Disability Rights and Racism Cannot Coexist

The disability community is in an uproar this week. The leader of National ADAPT, Bruce Darling got himself in trouble when he was advocating for the Disability Integration Act. During a tense meeting with Representative Anna Eshoo, Darling accused her and other Democrats of “caring more about people who are not legally in this country than their own citizens who are disabled.” Many disabled people of color reacted strongly to the attack, some of whom resigned from ADAPT or vowed to cease donations. Many of them pointed out that the kids in ICE’s concentration camps are disabled or will be when they come out.

In response to the criticism, Darling said things got heated and he said things he regrets. He also resigned from his position at the National Centers for Independent living and many of his critics have called for him to step down as leader of ADAPT. I personally echo these calls for resignation.

Opposition to the disability rights movement stems from racism

We cannot fight for disability rights and use racist talking points. If you won’t listen to the obvious moral reasons, listen to some pragmatic reasons. Much of the opposition to the disability rights movement, and most programs used by the disabled (I.E. Medicaid, special education, etc.) boils down to racism.

Racist politicians (both actively and passively) have made many able-bodied white people think that the social safety net is just minorities stealing from good hard-working white people. They’ve gotten large portions of white people to think that pretty much anyone using a social net program is running some sort of bizarre scam. Unless they’re white, in which case, they’ve just fallen on hard times. Any program the disabled use has been racially coded.

If you’re a white disability-rights activist and you talk to an able-bodied white person who is skeptical about fixing the social safety net (as in actually fixing and not just capriciously throwing people off of it), or basically any other disability issue, you’ll inevitably get into a discussion of “deserving-ism.” They’ll say that we can’t have universal healthcare or expanded Medicaid asset limits (which are laughably low) because there’s a chance they might benefit someone “undeserving.” You, as the white person, will almost always be included among the “deserving” though. After all, you’re white. “Deserving” means white. It has meant white ever since the government said that the social safety net applies to nonwhites.

In debates over special education, particularly about funding, there’s always going to be one jerk screaming about how disabled students are taking from the “good students.” If you’re really unlucky, that jerk will be on the school board. “Good student” means white.

In short, disability rights activists aren’t just fighting ableists, nursing home lobbyists, and paranoid special needs parents. When we fight for accessibility, Money Follows the Person, better special education or the Disability Integration Act, we’re dealing with racists who are paranoid that government will apply to people they don’t like. In short, disability discourse is a racist dumpster fire. We cannot fight for disability rights by throwing gasoline on it.

Using racist talking points alienates people we need

Bruce Darling’s use of racist talking points not only shows a fundamental ignorance of disability history but alienates minorities. The problem is, we can’t base the whole disability rights movement around white people. We did this before.

The first wave of disability rights activism was largely driven by white upper-class moms. Sure, there were disabled self-advocates but they were largely on the periphery. Most of the big players in the movement were the parent-run groups staffed by moms. This seemed like a good idea at the time. However, when the moms achieved their main goals (integrating schools, passing a heavily compromised ADA and helping their own kids be able to stay at home), they left the job half-done and made several crippling compromises that have harmed disabled adults (the low Medicaid asset limit for example).

Parents valued “normalcy” above everything else. They wanted their kids to go to “normal” schools, go on “normal” outings, and stay at their “normal” homes. They didn’t want to get involved in fixing the broader systemic issues. They didn’t want to be labeled as “bitter” the way the disabled self-advocates are. They didn’t want to risk being labeled as socialists in the era of the Cold War. where such a label carried risks. So most pulled out. Others stayed behind at “awareness” organizations that have spent the better part of thirty years jogging in place and having galas with celebrities to promote “awareness” and calling that victory.

In short, the disability rights movement went into complete and total collapse once the white moms who made up the bulk of the movement left. The consequences were drastic.

No one was minding the store as accessibility laws were fought, ignored and labeled as “political correctness run amok” (more racist code). There was -precious little fight against Medicaid cuts and other austerity measures that put disabled people on the chopping block beyond some finger-wagging from “awareness” groups.

The second wave of disability-rights activism is slowly becoming more minority-driven. However, this incident with Bruce Darling shows that there is a long way to go. This is hardly the first time that disability-rights activists have engaged in casual racism either. Many disabled people of color have trouble joining the disability rights movement because this subset of white disabled people is all too willing to throw other people under the bus. You cannot run a civil rights movement with only one group of people at the helm. As we saw the first time around, basing the disability rights movement around only what white people want is inherently unstable.

In order to avoid becoming as irrelevant as most “awareness” organizations ADAPT and the broader disability rights movement needs to clean house and welcome people of all races. Disability policy is hindered by racism. We’re not going to fix it by being racist ourselves.