The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law on July 26, 1990, is a landmark piece of legislation that prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities. July is widely celebrated around the country as disability pride month. Whether or not you identify as a person with a disability, it is worthwhile to take a moment to notice the many things we can thank disability activists for. As Charis Hill notes in their blog post, the work of disability activists often goes uncredited, but benefits us all. For example, Berkeley activists had to creatively protest in the 1970s to get the city to institute curb cuts – these are the sloping curbs that enable strollers, bikes, delivery carts, and wheelchairs to roll from the sidewalk to the street. Decades later, we all roll or walk with greater ease when crossing the street.
In 2005, queer disabled women of color activists encouraged a shift in thinking from rights to thinking in terms of justice, noting the reality that ableism functions across systems of oppression to reduce us all to whatever we are able to do and produce (Project LETS). In other words, racism, sexism, classism, cissexism (assuming all people are cisgender), saneism (assuming certain kinds of mental health experiences are “normal” and all others are abnormal) intersect with ableism (assuming all people have bodies that can do the same things) to perpetuate oppression. Disability justice centers the experiences of people with multiple oppressions, because they can teach us the most about how to build a world that values all humans.
So, what is disability justice? Sins Invalid, a disability justice-based performance group that centralizes disabled artists of color and LGTBQ artists, describes the framework eloquently, stating, “A disability justice framework understands that:
All bodies are unique and essential.
All bodies have strengths and needs that must be met.
We are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them.
All bodies are confined by ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation state, religion, and more, and we cannot separate them.”
What can we all do to live more into disability justice?
1. Learn more about the history of the movement and experiences of people with disabilities. The Chicago Public Library put a great reading list together.
2. Have a conversation with your family and friends and about what you’ve learned. Share about your own experiences navigating the world with your social identities, noting the ways they intersect with any disabilities or ability privileges you may have.
3. Reflect on things that make spaces you occupy and technologies you use accessible for you, and identify ways that they could be more accessible. Advocate for greater accessibility, and connect with allies who can advocate with you.
4. Connect these revelations to social problems such as climate change, police violence, and mass incarceration. If we seek to address these problems by centering disability justice, we will build a future that really works for everyone!