It’s been a complicated couple of weeks for disabled people. First, North Miami police shot Charles Kinsey, who was on the ground with his hands up — and then clarified they were aiming at the autistic man next to him, as if that makes it better. Days later, in Sagamihara, Japan, a former employee of the Tsukui Yamayuri-en residential center broke in and killed 19 people because “all the handicapped should disappear.” Then Baltimore prosecutors dropped all remaining charges against the officers facing trial for Freddie Gray’s death. But in the midst of all that, disabled folks have been totally bringing it onstage at the Democratic National Convention. And on the same day as the Sagamihara attack, the Americans with Disabilities Act had its 26th anniversary.
I’m part of what they call the ADA Generation. I wasn’t even two years old when it passed, so I only technically know a reality without it. I’ve essentially taken for granted that I can attend public schools; that there will be a curb cut at the end of my block; and that “equal opportunity employment” is supposed to be for me, too. That’s all thanks to the ADA.
But you know what else really, really helps? Being white.
Disability in America — and really, throughout the world — has a whiteness problem. We’re expected to melt at those photos of white disabled kids trying their darndest. Local news eats it up when white disabled people teach our peers that “attitude is everything.” A disability melodrama starring two white (and able-bodied, by the way) actors grossed over $182 million worldwide this summer. And on the rare occasion a disabled person does land the role, you can bet that character is white.
This country likes its disabled people white because then we’re different enough — but not too different. Film and TV executives might call us “relatable.” We are, as someone once described me to my mother, “so close to normal.” It’s as if race and disability are too complicated, confusing, and delicate to exist side by side, let alone in the same person. So we continue to understand whiteness as neutral (if not superior); deal in the types of difference that make able-bodied people feel good; and avoid confronting our assumptions about disabled bodies, the law, and what access looks like.
Vilissa Thompson and Alice Wong aren’t having any of that. These two alumnae of our disabled badasses list joined forces for #GetWokeADA26, a survey and call for stories that brings disabled people of color to the fore in their own words. Their final report came out this week and I’m giving you homework, everyone: read it right now.
Their fifty respondents discussed everything from profiling and harassment:
White people, usually over 55, tend to interview me, grill me, and outright accuse me of being non-disabled when I park in a handicap space… I mean, little old ladies have accused me of stealing my parking decal.
To embodying multiple identities:
As a queer, black, autistic person, I feel that all these different intersecting identities impact the way these issues affect me. I feel as though I’m only allowed one marginalised identity, not several, so I might get treated as though I’m JUST black, rather than black and queer, or black and autistic, or all three of those things. It makes me feel pretty invisible at times.
To the ADA and its shortcomings:
Its [sic] allowed me to feel backed up in situations where someone might try to deny me access. Because I don’t have to rely on ethical or emotional appeals I have the law on my side.
ADA focus is given to physical disability. I have a developmental disability and am told to “suck it up” when I encounter environs that aren’t necessarily accessible for me.
To community and representation:
Then I started meeting other people like me and I realized yeah, there are hard days when it feels like society doesn’t want you, but in the disability community you have people supporting and loving you for all of you and who tell society to fuck off when you’re too tired to. It’s not perfect but it beats being alone and trying to figure it out.
Every time I see “inspiring” stories of people living with disabilities, it’s always some white person who “didn’t let their disability stop them!” I’m tired of the inspiration porn of a white woman who traveled abroad. Where’s the POC folks who are already treated like second class for having darker skin colors and unpronounceable last names? Where’s the representation of POC women battling breast cancer and Latina girls learning to manage their diabetes while learning English at the same time?
And that’s only a fraction of the discussion. If you wonder what the ADA really does, read this report. If you need an intro to disability politics, read this report. If you’re able-bodied and have questions you’re too embarrassed to ask, read this report. If you’re disabled and ready to stare down some hard truths, read this report. And most of all, if you assume disability negates white privilege, Read. This. Report.
#GetWokeADA26 drives home the point that “nothing is mutually exclusive for disabled people of color.” “We cannot claim to be an inclusive, welcoming community,” say Thompson and Wong, “when disabled people of color are underrepresented, ignored, and feel disconnected from the very space where they should feel safe to be who they are.”