Happy Birthday, Americans With Disabilities Act! You are now twenty-three years old, the same age as me, until my birthday in two months. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for your existence. I know from books like Make Them Go Away, stories from people who were actually there, and other sources that you met a lot of struggle (and received a lot of gutting after you were signed into law) but that doesn’t change the way you’ve helped many disabled people achieve more than would have been possible before I was born. You’re imperfect, but still powerful.

I’m going to use the ADA’s birthday to talk a little bit about my own history in disability advocacy. Being a self-advocate for autism was my first step into the world of activism, in fact. In the past year, I haven’t done a lot of advocating for disability rights, not because I don’t care any more about stopping institutional ableism, but because I felt unsupported and uninspired by the lack of a solid, anti-oppressive disability advocacy culture in my community. It’s a long story, I’ll spare you the details. I also felt out of place in general as a radical, left-wing disability rights advocate, caught in between worlds, in a way, because I am hesitant to depend so heavily on the State as being a solution to the problems that disabled people face, which put me at odds with many mainstream disability rights advocates, along with me also being of colour, Indigenous, and queer, which has caused me problems with disability rights advocates who fail to grasp intersectionality and felt no qualms about showing their flagrant racism, sexism, and homophobia. On the flip side of the coin though, I also can easily detect the casual ableism and apathy towards accessibility that so-called radical leftists are quite talented at expressing, in fact, for all their lip service to acceptance and solidarity, I’ve found that radical leftists who don’t make anti-ableism a serious and visible part of their credo tend to be as bad as your average non-advocate at including disabled people in their vision of a better future.

Working through life as a disabled person still plays a significant part in how I approach my activism. In addition to my autism, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also acquired back problems and occasionally need to make use of a cane. I’m also working through post-traumatic stress disorder and recovering from an eating disorder. I notice when places aren’t accessible, physically or otherwise, to disabled bodies and therefore disabled opinions and voices.

It reminds me of Chrystos’ wonderful poem, “Maybe We Shouldn’t Meet if There Are no Third-World Women Here”, shooting down feminists who make no effort to wonder how their own complacency plays a part in the lack of diverse faces and voices in the audience:

“You’re the ones who called a community

meeting & didn’t contact the Black Lesbians or G.A.L.A or

Gay American Indians or the Disabled Women’s Coalition or

Gay Asians or anyone I know

You’re the ones who don’t print your signs in Spanish or Chinese

or any way but how you talk”

I could go on… How about the ones who don’t ever remember to hire an ASL interpreter, or book a venue with an elevator, or post accessibility information on their website/facebook event, or caution people to not wear scented products, or make their materials available in alternative formats? How about those who casually throw around ableist slurs, or slyly suggest that those who disagree with them are mentally ill? How about the ones who victim-blame people with disabilities and mental illnesses, by subscribing to the same harmful cure-based medical model as the mainstream, saying that their disability was caused by poor diet/lifestyle/vaccines/their medication, and could be cleared up by homeopathy, yoga, meditation, or positive thinking?*

It can be frustrating. Especially when the need for radical disability justice is stronger than ever. Prisoners with disabilities face cruel injustices behind bars, untold amounts of disabled people live in poverty, unable to remove themselves from the stasis of dependency on small scraps of disability funding because their communities aren’t accessible or welcoming, disabled people face disproportionately higher amounts of sexualized violence, abuse, and domestic violence, and funding cuts leave many disabled people having to choose between having their aides give them baths or cook them meals that didn’t come from a microwave because of how few hours of aide support allotted. Disability does not have to translate to such vulnerability, if non-disabled communities who want to make the world more just and less oppressive take the initiative to make their spaces accessible to all.

I long for conversations and spaces where anti-ableism no longer has to dedicate so much space to begging for crumbs from the state for mere survival, but instead focuses on how we can make our communities and our revolution safe and inclusive of all marginalized people, regardless of how they move, think, communicate, or act.

So, that is what I work towards now. The ADA is one thing. It helped me get through university while I was living in the States. Reading about the opponents who tried to keep it from happening, and the ones who used legal mechanisms to gut it once it was in place helped push me towards seeing other methods to liberating disabled people from dependency and invisibility. But it takes the responsibility and accountability of us all.

Are you prepared for that? I feel like I was born ready.

* All of these are real-life examples I’ve encountered.

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