Disability Rights: What today’s protest teaches us

We always say we are only as strong as our weakest link, if I were to apply that to American society and disabilities “weakest” would simply mean most physically vulnerable. It would certainly not mean lacking in strength or force or influence, because if there is anything I have learned from persons with disabilities it is how to fight. In fact, they’re literally the ones who taught me how to fight. Like most, I didn’t realize the issues surrounding special needs and disabilities until it became my own reality with the diagnosis of my oldest child with autism. That was what truly spurred my activist heart into motion. And my training came from online forums where I was introduced to real life warriors.

One thing that certainly didn’t shock me by this protest was the fierceness of the protestors. Make no mistake, their bodies may seem fragile, but their spirits and voices soar. While many watching may have been caught off guard that such a physically vulnerable group would put themselves at risk, I was not. This is the way it works in activism. Those privileged enough to not have to fight frequently don’t, leaving the vulnerable exposed as they fight for their very lives. And, with a sense of pride, I cheered them on as they were dragged from their chairs and continued to shout. “SHOW THEM HOW STRONG YOU REALLY ARE!” I hope and pray that their fight did not go in vain as too many fights do.

(This certainly was not the first time there have been protests and arrests of persons with disabilities. This story is from March.)

Today, as I watched footage of protestors with disabilities being removed from Mitch McConnell’s office my heart broke. Not because I felt any more emotion for persons of disabilities than I do for other protestors, but because the way they were handled showed a complete and utter lack of respect for personhood and a complete lack, yet again, of respect for protest. A few points may have been lost and may seem like sympathy for “weaker” persons. Make no mistake this is not what this is. Just because a person has a wheelchair or an oxygen mask makes them no less able to utilize their rights of free speech and protest. This is not about sympathy, this is about the overarching treatment of all protestors.

This is about the fact that a wheelchair (or a cane or any other type of medical equipment) is an extension of a person. Remember the story of this school that tried to take away the cane of a blind student as punishment? They, essentially, removed his eyes. His cane was not just an accessory, it was how he was able to see. Equally, the officers removing persons from wheelchairs and carrying them off is akin to cutting off the legs of an able-bodied protestor so they will be easier to handle. It is unacceptable. Yes, even able-bodied protestors are carried out, and that is a dehumanizing enough act, but what did they do with these persons once they were removed into police custody and were robbed of their ability to sit or stand?

Were these protestors simply lined up on the ground with no caregivers and no ability to move themselves? Were their vitals monitored? Did they receive proper services like interpreters for the deaf or hard of hearing? Were they immediately given access to lawyers (knowing many may have had mental disabilities) or were they questioned and left to legally hang themselves? We know that the most vulnerable among us is rarely cared for properly, we know that even able-bodied protestors are frequently treated worst of all (being locked in dog cages, being denied feminine hygiene products, etc.) so none of these questions fall beyond the scope of reason. Were they handled properly by the police?

But the most disturbing thing of all was that they were treated in such a way over speaking out about healthcare. How is it that when they were there to have their voices heard over being treated fairly in regards to their health, to remain protected and safe, that they were removed in such a manner? Is there something so threatening about a group of people in a hallway holding signs and chanting? This was an order that the Senate Majority Leader made in response to his constituents. Is there a way for us to really have our voices heard or will we consistently be dragged (literally) for trying? It truly makes no sense that those obviously in need of healthcare and most impacted would be shut down by those making the decision.

I mean, call me an idealist, but wouldn’t they be invited in to the table of those supposedly representing them?

But so far we haven’t been able to address education (in Louisiana, Cassidy specifically ignored letters, petitions, phone calls, and those gathering in his office) and people were even villainized for using their voices at townhalls after being ignored for so long. So far, gatherings about the Bayou Bridge pipeline (including our crawfishing industry, homeowners, scientists, and flood victims) have been ignored in all decisions regarding the project. And we all know that there has yet to be a true space devoted to the community speaking out about Alton Sterling or desires for police reform. When do we say enough is enough and community participation MUST be protected? Are we going to let them arrest everyone?

It’s easy to look at a group of protestors with disabilities and feel a lot of shock and sympathy and rage and fear over their treatment. But let’s not forget that this is how protestors (and citizens simply using their rights to assembly and free speech) are treated in America. This is how Native Americans are treated when their lands are targeted for unwanted pipelines. This is how African Americans are treated when they stand up for justice for the dead men and women in their community. This is how the LGBTQ community is treated when they stand up and speak for marriage and bathroom rights. This is how the Muslim community is treated when they want to travel. It is always the vulnerable among us treated in such a way.