protester in a wheelchair holding a sign saying Cut the Curbs

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Background: What it Means to be Disabled

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary:

Dis-able: 1: to deprive of legal right, qualification, or capacity 2: to make incapable or ineffective; especially: to deprive of physical, moral, or intellectual strength. Synonym see weaken.

Hand-i-cap: 1: a disadvantage that makes achievement unusually difficult 2: a physical disability.

In the book ABC Clio Companion to the Disability Rights Movement, Able-ism is defined as the act of being competent, clever, good and capable of superior abilities.

Reading the above definitions, it is better to be a non-disabled person than disabled, what many non-disabled people have referred to as "a fate worse than death." How, in the definition of dis-able above, can there be anything positive about being disabled?

Disability is part of who we are and we are strong and proud!

Let's step back a minute. History has often portrayed disabled people as evil, villainous, inhuman, dumb, sick, or depraved; or conversely, angelic, childlike, innocent, pitiable, or objects of charity.

None of these descriptions are accurate or appropriate. But because of our appearances, behavior and language, we have been put in nursing homes, institutions, and jails. We have been experimented upon, faced forced sterilization, and been subjected to genocide.

Disabled people have never been seen as distinct, beautiful, loving, caring, creative, intelligent, funny or strong. Instead, we have been seen as broken and unfixable. Society has tried to either put us away, do away with us, or take care of us.

Disability is NOT a sickness but a political fact!

Society needs to change - we don't. Think for a minute, have you ever said to someone in a wheelchair or someone who is blind:

"How do you do it?"
"You are so brave."
"I could never live like that."
"If I were you, I'd kill myself."

Do you realize what you have just said to them? You have told them they would be better off dead.

The truth is that disabled people are a minority, a minority group that anyone can join at anytime in their life. We are a political minority in that we have shared common discrimination, poverty, and barriers-both physical and attitudinal.

Society says that living with a disability is suffering. They do not see that it is not the disability one "suffers" from but rather the prejudices, assumptions, attitudes and behavior towards the disabled. These are the real problems.

Disabled and Proud

Paul Longmore, Assistant Professor of History at San Francisco State University, teaches a course called the History of Human Differences. He says if society can not fix or cure a disability so that one can be seen as close to normal as possible, then there is no positive way in the current state of things to be a person with a disability.

Longmore says, "When you are defined exclusively as an object of charity, you are not in a position to demand anything as your right."

"When you begin to assert yourself as having a right to reasonable accommodations that allow you to operate in the different way you operate as a person with a disability, then you initially will be charged with seeking special privileges. These are not the things you demand as a right, these are things that are dispensed to you out of good will."

Disabled people must stand up and demand their civil rights or their civil rights will be taken away. Our silence will destroy us. Stand proud and stand loud.

"We don't want special treatment - we want equal treatment."

Longmore also believes the first phase of the Disability Rights Movement is the quest for civil rights, equal access and equal opportunity for inclusion. The second phase is the quest for a collective identity of Disability Culture. Even though we are working on the first phase, we can explore Disability Culture by redefining disability from the inside.

Disability Culture redefines disability not as a medical problem to be treated by doctors but as a social and political reality. This shows we are members of a minority and an essential step in achieving pride both socially and politically is one's roots and culture.

"Without political action, there is no change . . . Without culture, there is no identity, no feeling of us." - Michael O'Brien.

"Remember - nothing about us without us!" -- ADAPT

Ed Roberts, who established the first Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California, and a political activist for the disability movement says, "Anger is the best thing we got going in this movement, because when you are angry, it gives you tremendous energy to do things you never thought you could do."

Nancy Salandra, a disability rights activists says: "I don't care if you change your language toward me but I do care that you change the way you see me. If you could see disabled people as equal to able-bodied people, you would change the way you see yourself. We are not the sum of our body parts; we are the sum of what we can be, contribute, teach, and learn, if given a chance; we can grow and inspire to achieve."

Meg Kocher, a disability rights author, was attending a conference on handicapped individuals at the White House in 1997 with 3,000 disabled people.

Meg saw every kind of disability imaginable, including combinations of disabilities; people in wheelchairs using respirators and portable iron lungs, short deaf people and blind wheelchair users.

After the conference, Meg went out to dinner with a friend. She couldn't believe how boring it was to be in a place where everyone was walking, talking and eating the same. She said that none of their hands talked and no one had a dog or a cane or a wheelchair or a respirator. "There was no wealth, no richness. I felt a loss."

The world would be so empty without our different disabilities.

Next: Changing Attitudes: Tips for Interacting with People with Disabilities

Mountain State Centers for Independent Living