“While they were saying it couldn’t be done, it was done.”
One Sunday afternoon last November—in the pre-eviction Liberty Square/Zuccotti Park encampment—my jaded eyes lit up when I saw a sign that read:
Mic Check: The sight of dozens of disability rights activists occupying one end of the park provoked a particularly wide smile—and it wasn’t solely based on my devotion to holistic justice. Please allow me to explain…
Back in the pre-Internet days of yore, I used to review zines for a wide of print publications, e.g. Factsheet 5, Anderson Valley Advertiser, and Alternative Press Review. One of the zines I was assigned to cover was Mouth Magazine: Voice of the Disability Nation. My glowing and nuanced review inspired Lucy Gwin, founder and editor of Mouth, to send me a postcard of gratitude (I’m sure I still have that piece of snail mail around here somewhere).
To paraphrase, Lucy basically expressed appreciation that—finally—a “normal” radical like me “got it” about disability issues. A friendship was born, I soon became the “token normal” on Mouth’s writing roster, and I learned to adore their motto: PISS ON PITY. In 2005, I even included a chapter about Lucy and related issues in my book, 50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know.
It might come as a bit of shock to those unfamiliar with the disability rights movement, but not every differently-abled person would rather be non-differently-abled or even dead.
Mic Check: Dead people, you see, can’t fight the power and raise hell.
And here’s a newsflash to those who think Christopher Reeve represented the disability rights movement: The Krips weren’t impressed with Superman’s search for a cure. In fact, they’re also not pacified by Jerry Lewis’ telethons and they want/demand freedom for the two million Americans imprisoned in nursing homes against their will. Now.
As the Krip mantra goes: “Nothing about us, without us.”
Another area of vexation is the lack of support from and/or the inability to “get it” within progressive circles. From the movement’s early days—the League of the Physically Handicapped was formed in New York City in May 1935—right up to today’s issues, the Left has typically blown the opportunity to work collectively with those waging a crucial human rights battle.
“It is disheartening, to say the least, when I can still pick up a book or read a call for unity to fight for social justice which omits or does not give equal weight to the disability social movement against oppression,” says Marta Russell, author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract.
It should go without saying that people with disabilities have much to contribute as equal members of the vaunted 99%.
“As the political focus is constantly on the deficit, disabled people face an economic terrorism everyday of our lives,” Russell adds. “What will be snatched out from under us next? Social Security? Medicare? Medicaid? Section 8 Housing? Low income heating assistance? In-Home Support Services? You get the picture.”
Mic Check: There’s good news and it is spelled OWS.
“Occupy is trying to completely change the terms of the debate,” says T.K. Small, an attorney and disability rights activist from NYC. “They are bringing something new to the table. Activists with disabilities need to be part of that.”
Among the disability activists I met back in November was Nadina LaSpina, a mutual friend of Lucy Gwin’s who has post-polio syndrome and uses a motorized wheelchair. Nadina is a former professor and a leader in the NYC and national ADAPT chapters and has been arrested more times than she can count.
Upon being arrested at the OWS camp on November 17, 2011, Nadina declared: “If we want our voices heard, we can’t sit this out or wait for an invitation. They will only address our issues if we are there and do the work. We made sure we tuned OWS leadership into disability issues by talking with them.”
Nadina sez: “I wish we could stop fighting. But so many of our people are still incarcerated in nursing homes and other institutions, so many are still living below the poverty level, so many are being denied basic human rights, including the right to live. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been eviscerated in our courts, its promise of equality still remains unfulfilled. We still face prejudice and discrimination in every area of our lives on a daily basis. So we have no choice but to keep fighting. Activism must come first.”
As I see it, the brilliance of OWS lies in recognizing that activism must come first and, as the 99:1 ratio demonstrates, that means holistic activism. After all, 99% is a damn big number—a huge umbrella under which a vast range of dissidents can coalesce.
And coalesce they have…including those disabled comrades who suggest we piss on pity and instead get busy creating change right fuckin’ now.
We are the 99%. Expect us. Join us…
Video: Why camping out is not a wheelchair accessible option
Video: Raul Carranza speech at Occupy San Diego Labor Solidarity