millions across the country. The feminist movement is still strong, and the struggle for LGBTQ recognition and equality has continued gaining momentum for the past decade, landing itself in the Supreme Court and congressional spotlights.

Through all this, one movement has failed to retain national attention. Disability activism — Americans advocating for policies that are in the best interest of those living with disabilities — has floundered where other movements have soared. In several particular cases, those with disabilities have even been actively excluded from other activist organizations, and are having trouble getting their message out to the world. It’s a grave injustice to an important group, and needs to be brought farther into the spotlight.

Muddying the Waters

In many cases, the exclusion that disabled activists face comes from a fear of “muddying the waters” of other social movements’ goals. Disabled members find themselves forced out of the discussion when these movements feel a need to unite around a narrow, concise goal, often saying that they need to focus on the “real issues” at hand. Feminism, though a great movement, is one place where this happens a lot. While solidarity within a movement is important, disabled women epitomize the feminist struggle.

Disabled women are exceedingly likely to face some form of sexual assault throughout their lifetime — which is, incidentally, one major pillar of feminism. The likelihood of a disabled woman facing any abuse is 40 percent greater than that of women without disabilities. These dire conditions make exclusion from the feminist movement even more consequential.

While some cases are active disassociation, other exclusions are rooted in a failure to accommodate all members properly. Something as simple as holding a meeting on the second-floor of a bookstore or coffee shop makes involvement practically inaccessible to disabled members. In other cases, feminist meetings are open to women only, and a male caretaker is not allowed to enter the premises.

Social Welfare

While other movements have refused to carve out an area for disability activists, a movement of its own exists and remains politically active. The primary barrier to full political recognition remains one many groups struggle with: finding a coherent and single-minded message. For the millions of disabled people worldwide, the experience is wholly individual. Some will face discrimination in the workforce, while others will suffer sexual abuse or social ostracization.

Given the broadness of the term “disabled,” each experience is individual. However, a few issues and points of activism are universal. For disabled individuals within the U.S., it is the protection of Medicaid. The Republican-controlled legislature and presidency increase the likelihood of many social welfare programs losing necessary government funding. For Medicaid, the primary insurance for most disabled people, this could prove disastrous.

Whereas many Americans have secondary insurance provided by work or otherwise, many disabled individuals have no such safety net. In many cases, the disability renders an individual entirely unable to work, and therefore reliant on government programs. SSI and SSDI, for instance, are administered by the Social Security Administration, and function as a source of income for those otherwise unable to work. SSI pays — on average — $721 a month, while SSDI requires an individual to have worked a sufficient number of years before their disability to pay into the system.

These programs function as a safety net, keeping disabled individuals off the streets. Without funding for these problems, the disabled community will inevitably face even more challenges making a living.

The Nursing Industry

Protecting these programs is one rallying cry for current disability activism. Another point of opposition has formed around the nursing industry in the U.S. The industry, which has used its massive lobbying resources to push for legislation forcing thousands of disabled individuals into assisted living, is seen as a significant opponent of disabled rights and individual freedom of choice.

The current movement targeting this area of disability rights is calling for more accessible communities across the nation. Included in this are personal care assistants for disabled citizens, accessible infrastructure, and necessary facilities to provide comfort and essential care for those living there. These remain widely preferred for those disabled individuals who are otherwise capable of caring for themselves.

Raising wages for personal care assistants — who are often women and minorities and typically paid poorly — is also high on the priority list. In many states, these workers are paid just over minimum wage and are the target of negative legislation by the nursing industry.

Freedom and Independence

All in all, the efforts of disability activists boil down to the same wants and needs of any other group: freedom, independence and legitimate recognition and respect. Freedom can be assured through the ability to choose whether or not to enroll in an assisted living facility. Independence can be gained through the assistance of qualified professionals, and through the availability of necessary facilities.

Recognition and respect will start to improve simply by adding disabled activism into our national conversation in a bigger way. Few groups are willing to take up the cause of the disabled, and the political scene seems unwilling to acknowledge their efforts. This is one of many places where our country will need considerable amounts of social change in coming years.


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