I’ve been reading a lot of blogs lately. Brownfemipower wrote about disability in poor/of color communities and also about assistive devices signifying disability. I think that the observation that cuff crutches and wheelchairs and the white and red cane code a person as disabled is accurate. This is why people talk about “invisible disabilities.” I think that, in addition to disabilities that have no external signifier (such as severe asthma, congestive heart failure, kidney disease, or lupus, to name a few), people who do use assistive devices may be “invisible” (not be read as having a disability) if they also appear young, healthy, or not completely debilitated. I read the journals of people who detail being accosted by complete strangers and told that they aren’t really disabled, or who interrogate them about their disability and demand explanations/justification.

Where I come from, the concept of disability didn’t really exist. People had disabilities, but it wasn’t a point of social organizing or identity. Rather, impairments were a limitation like any other: like not being able to read, not having a driver’s license, not being a legal resident, or not being good in the kitchen. If a person couldn’t contribute in one way, they were expected to contribute in another way. If someone had a disability so severe that they couldn’t contribute, but they were not dying, then they were considered lazy. Short-term impairments garnered some degree of compassion, but if a disability or series of disabilities was permanent, then a person was expected to make the best of things and move on with life. This made mental illness particularly stigmatizing because it was not very well understood and the impairments it caused were not readily excused.

Likewise, the idea of accommodations as a right or an entitlement was foreign. Of course, this was before and just after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, so maybe the changes just hadn’t proliferated to my community yet. However, inaccessible places were just a part of life that people with disabilities had to cope with as well as they could. This was a poor community and no one could afford the expensive cochlear transplants, the expensive ramps, the expensive elevators, the screen reader. I had a neighbor who was a wheelchair user. He worked at the top of several flights of steps in a building with no elevator. Every day, he would go to work and inch his way up the stairs, step by step, dragging his wheelchair along, then repeat the process in reverse. To give you an idea of how long this may have taken, it took him 15-20 minutes to get out of his chair, climb the five or six steps to the front porch, and get back in his chair. Of course, this may have been because he was so tired from doing the process at work, but you get the idea.

I’m sure there were pockets of enlightenment about disability issues in my community and in the surrounding area. But I think that, in some ways, the same attitudes continue today. I believe that having access to food, housing, relevant education, and employment are basic human rights. When these rights are violated on a daily basis, how can we expect that other rights will be respected? In poor/of color communities where people don’t have a lot of autonomy because they’re at the mercy of the system/corrupt bosses/charity for survival, sometimes even having a job is something to feel incredibly grateful for. I think that keeping us grateful for scraps is a way of keeping us powerless. We deserve better. No, it doesn’t matter what we deserve. We have a right to better.