In 1979 writer James Baldwin gave a blisteringly prescient speech to students at the University of California, Berkeley. In it he related a question he heard Malcolm X ask a young sit-in student.
Malcolm said, “If you are a citizen, why do you have to fight for your civil rights? If you’re fighting for your civil rights, that means you’re not a citizen.”
He’s right. He was right then and he is right now. If you are fighting for your civil rights, you are not a citizen. You may be one on paper, or according to well-written words on parchment, but you are not a citizen in fact and substance. And therein lies the challenge faced by people with disabilities, and, by the way, far too many others.
For far too long people with disabilities have life decided for them, the will of others inflicted on them against there will. Sheltered workshops pose as employment opportunities when they are essentially nothing more than slave labor. The law mandating a minimum wage does not apply to those working in a sheltered workshop, though no law abbreviates the profits company’s make on the backs of the cheap labor their.
The institutional warehousing of people with disabilities continues and many community-based programs have proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there is such a thing as community-based warehousing. Happens all the time. Too many healthcare providers see a person with a disability as a cottage industry. The more services we can give this person, the more money we can make. They make their profits by keeping the “cripples” in their place, not in allowing them their civil rights, their independence.
My state of New York continues to fail to meet its obligations to make sure voting sights are accessible for people with disabilities. Government agencies too often inflict their will on people with disabilities without any regard for the will and views of those who live with the disabilities.
I talked with a remarkable woman who lives with a brain injury. She used to attend a day program in the Albany area. This woman is sharp, loaded with charisma, and overflows with courage and dignity. She is also nobody’s fool. She told me how she’d made it clear to those around her that she wanted to get a job, a real job. So, she explained, the provider said they would let her use one of the rooms in their office suite as a candy and newspaper store. They would buy the candy and papers and let her work there and even let keep some of the money from the items she sold. “How stupid do they think I am?” she said. “The only reason they’re doing this is so they can keep billing (Medicaid) for the hours I’m there.”
In his speech James Baldwin, a man I wish I’d been able to meet, said there was one thing white people in my country knew for sure, “They know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know.” What he said can be applied to people with disabilities as well. The powers that be, and far to many of those who foolishly think they have no disability (there is no disability greater than the failure to see another’s humanity), know they would not like to be disabled in this country. And if they know that, they know everything they need to know.
They know that living with a disability is tantamount to slavery; your rights and your freedoms are denied. You are not citizens. The goal is to keep the “cripples” in their place.
In his speech Baldwin said, ““What was called a civil rights movement was really an insurrection… Before each slave rebellion there was something I now call, non-cooperation.”
And so it is that insurrection in the form of non-cooperation is a necessary tool.
After all, every single one of us have the constitutional right to live, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Keep the “cripples” in their place? Don’t hold your breath.