One Response to Racism and Ableism

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In the weeks after the May 25 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the violence that erupted across the United States, I lost track of the number of organizations and businesses that issued statements condemning this particular crime, the prior killings of African Americans at the hands of white police, and racism in all its forms. At first they seemed a necessary and welcome response. But after a while the avalanche of statements began to feel less like an outcry and more like an obligation lacking conviction—or worse, like a marketing or public relations ploy to draw attention to the group issuing the statement.

When a board of directors I’m a member of convened for its monthly meeting on June 16, more than three weeks after Floyd’s death, the question of saying something about all this appeared on the agenda. Several board members expressed a reluctance to add one more statement, mostly for the reasons cited above and the amount of time that had passed. But after a candid, lively discussion lasting nearly 30 minutes, all agreed that saying something was more than appropriate. It was necessary, provided it flowed out of our mission and purpose as an organization.

This board of directors represents Disability Network Lakeshore, a “center for independent living” (CIL) serving two counties in west Michigan, and one of more than 340 CILs throughout the U.S. They are consumer-controlled, community-based, cross-disability, nonresidential, private, nonprofit agencies that are designed and operated within a local region by individuals with disabilities, providing an array of independent living services. A minimum of 51 percent of all staff and the board of directors must be persons with disabilities. CILs focus on the needs of the whole person—not just their disability—so they can achieve a more balanced life. 

CILs grew out of the 1960s-70s disability rights movement that was instrumental in a variety of rulings and laws banning discrimination against people with disabilities, most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act signed by President George H.W. Bush 30 years ago on July 26, 1990. The disability rights movement was supported by a variety of other marginalized people groups that were part of the U.S. civil rights movement, including Black activists.

You can read our brief statement below. I am honored to be part a board that recognizes how its mission is not only threatened by racism but joins in the collective effort to dismantle it. Discrimination, oppression, and violence cannot continue.

A Twin Call for Justice

Disability Network Lakeshore (DNL) knows the devastating impact of “othering,” a term that encompasses the many expressions of prejudice because of an individual’s group identity. We denounce the prejudice of othering as it relates to ableism—of them versus us, and of patronization, pity, marginalization, and stereotyping. These negative constructs throughout time have cast a shadow on people living with disabilities and mental health conditions, and on those who love them. Many of the difficulties people with disabilities face are a result of attitudes and environments rather than with the disability itself.

Ableism is a subtle and pervasive bias that assumes non-disabled people are “normal” and people with disabilities represent an undesirable deviation from the norm and need to be “fixed.” Ableism is to disability as racism is to ethnicity, a set of beliefs or practices that devalue, discriminate, and oppress people with disabilities. This bias is often unconscious and is how we learn to treat the other and not include those who are different from us at the table for key decisions.

Adding to the bias of ableism, disabled people of color also are subjected to racism, a disease that has threatened us for over 400 years and continues to fester, create immense harm, and divide our nation.

Recent tragedies, acts of violence, and expressions of hate have highlighted the physical and emotional harm that results from the pervasive realities of racism and ableism.

Each of us is called to act now to heal, to mend, to cry out against injustice, whatever its form. No longer can society tolerate hatred, bigotry, and prejudice of any kind, and that requires us to be better and to find solutions that end the related violence and inequality.

DNL’s mission is to connect people with disabilities in Allegan and Ottawa counties to resources and opportunities while building communities where everyone can participate, contribute, and belong. The presence of people with disabilities and people of color positively affect and actually enhance the diversity of our communities. But how can everyone engage in this mission to “participate, contribute, and belong” if they’re viewed as other, as deficient, or as threats?

At DNL, our current national turmoil exposing racism ignites our good intentions to reclaim love, not hate; peace, not battle; justice, not indignation. Through our actions, DNL pledges to advocate for justice in our world, in our communities, and in our hearts. Will you join us?

—Board of Directors, Disability Network Lakeshore

June 22, 2020

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Thank you, Terry, for sharing this very important and much-needed perspective for all of us at this time. I am truly grateful for the leadership and support that you, Mark Stephenson, and organizations like Disability Network Lakeshore provide for those of us who desire to advance and reflect God's reign of shalom as the community of God's people which equally includes, values, and loves everyone of all abilities, ethnicities, cultures, genders, income, etc., i.e., everyone. 

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 Good article Terry.  I'll post it on my Facebook page.