I was born in Olympia in 1983, seven years before the passage of the Americans with Disability Act. July 26 marks the 30th anniversary of this hard-fought piece of civil rights legislation, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in schools, transportation, jobs and public spaces.
As an infant and toddler, I received early intervention services and vision therapy. These services were the introduction to the message I would receive throughout my childhood — if I just worked hard enough, I could fix my vision (not true!), overcome my disability and be just like a normal kid. Consequently, I pretended I could see things I couldn’t. I tried not to tilt my head at “weird” angles, hold things too close, use large print or binoculars, or ever ask for help. I spent 33 years trying to fake being normal, and it was exhausting.
It took the birth of my child and his diagnosis that he had the same condition to realize I had to deal with the stigma I had internalized about my disability. How was I going to raise a child with a positive sense of himself when I couldn’t even talk about my own vision without bursting into tears? I started talking to a social worker, and I sought out the disability community online, which is where I encountered Rooted in Rights, the storytelling advocacy team at Disability Rights Washington.
These young people on camera, and the stories they shared, were transformative for me. Here were people so comfortable and confident in their disabled selves, that they were willing to put themselves in front of the camera! I wanted to be like them. And so I jumped on the opportunity to move back to my home state and lead the team.
I was 35 when I took the job, and embarrassingly, this was the first job I’d ever formally asked for accommodations — before this, I didn’t know that I even had the right to, despite struggling tremendously through college and trying unsuccessfully to hide my disability from my employers.
But the most transformative part about working at Rooted in Rights has been the way the disability community has made me think more critically about why I felt so compelled to be an overachiever — or what in the disability community is known as a “supercrip.” It has challenged me to acknowledge that deep down I believed that part of the deal for being born the way I am was that I was just going to have to work harder than everyone else. And I saw that ability to work harder as a badge of honor.
Before coming to disability advocacy, my background was with the labor movement, so I arrived with a skepticism of our economic and political institutions that allow CEOs and shareholders to reap billions while the mostly immigrant, brown and Black people who work at their companies can barely make rent. But the rhetoric of labor organizing still relies on dividing those who are deserving because they work hard (working families) from those who don’t (the bosses).
The disability community has taught me to see the ableism that underlies this emphasis on long hours, efficiency, speed and productivity. And that ableism comes at the cost of excluding disabled people.
The ADA was designed to allow disabled people, with the right accommodations, to work just as productively as non-disabled people. But what if, even with accommodations, the way we work is different? Slower? What if we can’t work in the traditional way you conceive paid labor? What if we didn’t have to overcome to prove we are worth hiring, worth providing care for, worth loving?
By challenging the need to perform like everyone else, this generation of disability activists are moving beyond the ADA, moving beyond capitalism and norms of what it means to be a good worker. We are fighting for a world where none of us should have our value, and our ability to live and thrive in our communities, determined by our capacity to produce wealth.