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Op-Ed Tue Jul 16 2013
By Byl Adam
As we've learned over the past week and as we're reminded every day, injustice is not only alive and well but thriving here in the United States. Just as with people from other minority groups, people with disabilities face discrimination every day, even in a "progressive" city like Chicago. Discrimination in terms of housing, employment and medical care. Discrimination in terms of marriage equality and the right to bear and raise children. Discrimination in terms of the right to control or even have a say in matters regarding their own bodies.
In 2013, people with disabilities are openly mocked and made fun of in front of their friends, their partners, their families, in front of strangers. In 2013, many still find it acceptable to use the word "retarded" to describe something — or someone — they view as stupid. As ugly. As inferior. As not equal. Terms like "midget," "crip" and "vegetable" are still thrown about, with the users often not even beginning to fathom that what they're saying is offensive. That it's hurtful. That it's cruel.
The first time someone invited me to the Disability Pride Parade, my first reaction was "Well, I don't have a disability, so why would I go?" Though I do feel a sense of embarrassment over this now, I think it's common to feel that issues related to disability don't really apply to the non-disabled community. I've always felt an opposition to any sort of discrimination, but I felt that as someone who defines as "abled," this was not really my battle to fight.
As time has gone on however, I've seen first hand the ways in which discrimination against people with disabilities is a problem for everyone, including those of abled status. I've learned that it doesn't necessarily feel good for people with disabilities to be labeled as "inspiring." I notice now when spaces aren't wheelchair accessible, and I've become conscious of the ways in which my home, my church, and my workplace would be problematic to a person with a mobility disability. I've become conscious of how simply having a disabled character on a TV program isn't enough, and that such portrayals can inadvertently have elements that are insensitive and even offensive.
After being involved with the parade and growing into someone who identifies as a disability ally, I've learned a lot. I'm learning all the time. I do feel nervous at times that I'll do or say the wrong thing. What if a person who is deaf or otherwise has difficulty with verbal communication is speaking to me and I can't understand what they're saying? How can I truly understand the experiences of persons with disabilities when I haven't experienced it firsthand?
Quite simply, I can't. All I can do is be open and receptive, keep my mind free, and be honest with others and myself. I'm learning. I hope I won't ever say or do "the wrong thing," but if I do, I can only hope that others will see how important it is to me that I then learn to do the right thing, and will help shed a light on things in a way I'm not able to do myself.
As a gay person, I'm moved by the efforts of those who do not identify as gay but have aligned themselves with the LGBT community and the struggle for civil rights. Why would this not apply to the relationship between people who don't consider themselves disabled and the disability community? As Martin Luther King Jr. stated in a letter written from inside a cell in the Birmingham Jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Injustice toward the disability community is everyone's problem.
The Disability Pride Parade is one day out of the year — one space in which people with disabilities are not the exception, but the rule. It's a celebration of the strength and perseverance that people with disabilities must show each and every day of their lives. Per the parade planning committee's mission statement, it's a day in which we aim to change the way people think about and define disability; to break down and end the internalized shame among people with disabilities; and to promote the belief that disability is a natural and beautiful part of human diversity in which people with disabilities can take pride.
This year's Disability Pride Parade takes place in less than a week — this Saturday, July 20. The planning process takes all year, and it's been a particularly uphill battle this year. We don't have enough money. The Disability Pride Parade relies entirely on sponsorships, many from small disability-related organizations who are financially squeezed themselves. No one gets paid for their efforts in planning the parade. At times this past year it's felt like I have another job, as I've struggled to keep our social media pages updated, figure out the entertainment lineup, field email after email, and attend monthly, sometimes weekly meetings. At times I've felt resentful, and at times I've fantasized about what my life would be like if I didn't have this huge project to work on. I'd guess that others on the planning committee have felt this way too. But as the parade draws closer, I'm running on pure adrenaline.
There's still a lot to do, but at this point — I know that this parade is going to happen, and not only that, it's going to succeed. I know what it means to people. I know that what it means to me is different than what it means to a child with autism, or a paralyzed veteran, or someone who has been blind for their entire life (or just a portion of it). The Disability Pride Parade impacts everyone who participates in a unique way, but it does impact all of us. The issue of civil rights for people with disabilities is an issue for each and every one of us, and I say, why shouldn't the celebration be for everyone too?
Though there's still plenty of work to be done, I can't wait for Saturday. The people I've worked with on planning this day have become so important to me, and making this parade happen is even more special to me because it's a victory for all of us. For those of you who will be at this year's parade, I hope it's a wonderful experience. For those of you who can't make it — there are things you can do. We're always accepting donations, and for an organization like ours, any donation helps. Help us spread the word. Volunteer. Educate yourself on disability issues. Challenge yourself. Trust your intentions. We're all in this together, and the fight is far from over.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely my own and are not an attempt to represent the Disability Pride Parade Planning Committee or any community or entity.