Do The Work: Disability

“There is no neutral body from which our bodies deviate. Society has written deep into each strand of tissue of every living person on earth.” — Aurora Levins Morales

When the U.S. president mocked physically disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski at a rally in November of 2015, he yet again showcased an astounding lack of empathy and respect for his fellow humans. Now the president is turning his blatant ableism into concrete policy, with plans to cut funding for many of the federal programs that protect and benefit disabled Americans.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in five American adults is disabled, making disabled people the largest minority group in the United States. Disability is often defined as physical or mental impairments that substantially limit activity or participation in day-to-day activities. Disability rights movements often center people with mobility impairments, largely ignoring invisible disabilities and chronic illness. However, new disability categories are growing to include diagnoses such as depression, anxiety disorders, anorexia, cancers, traumatic brain injuries, learning disabilities, autoimmune disease, spinal chord injuries, autism spectrum disorders, and dementia. Chances are you either know someone who is disabled, are disabled yourself, or will become disabled, through illness, injury, or aging.

I will be using disability throughout this piece as an umbrella term including chronic illness, however I want to acknowledge that there is a distinct difference between the two. Although chronically ill people (sometimes called “spoonies”) may be considered disabled, disabled people are not always chronically ill. Chronic illness is not static in the same way other disabilities are — chronically ill people can have periods with worsening symptoms (“flares”) and periods with lesser or no symptoms, often with no way to predict when these will occur. Another quick note on terminology: there are differing preferences within the disabled community, tied to different models of conceptualizing disability. I use “disabled person” (identity-first language) rather than “person with disabilities” (person-first language). I prefer identity-first language because it acknowledges disability as a key part of someone’s experience, much in the same way we might say “trans man” or “black woman.”

Many of the concerns I addressed in my post about healthcare pertain to disabled people, especially potential cutbacks to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Cutbacks to federal aid programs also threaten financial and job security for disabled people. Not only are disabled people significantly less likely than those without disabilities to be employed, but the Fair Labor Standards Act actually allows employers to pay disabled workers less than federal minimum wage. As a result, disabled people are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than those without disabilities, and therefore rely heavily on government assistance. The president’s proposed budget, with its massive increase in defense spending, would force deep cuts in government programs that benefit disabled people, such as Meals on Wheels. Other programs will be eliminated altogether, including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps elderly and low-income households pay for heating and power bills. In addition, the president’s federal hiring freeze disproportionately affects disabled people, who are more likely to be employed in federal jobs, and his paid leave proposal hurts those who need time off due to either their own disability or that of a family member. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are seeking to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), housing assistance, and the Social Services Block Grant, which funds services for disabled people. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ voucher plan would fund private and religiously affiliated schools, which do not guarantee the same protections to disabled students as public schools do.

Just as federal aid program cutbacks demonstrate how poverty compounds and intersects with disability, many disability justice initiatives are not single-issue. People of color are more likely to be disabled than white people, due to the effects of environmental racism, occupational segregation, and healthcare disparities. As many as half of the victims of police killings are disabled, and incarcerated individuals are more than three times as likely to be disabled than non-incarcerated individuals — victims of police violence and incarcerated individuals are also more likely to be people of color. In addition to polling place inaccessibility, voter suppression laws target low-income people of color, who are a large population of the disabled community. Finally, disabled people are significantly more likely to be victims of abuse and sexual assault, which already does not have strong recourse for survivors under the current administration. To summarize — disability issues, like those of most marginalized communities, are intersectional, which is why resistance on multiple fronts is essential.

If you are disabled, getting healthcare in order is your top priority. A formal diagnosis is necessary for seeking legal disability status to access federal benefits. Next focus on day-to-day support and self care — connect with organizations or virtual communities of people who share your disability, create a support network of nondisabled friends who understand your needs, and make a plan in case you have an aide whose hours or funding is cut. You can find your local disability protection and advocacy group through the National Disability Rights Network. If you host or participate in organizing efforts, Sins Invalid offers access suggestions for public events and for mobilizations.

 

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