On October 7, 2009, Speaker of the US House, Nancy Pelosi, spoke at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda when a statue of disability advocate Helen Keller was unveiled. Pelosi said, “As Helen Keller said: 'My sympathies are with all who struggle for justice.' In her lifetime, Helen Keller worked for opportunity for people with disabilities, for racial equality, and for the rights of women.”
When people who do not have disabilities think about people with disabilities, they often think in terms of caring and help (too often mixed with pity and sometimes even disgust). Often people with disabilities need supports and accommodations to participate in society with others. Sometimes care and respite are necessary for them and their family members as well. Most of us forget that everyone needs care and respite, not just some of us. Keller championed that a healthy society will not just look at a person’s need for care, but also their need for justice.
I wonder why justice is often the first thing that people think of when you start talking about people of color being shut out from society in a variety of ways, but rarely do people think of justice when people with disabilities also are shut out from society. Bias is bias whether one is talking about racism or ableism (that is, prejudice against someone because she lives with a disability).
Racism, sexism, and sexism have severe consequences for all who bear the brunt of these prejudices including unemployment or underemployment, poor health care, stigma, inability to build wealth, glass ceilings, and imprisonment/institutionalization. The fact that so few people know the term “ableism” is proof that North American society is not all that concerned with justice for people with disabilities.
I was delighted to read in Pelosi’s comments that accommodation is finally happening in the House Chamber. In this same speech, Pelosi announced, “I am proud to tell you, in case you do not know, that soon the podium of the U.S. House of representatives will be adjusted so persons with disabilities may preside over the proceedings of House of Representatives.” At least there’s forward movement in the matter of justice for people with disabilities. Too bad it’s so slow and spotty.