By Kyrios LoNigro
Note: In this blog post I use disability-first language. “Disabled” is not a dirty word and we should use it just as we would use any other descriptor. I also avoid functioning labels because they eliminate the idea of a spectrum containing a diverse array of people with a variety of needs, skills, and personalities.
TW: Police violence and s*xual violence are mentioned. If you would like to skip the second, move to the next paragraph after the media study is mentioned.
Since becoming vocal about my autism I have received more understanding and more discrimination. In a food service job I recently left, I was not provided accommodation, was yelled at, and was treated unfairly. Managers told my coworkers not to talk to me and I would get in trouble for talking to them because I was “easily distracted.” I have been told I am annoying, disrespectful, a liar, and lesser both for my chronic physical conditions and for my mental conditions. I have had my cane kicked from under me. I have been fired from a job because I had to go to the hospital. I have worked at jobs that break down my body due to lack of other economic opportunities. While I would like to hold space for conversations about autism this month, it is important to talk about disability as a whole due to the misunderstanding and discrimination we face, our large presence in the electorate, and proposed laws such as HB 6 and SB 7 which target disabled folks.
1 in 4 people in the United States have a disability, with the South having higher rates than other parts of the country. Despite our numbers we are not considered an important voting demographic, but disabled persons may be less civically engaged not due to lack of interest but due to a slew of problems with accessibility. I went to a committee hearing at the Capitol and spent a total of 14.5 hours getting dressed, driving, parking, walking, waiting, speaking, and networking. Once I was home I was so exhausted that I could not keep my head up and experienced pain and fatigue in the following days. In a state that has long voting lines, some of which had voters waiting 6 hours, it may be impossible for disabled persons to engage in many essential democratic acts.
Racism and sexism also affect disabled experiences. Elijah McClain was stopped by police for “weird” behavior, prompting many in the autism community to fear for their black disabled children. Amongst McClain’s last words was the explanation,”I’m just different.”. According to a media study from the Ruderman Family Foundation, one third to half of all police brutality cases involved someone with a disability. Despite this massive problem, disabled people are continually left out of the fight against violence. Disabled people are more likely to be sexually assaulted, abused, and coerced, with 2 in 5 women being disabled at the time of rape. Men who experienced sexual violence other than rape were disabled 1 in 4 times. These rates are alarming but seldom mentioned in conversations around consent, violence, and policing. Support from the Black Panthers’ helped win the first federal civil rights protection for disabled people. That same unity must be brought to the table now.
Instead, voter suppression bills under discussion would make it even harder for disabled folks to vote. A section of HB 6 would worsen accessibility by requiring voters to disclose their disability status to partisan poll watchers when seeking assistance. This could lead to voter intimidation and further exclude those needing accommodation from engaging civically. A now removed portion of SB 7 would have required that those submitting vote by mail applications also submit proof of disability. In a country without universal healthcare, this would have equated to a poll tax. Its inclusion made clear that the authors and supporters of the bill did not understand or care about the numerous faults in our healthcare system which prevent 1 out of 4 Texans from being able to seek care.
Those with disabilities are often overlooked because our existence is juxtaposed to much of what allows for capitalism to thrive – at-will employment, lack of state-sponsored healthcare, the focus on profit and productivity over people’s wellbeing, and education that imposes the majority as superior to the minority at every opportunity. We need to continue to be vocal about our disabilities so that the stigma is dismantled. We need to stop calling them “issues” or “special needs” and stop infantilizing our disabled community members. My quality of life is not lower because I am disabled and neurodivergent but because society refuses to accommodate me. This pandemic has made the cracks in our society more visible than ever before, and we should seize the opportunity to increase accessibility by expanding Medicaid, protecting voting rights, and being active in the fight for a system that takes care of those who are different, not abandons them.
“I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.” – Greta Thunberg