I can think of no better time than now, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to say a few words to all, including those who, if they abide by the requirements of their respective roles, are bound to the notion that people with disabilities deserve equal rights meaning, they deserve their freedom. There can be no freedom without equal rights. My disability is a brain injury as a result of being held-up and shot in the head in 1984.
In my state of New York the struggle for equal rights for people with disabilities (and seniors) often finds itself confronting those who are seeking to save money at the expense of those rights which includes the right to live as independently as possible. In some cases this means having access to the services they deserve to make this possible. The struggle is, at times, with some of those who loudly pronounce their support for those of us with disabilities, but, when the forces that seek to deny us our rights raise their heads, they fall silent.
Over the years I have made friends and lost friends because I hold people, companies, agencies, councils, committees, and governments accountable for their actions. There are some who think that I start out holding these folks accountable publicly. Not true. In many instances, and, in some cases, for significant periods of time, I have held the aforementioned accountable in conversations behind the scenes. But when that fails, the dysfunction and the glaring disloyalty to their professed cause must be brought into the light of day. There is no doubt I have angered some and there is no doubt some have taken my actions personally.
I don’t advocate for equal rights to make people angry and I don’t advocate for equal rights to wound someone personally. Has it ever occurred to anyone that having your equal rights denied might make you angry? Has it ever occurred to anyone that having your equal rights denied is personal? When you lose your equal rights, you lose your freedom. For some of us with disabilities, losing our freedom includes losing our freedom to remain in the community! Our freedom to choose where we live, what we eat, what we wear, when we sleep, when we get up, where we go during the day, what we hear, what we see… This is no exaggeration. I wish it was, but it isn’t. Just imagine losing your freedom in any or all of the ways just mentioned and then ask yourself if it wouldn’t make you angry. Ask yourself if maybe just maybe you might take the loss of your freedom personally.
There are some groups in New York who truly do practice what they preach. The Center for Disability Rights headed up by Bruce Darling, a man I genuinely love and respect, comes to mind. On the CDR homepage, Mr. Darling writes, “Some people say we are never satisfied. Others try to portray us as complainers. I feel we just call it as we see it.” Thank God they do. And what is it they do? They hold everyone accountable and, at times, they do so publically. After all, sunshine is the best disinfectant.
And then too there is the extraordinary group, ADAPT, whose battle cry is, accurately and not surprisingly, Free Our People! And, in my state, we have NYSILC, the New York State Independent Living Council, along with some Independent Living Centers across the state who are indeed remarkable. But we need more groups like this. The fledgling Kahrmann Advocacy Coalition has, in a very short time, taken the role as the largest grassroots advocacy group for people with brain injuries in the state. Why? Because it was a huge void that needed (and deserved) to be filled.
If all that’s been said here and other places about the need for public advocacy for equal rights has not swayed you, then perhaps the words of the man whose day this is might help. Perhaps his words might help those who remain silent when the rights of any people are being denied to change their ways and speak out.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
"A right delayed is a right denied.”
“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
Let us also remember that the reason this day belongs to Dr. King, and therefore all of us, is because, like CDR, ADAPT, the NAACP and more, he called it the way he saw it, and he did so in a way we all heard, understood and believed.
We shall overcome.