The birth of the disability rights movement is often attributed to Ed Roberts, a man who was also a quadriplegic living in Berkeley, California in the 1960s and a student at U.C. Berkeley. Ed was the first student with a high level disability to attend the university, and subsequently became a disability rights activist and the father of the independent living movement. In a time when powerful legislation has passed in numerous countries, and concepts such as universal design, barrier-free, and social inclusion are becoming fact, disability rights advocacy continues to play a significant role in peoples’ lives. The movement proves the importance of social action in our lives, and the necessity to be involved with something greater than ourselves.
Professional Michael J. Prince of the University of Victoria wrote:
Disability studies scholars and students are producing, critiquing, and disseminating artistic, comparative, historical, and theoretical forms of knowledge on disability and normalcy. Academe evaluates policies and practices as well as assists in bringing to wider audiences the narratives of people and communities. When done in an emancipatory manner, such research enlightens and empowers.
The disability discourse today is dominated by the social construction of disability, which has sought to reframe the experience of having a disability from a medical condition to a social construct in which knowledge is historically situated and embedded in cultural values. Disability rights advocacy is one of the key constructs and strategies crucial to the lives of people with disabilities around the world. The act of engaging in social action is one which empowers both individuals and groups to enact positive and meaningful change. “Leadership by persons with disabilities in both consumer driven organizations and other disability organizations has been seen as essential for the evolution of supports and services in Canada.”
One of the premier acts of disability rights activists is to assume these leadership roles to redefine and reshape the world into a social and physical environment that is fully inclusive and embraces total equality. The mobilization of people with disabilities into an active political voice legitimizes the rights of millions of people who have historically been denied those rights, and even a marginal participation in their societies. Today, however, the voices are not solely about participation or even independence. The movement progressed from that level some time ago. Presently, social action in the disability rights movement is focused on the previously elusive goal of complete equality in every aspect of life; to no longer accept being participants, but instead ascending to the role of decision makers.
People with disabilities deserve to see themselves reflected in the images that society produces via multiple media outlets such as print media, television, film, the Internet, and advertising. Numerous companies have begun to realize the purchasing power of people with disabilities. The reason for this? The power of social action on the part of disability rights activists. In the journey towards complete equality our voices must be continually heard loud and clear. We demand equal participation in our society which implies equal opportunities for employment, investments, government positions, and recreating a world in which our needs are just as primary as those of anyone else.
Social activism is also about influencing the decision makers and creating a dialogue which expresses our interests and needs. Disability rights is a civil rights issue and a human rights issue. This movement not only redefines the way people think of the “disabled body” or ideas of “impairment”, but also restructures peoples’ basic assumptions about the way they’ve historically viewed the ‘nature of disability’. Although we live in a time where legislative action is being enacted, Canadians still wait for national legislation to protect our rights. While Americans have the ADA, they also face the spectre of a new Secretary of Justice [Jeff Sessions] who complained about the country having to spend too much money on the integration of kids with special needs. These kinds of statements threaten the tenets of the ADA which must be protected. Unfortunately, several Supreme Court decisions have chipped away at the fabric of the ADA which only demonstrates the constant need for activism on these issues.
A seminal issue for the disability rights movement is to continue to highlight the barriers between how people with disabilities perceive complete equality and the vision of the state. The foundation of our activism is that of a rights-based discourse. People with disabilities are advocating for the very right to be fully inclusive members in our societies. We don’t demonstrate because we want to; but because we have to. We have to raise our voices loud and proud in the anthem that will bring us ever closer to being fully part of every society in which we live, and that’s everywhere. We can’t worry about whether peoples’ feelings are being hurt, or feel their toes are being stepped on. Centuries of isolation, institutionalization, demoralization and the demeaning status of the ‘unwanted cripple’ have led us to this point.
People with disabilities must create the spaces in society for our voices to be heard in the most effective ways. Activism and social action are twin partners in the journey. My late father was a social activist for the rights of teachers and later in his life, for seniors. His outspoken nature propelled him into the role of being heard on a national level. Civil rights can be a troubling and challenging discourse, but also an illuminating one. People who have been traditionally undermined and pushed aside can strike down those barriers with our voices raised in a chorus of genuine desire. Our desire is full equality and this is why the disability rights movement is just as important today as it was in the days of Ed Roberts. We must be the framers of our own lives, the ones to determine our journeys, describe ourselves in our own words, and follow the path travelled by the great civil rights leaders before us and those yet to come.
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