Disability rights and the civil rights revolution

Those of us who come from the first wave of disability rights advocates began our struggle within the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We learned an important lesson from that movement as to how a minority of citizens could change the way a society views the rights of all the people.

In the southern states African Americans lived mostly separated lives from the white majority, forced into second-class citizenship as a direct result of the post-Reconstruction period of reaction that entrenched white supremacy. Racism existed in the northern states as well but was never publicly acknowledged.

Even as the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, old Jim Crow ruled the day. Those African Americans who stood up for their rights, such as Malcolm X’s father and many others, often found themselves hanging as “bitter fruit” on the nearest tree or lamppost. Only a mass civil rights movement actively demanding equality, equal opportunity and jobs advanced African Americans to equal citizenship under the law.

The years of civil rights struggle taught the first wave of disability rights advocates that if we wanted to live barrier-free we needed to carry out the same struggle for equality. We had to follow the path cleared by the civil rights movement and demand that people with disabilities be treated fairly and no differently than any other citizen — as human beings we should not be limited from participating within the mainstream of life, and should have the same opportunities as able-bodied citizens.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the establishment of affirmative action within the workplace and schools, inspired people with disabilities. The federal government, by these laws, was forced to develop policies to uproot institutional racism in the North and Jim Crow in the South, ending segregation in public schools, prohibiting job discrimination and offering real job opportunities. It was forced to exercise its power through the National Guard and the courts to enforce the new policies of desegregation in the workplace, the classroom and housing, because of the mass people’s movement.

The civil rights movement was a nonviolent revolution. The progressive transformation that it brought about influenced not only the disability rights movement but many other social movements of the 1970s and ’80s. It was a model for how mass demonstrations and civil disobedience could put pressure on the federal government to change its policies.

Following this example, the disability rights movement demanded the least restrictive environment in public education for students with disabilities. Using the Voting Rights Act as a model, people with disabilities demanded passage of the Help America Vote Act. Among other voter rights and protection measures, HAVA, passed in 2002, provides funds to state and local governments to upgrade their voting machines and to make all polling places accessible to people with disabilities.

The disability rights movement fought and pushed until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. It is entirely based on the Civil Rights Act. However, the U.S. Supreme Court is striking down one section after another, indicating that even the passage of progressive laws is not enough as long as the right wing rules the Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House. All of the progress made over the past 50 years is subject to the Bush counter-revolution.

Recent massive cuts in housing, benefits, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid by the right-wing Bush Congress are a direct attack on low-income working people, the frail elderly and people with disabilities. This is why this fall’s election is so important to all these oppressed people. We need to organize an all-people’s movement to throw these reactionaries out of office, take back our government, restore the cuts and restore the laws designed to correct the injustices of the past.

Tom Siblo (tsiblo@hvcbiz.rr.com) is a diability rights activist in Kingston, N.Y.