Frustration Sets In – or – Focusing On The Bigger Picture and Lessons From The Sixties

From the archive: Originally posted 4/23/13


As we move forward in the pursuit of justice, what can we learn from the experiences of civil rights activists from the sixties?

What Are Civil Rights?

First of all, let’s look at the definition of civil rights from Cornell University Law School:

A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person’s race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual orientation.

Ok, several key words/phrases apply to our cause.  Number one: “equality in public places.”  Do people with developmental disabilities have that?  Well, I’d argue no, and that Ethan’s death has made that abundantly clear to all of us.  But reading further, one can explain this away if they were so inclined by saying the discrimination is not based on “physical” limitations, but on mental ones.  IQ (or the perception of) is the basis for discrimination.  Lower IQ scores (and don’t get me started on the validity of those!) mean it’s ok to deny someone civil rights?  So, right off the bat we’re at a disadvantage if we want to fight for equality it seems.

So let’s move on to human rights as defined by the United Nations:

The Convention [on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] follows decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. It takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects”  of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.

The Convention is intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension. It adopts a broad categorization of persons with disabilities and reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced.

But… even though Iraq and 128 other countries have ratified the convention as of March of this year, the US has yet to do so.  An attempt was thwarted in December 2012, some say because of “misinformation campaigns and a ‘lame duck’ session.”

Key phrases here include “adaptations.”  If we are to move forward, it seems that we may have to come to some consensus on what those are, if any.  It may be unrealistic to assume that everyone who has an extra chromosome can be fully included without some type of “adaptation” to existing rules.  No, I’m not advocating for special treatment or a lack of rules, I’m just saying we need to accommodate everyone within our community if we are to succeed at bringing about change.


So, are there lessons to be learned from the movements created by others in the past? 

We’ve obviously come to a cross-road as far as training goes.  I say, let’s agree to disagree, respectfully, and move on to the next phase.   What is the next phase?  In my opinion, it has to be the ‘bigger picture.’  If we concentrate on the end game, and make the most of this moment, our next step is toward some type of civil/human rights legislation.

The civil rights leaders of the sixties didn’t always agree.   The non-violence and Black power movements had different strategies toward similar goals.

What is relevant to our current struggle is that both movements began with and were bolstered by the grassroots activities of seemingly unconnected individuals.

It is also true that grassroots activism was crucial in activating civil rights campaigns, in sustaining momentum for the movement at critical periods, and, during the late 1960s, in translating legal gains into visible jobs, real school desegregation, police protection, improved public services, and local political power. But grassroots activism was not enough. African Americans needed the access to national political influence and media attention that Martin Luther King Jr. brought. It was King’s campaigns at Birmingham and Selma that led to the legislative victories of 1964 and 1965 that destroyed segregation.

So if we are to learn from their struggles (which is the ultimate show of respect) then we need to find a way to “access national political influence and media attention.”  We’ve been fighting and individually working toward acceptance for years now.  The time is upon us to pull those resources and get some real, unified, and national response to our efforts.

The first step, which we all seem to agree on, is an independent investigation of the Saylor case.  After that, or while we are pushing for that, since it seems that multiple efforts are under way in that direction, what can we do?

Is it time to get radical?   Is it time to stage boycotts?  Is it time to stage sit-ins?  Marches?

Did you see what happened to community living activists on Monday?

Disability Advocates Arrested Outside White House

Perhaps all the talking, writing, tweeting, emailing and blogging has not been noticed.  Perhaps we need to step it up a notch.  I am not claiming to have all the answers.  I guess I’m just frustrated and think maybe we need to try something different.

I welcome all comments!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s