“We know that when you improve the systems and quality of life for disabled people,” Rebecca Cokley told me, “everybody else’s quality of life goes up, too.”
Rebecca is one of the speakers at this weekend's Women's Convention organized by the Women's March. Like her parents and her children, Rebecca was born with achondroplasia, a common cause of dwarfism. During the Obama administration she held several White House positions related to diversity and disability, most recently Executive Director of the National Council on Disability.
As you may have noticed, supporting diversity and disability causes is not high on the White House to-do list these days. In fact, many in the current administration are actively trying to convince voters it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to make the world more accessible for the disabled. These politicians are deliberately perpetuating old, threadbare myths about members the disabled community being takers who have nothing to offer, an unfair drain on society’s economic resources, and second class citizens who can and should be shunted aside in favor of “better” people.
OK, so let’s stop right there and consider just a few of the disabled people who have made an impact on our world.
Anybody who thinks the disabled have nothing to offer clearly hasn’t been paying attention. And right now the disability community is doing great things in the Resistance — for a start, by playing a heroic role in blocking the administration’s first efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which many disabled people view as a life-or-death issue.
“They kept vigils day and night, sleeping in wheelchairs when necessary,” John Nichols wrote In The Nation. “They participated in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience that led to daunting moments of confrontation and removal. They challenged the inaccessibility of public buildings — and public officials. They willingly faced arrest in what they termed a ‘Fight for Life and Liberty.’ In Senate office buildings, they unfurled banners that declared: ‘Capping Medicaid = Death 4 Disabled.’ The protests were so bold, so effective, that congressional leaders were shaken.”
The protesters won the first round. But the government has redoubled efforts to repeal and replace and continues to sabotage the ACA via funding cuts. Meanwhile officials are retaliating directly against the disability community. On September 7, 2017, the House Judiciary Committee passed HR 620, the so-called ADA Education and Reform Act that relaxes compliance requirements for businesses. A few days later, I spoke to Rebecca about the implications of the bill.
“What that really does is terrifying,” she said. “It removes any incentive for voluntary compliances by businesses that are not accessible. It puts all the onus, all the responsibility on the disabled person who encounters the access barrier to send a very detailed book, chapter, and verse [report] citing which chapters of the ADA the business is in violation of. And it gives the business six months of time in which to respond and comply. The ADA is 27 years old; businesses have had 27 years to fall into compliance, and they haven’t done it yet.”
Right-wing politicians who are bent on gutting the ADA are conveniently forgetting that disability is an issue that touches every family, including their own. “There’s no way to live in this country and not be directly impacted by disability,” Rebecca told me. “We are the largest minority in this country; we are 57 million people.” The US Census Report of 2012 (the most recent available) confirms that 19% of the population has disabilities, more than half of them severe. This makes us all part of the disability community’s extended family. The disabled aren’t “out there” somewhere; they are in our homes and in our hearts. They're us.
Disability issues are civil rights issues. No disabled American (or anyone else, for that matter) should be stigmatized, marginalized, denied access to public transportation or government offices, or prevented from seeking an education and gainful employment. It’s morally wrong. And even if it weren’t, it’s a self-defeating strategy. Despite what some Republican lawmakers say, the Americans with Disability Act, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, and other such government programs aren’t some form of charity that we, the non-disabled, are bestowing upon them, the “less fortunate,” because we’re hyper-idealistic, bleeding-heart softies. These programs are a practical necessity for all of us to survive as imperfect people in a challenging world.
I won't be there to hear Rebecca speak at the Women's Convention this weekend, but I am sure she'll have a lot to say about the strength, courage, and tactical wisdom of today's disability activists. If you need reasons to hope that the Resistance will be successful, start by looking at what these fearless protesters have accomplished already.
This video is Episode 10 of my ongoing series Women of the American Resistance. You can view the complete series here on this website, on YouTube, and American Resistance Sevilla; many episodes appear on my other blog Enjoy Living Abroad, Americans Resisting Overseas and various social media sites. Please feel free to repost this video or link to this content. My goal is to tell the world about these remarkable American women and the work they're doing to help fix the mess we're in.
Karen McCann is a bestselling author whose travel tips and adventure stories have appeared in Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, and Lonely Planet. She is a founding member of American Resistance Sevilla.