Today the United States observes the federal holiday, Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric and political wisdom still have much to offer us, whether we are working for the rights of people of color or of people with disabilities. I have asked Beth Zwick, our U.S. Program Officer, to reflect on the connections between these two historic movements.
The Shoulders of a Giant
By Beth Zwick, Program Officer, Ruderman Family Foundation
For hundreds of years, African-Americans and people with disabilities in our country have been marginalized in similar ways: by widespread assumptions of inferiority, by extreme institutional segregation, by almost universal discrimination, by denial of fundamental rights– even by enforced sterilization.
Understandably, then, “the disability rights movement adopted many of the strategies of the civil rights movements before it,” Arlene Mayerson observed in 1992. “Like the African-Americans who sat in at segregated lunch counters and refused to move to the back of the bus, people with disabilities sat in federal buildings, obstructed the movement of inaccessible buses, and marched through the streets to protest injustice. And like the civil rights movements before it, the disability rights movement sought justice in the courts and in the halls of Congress.”
The women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and early narratives of disability activism all drew on iconic images and ideas derived from the African-American civil rights movement. In fact, the very language of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was lifted from the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
More recently, however, scholars and activists have questioned whether a focus on civil rights has best served the disability community—or whether we should instead be demanding inclusion under the much broader umbrella of human rights. Human rights are the focus of the recent United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), for instance. Shockingly, the U.S. failed to ratify this relatively benign international agreement—reminding us that fear and reactivity are alive and well in America today.
So there is much work to be done. But for inspiration we still have Dr. King’s legacy of patient, thoughtful, farsighted struggle on behalf of all marginalized people.
“If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Sir Isaac Newton. Today let us honor the man whose powerful shoulders support so many campaigns toward a more just and humane world for all.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King.