Reframing the disability rights philosophy

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – There are rumblings here of something new within the disability rights community. A small but influential group is examining the philosophy, which has driven the disability rights movement since the early to mid-seventies.

We are taking a long-hard look at the movement and asking, “How can we move this forward? How can we push our community forward into a mass culture, while strengthening and broadening the Independent Living philosophy, which is the underpinning fabric of our movement?”

For those outside the Independent Living movement, our philosophy is pretty simple: People with disabilities deserve to live, work and play independently in the community of their choice. With proper support, people with disabilities can and will reach our full potential and be able to integrate fully into society.

While this is generally positive, and while Independent Living has propelled us to new heights in the last 40-some-odd years, more work needs to be done.

Even though we have made some great strides as a community, people with disabilities still represent a minority, disenfranchised group.

We are least likely to finish high school. And even less likely to get a bachelor’s degree or advanced training of any type.

Additionally, statistics show that people with disabilities are less likely to be married or be in civil unions. And we have few leadership roles in our various communities. We deal with high rates of unemployment and are generally less engaged politically.

Yet there is an Independent Living Center in every state in the union, if not more than one. They offer a variety of services meant to enable the individual to live the dream, whatever that means to her or him.

In St. Louis, community members with disabilities – both connected to Independent Living Centers and not – have begun to see a problem in the extreme individualism that our Movement proclaims, as it is primarily about the individual, and largely seeks individual solutions. The basic premise negates our larger vision of community.

I would argue independence as a term represents an isolated, self-propulsion, lacking context. Independence defined as such doesn’t really exist, though. We cannot as individuals move forward without community and/or systems of support.

So in response to this realization, we have begun to frame the discussion around the Independent Living philosophy in a new light. We have begun to organize outside of the traditional disability rights institutions – institutions supported and funded by the Independent Living movement.

Instead, we meet around kitchen tables, in living rooms and community centers. We are beginning to engage in cross disability issues. And we engage folks from the labor, environmental and gender rights groups.

People with disabilities exist in all subcultures. We are people of color. We are women. We identify as queer. In order to succeed, to integrate, to be seen, we must understand our struggle as part of a larger political context connecting all of these other struggles. This is the perspective we now add to the Independent Living movement.

Here we are saying – maybe for the first time – “We can address a multiplicity of issues only if we galvanize as a community – as black, white, gay, straight, young, old and people with disabilities.”

As disability rights activists, we are returning to the power of community building. We are solidifying organizations and building infrastructure. We are inviting more and more people to take part in the discussion. Consider this your invitation.

Photo: “Disabled and Proud” at the Disability Capitol Action Day in Sacramento, Calif., May 26, 2010. (PW/Gail Ryall)