The Largest Minority: Disability Proud and Silent No More

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on August 21, 2017 # Mobility, Advocacy and Policy

There are many opportunities in life to take pride in something that we do, or even who we are. That might be as simple as receiving a medal at the end of the season for participating in youth soccer, or winning the school spelling bee more than once.

Sometimes people take pride vicariously, even though they did nothing to really earn it. That is the case when a favorite professional sports team wins a championship and team jerseys are worn with pride by people who have never even participated in the sport.

Pride has become so important that there are now parades and festivals dedicated to it. While it is true that not everyone in a particular demographic chooses to participate in those events, they help to remove stigma and will hopefully, eventually, begin to erase negative public perceptions and reduce or eliminate discrimination.

For over 29 years I have been a member of what I fondly call the "disability community." We are a ragtag, often disorganized, community of people of all races, genders, faiths, ages and interests; we even vary in the languages that we speak and the terminology that is used to describe the conditions that put us here in the first place. Some of us joined our current community at birth, as a result of heredity, while others waited for accidents or injuries as we grew older. There is also a huge, and growing, population of us who are getting much older and now facing the effects of that condition; for many of us, aging has just started impacting our physical or mental capabilities.

Compared to some other demographic groups, our term disability pride has been in widespread use for a relatively short time. Disability Proud is a mantra that has been adopted wholeheartedly by later generations of young people with disabilities who embody the power that phrase can instill in a person. They and their older peers prominently march in or near the front of every type of pride parade imaginable, and they are at the forefront in protesting against proposed changes that negatively impact other protected demographic groups or even the population as a whole.

That was especially true during the recent demonstrations over proposed immigration restrictions. Many of them also sacrificed their health, and even their freedom, as they led the fight against proposed changes to healthcare laws by both houses of Congress that would result in over 24 million people losing health insurance coverage or facing astronomical health insurance premium increases during the next few years. They do the same in states where Medicaid-funded homecare services are being eliminated, reduced or just threatened.

The early leaders of the disability and independent living communities had to wage a fight--a war really--in order to gain public recognition of our worth and then lobby for the laws and regulations that grant us the same benefits and protections that most other segments of the population take for granted. Even when laws or regulations benefiting the disability community are passed, there is no assurance that they will be widely accepted or enforced.

It has always been that way; in the case of two of our most important disability rights laws, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it has taken additional work by the disability community as a whole to bring them to fruition. In order to get the regulations for section 504 of the Rehab Act promulgated, advocates had to hold a lengthy sit-in at federal offices in San Francisco and demonstrate in other cities. Even today, it has become difficult or impossible to have the ADA enforced in some jurisdictions as judges have barred certain attorneys or plaintiffs from filing access lawsuits in their courtrooms.

Today, disability organizations assure that more young people understand that history of disability rights and become involved to champion those rights beginning at an early age. They leave those classes or retreats fully aware of our history, what lies ahead, and energized to fight for the positive changes and protections that will benefit many generations to follow.

Like one of those proud fans who struts around in a sports team jersey when they have never played on the team, I am proud to be affiliated with the community that is not content to sit back and wait for someone else to protect the rights, benefits and programs that we all need to survive. If we are not already, we should all learn to be as proud.

© 2017 Michael Collins