Yesterday President Obama mentioned “Americans with mental illness or physical disability” as part of his long list of inclusive terms. This is not my preferred language. It excludes my son, who has neither a mental illness nor a physical disability (he has an intellectual disability). It excludes a lot of people, and moreover separates people into categories in ways I find unhelpful. Still, it’s good to see some entry disability in inclusive language in such a high profile address.
On Twitter, #SOTU4PWD (State of the Union for People With Disabilities) contains an ongoing discussion of that clause and what it might mean.
Here’s my contribution, or at least some opening thoughts. Comments always welcome.
We are in an era of intensifying income inequality matched with political movements that want to shred safety nets and basic supports. Fights against those political movements and in favor of greater equality are, it turns out, fights for better lives for people with disabilities.
It’s vital to keep this in mind, because in the U.S., the GOP plan is to divide and conquer. They play off the disabled vs the poor, the poor vs the elderly, the chronically disabled vs those hurt on the job, people with Down syndrome vs people with Schizophrenia, and more. If your political philosophy despises concepts like universal healthcare, social security, and basic income guarantees – and the GOP despises these – divide and conquer is the politically viable way to fight otherwise popular program.
So they have pitted Medicare vs the Affordable Care Act. Social Security for the elderly vs for the disabled. People with disabilities diagnosed under age 26 vs people with disabilities diagnosed after 26. The alleged “fakers” on SSDI vs the worthy disabled. The working poor vs the not working poor.
We fight back by refusing to be divided. Good policy is good policy and should be available to all. The fight for economic justice is the fight for disability rights.
At the same time, we have to advocate for our specific causes and specific needs, lest be rendered invisible. We need the president to nod to disability in his speech, if he’s going to list problems. We need to demand that he say, as he did, “transgender,” the first time that word appeared in a State of the Union.We need to make #BlackLivesMatter, rather then letting it fall into the softer, meaningless, all lives matter (because all lives do matter, but black lives are specifically treated as disposable). We need to be specific.
The way to be both specific and universal is called intersectionality. I write about it a lot – on abortion, on police violence, on mass killings, and so forth. It’s a frame of mind, a mode of argument, and an analytical tool that pushes you to both see the specific issue at hand, not derail it, but link it to other kinds of issues.
In fact, intersectionality demands that we make these kinds of links, emerging from black feminist
arguments that we had to focus on race AND gender. Disability AND poverty. Poverty AND race. Etc.
Intersectional disability studies enables the focus on specific needs and reforms that people with disabilities require, but also keeps us from demanding that our issue, whatever it is, is explicitly on the table all the time. When people are marching because black lives do matter, people in the disability community don’t have to say – why aren’t you marching for us? Instead, we rally together, because your fight is our fight.
Your fight is our fight.
The fight for economic justice, in whatever form it takes, is the fight for disability rights. And the fight for disability rights, in whatever form it takes, should matter equally to those outside the community, working for economic justice.