Disability History - What Has it Done for Me Lately?
The Disability Visibility Project is a yearlong grassroots campaign to document the stories of people with disabilities in celebration of the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2015. Recording our history is essential, but what lessons can be learned from this collection of stories? Alice Wong weighs in!
By Yolanda Green
This isn't some boring history class.
It is a movement to bring visibility to stories that have not only shaped the disability community, but today’s culture. Alice Wong, who took time out to do a Q&A with us, started the Disability Visibility Project, an initiative to document stories of people with disabilities in celebration of the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). "This project is important to me because I am sick of seeing people with disabilities portrayed in the media in extremes—as 'inspirational' angels or objects of pity and fear," Alice explains. "People with disabilities should define their lives on their own terms."
History can be a big part of shaping identity and moreover, understanding identity. However, Wong revealed that one of the biggest barriers to her throughout this project was the sense that not many acknowledge that disability history even exists. "People with disabilities have been a part of society for millennia and only the super notable individuals (Helen Keller, FDR, Stevie Wonder) are highlighted in popular culture and history," she explains. "The issue is recognizing our identity as a sociopolitical one and embracing it as something worth preserving. Also, the question is who does the preserving? While there have been historians who study the lives of people with disabilities, there needs to be more historians with disabilities and people with disabilities in general interested in discovering and recording disability history."
But with all of the work that currently needs to be done for basic accessibility, rights and removing stigma surrounding disability from our culture, some may be wondering if talking about history should be our priority. Wong says context can be our strongest asset towards our advocacy goals. "For example, there was a recent op-ed in the New York Times by a doctor calling for a return of asylums for people with mental illness. Many people with disabilities know the painful and horrific history of asylums and institutions. Understanding the lessons from the dark parts of our history can only give advocates strong arguments for equality and need for full integration of all people in society."
It is also helpful to see how advocacy has evolved. Perhaps looking at the past can tell us where we're headed. "The definition of activism and advocacy is far broader these days," Wong observed. "Today's activism is less top-down (like #BlackLivesMatter) and there are more tools available to activists that can be used in combination with being on the frontlines. I read this somewhere—sharing information is an act of protest. I like this idea that anyone can be an advocate or activist and there are lots of different ways of being one."
Wong demonstrates with this project that disability history can be surprising and moving as well, and they can often tackle issues that people with disabilities all over the world face today. One of her favorite stories is that of Christina Mills and Eli Gelardin (read part 1 and part 2). "Their story was so powerful and interesting in my opinion because you often hear about parents of children with disabilities but rarely read about disabled parents with disabled children. Both Christina and Eli have a lot of disability pride and confronted some surprising responses from their disability community when they told their friends that their child was going to have a congenital disability. These kinds of stories that highlight the ableism within the disability community are important to show how much work remains for people who believe that disabled lives matter."
So how can youth with disabilities contribute to this effort? In many ways, we already are! "I hope young people think of blogging or platforms such as Tumblr, Instagram or Twitter as a way to document their disability history," Wong says. "All of their posts in the present day may seem insignificant, but looking back even 2-3 years, you might recognize how valuable they are."
If you want to do more to contribute, read and share the many interesting stories from the Disability Visibility Project. Keep checking back too, there are more to come!
Alice Wong is a Staff Research Associate at the Community Living Policy Center at the University of California, San Francisco and a Council Member of the National Council on Disability. Follow Alice on twitter: @SFdirewolf
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