The Benefits of Disability Activism

As my day job, I am a university professor.  Most people know that this involves teaching college classes to young adults.  What most people who are not involved in academia don’t often realize is that many professors also spend a great deal of time working to publish research. Unlike folks working in the hard or social sciences, my research doesn’t involve conducting studies. For me, research consists of picking an interesting concept or theory, reading as much as I can about it, and then trying to come up with something new to say about it. For example, I once published paper that is over 20 pages long about what should count as a cure for a disability versus what should count as an assistive technology.  There is no survey that you could conduct to decide how to categorize something as a cure or as an assistive device.  Instead, the best you can do is come up with a good argument for a particular view on the topic.  This is what it means to do philosophy, my professional area of expertise.

The Benefits of Disability Activism

Recently, I spent some time thinking about the benefits of disability activism.  When disabled people engage in activism, especially nonviolent direct action like civil disobedience, but other forms too, we accomplish at least two things. First, we exert our power over whatever policy or practice we are trying to change. This is what most people think activism does, and they are right.  Maybe you are trying to get a store to install a ramp on their front door or a restaurant to remodel their bathroom so it is accessible.  Maybe you are joining with other disabled people to try and change Medicaid policies. Just as important as the power we try to exert over policy, when we engage in activism, we also impact how we are represented in the collective political imagination. So, an additional but also critically important consequence of disability activism is how it impacts the public perception of disabled people.

The Public Perception of People with Disabilities

Many disabled people are seen with pity. Yet, most disabled people hate this image and experience it as disempowering. You will hopefully excuse my language if I mention a slogan that is popular among disability activists: “piss on pity.” Notice how direct-action activism by disabled people, regardless of what ever issue it is tackling, challenges this stereotype.

If a chanting mob of disabled people are clogging an intersection and blocking your commute, it is hard to pity them. You may be angry with them or even admire them, but pity them? Not so much. In this way and several other ways, disability activism rewrites the script about disabled people. It changes the very meaning of what it is to be disabled.  This is a less tangible but just as important impact of disability activism.

About Joe Stramondo: Joe is an assistant professor at San Diego University and is extremely active in the disability community. Joe uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair to maintain his mobility and independence. In his spare time, Joe strives to be the best father he can to his children. Click here to learn more about Joe.