On November 1st, I traveled from my home in Atlanta to the University of Georgia campus in Athens, where the Georgia Disability History Alliance was hosting their annual disability symposium. As the Social Media + PR Specialist for GCRC, I have the privilege of attending events like this and taking note of what I learn there so I can bring that knowledge back here and share it with you. If you’ve never been to a conference or day-long symposium, then you might not be aware that all too often they are little more than opportunities for people in positions of power to pat themselves on the back for what they see as a job well done, while those in more administrative or service roles wait and hope to gain something more than just a stomach full of tasteless, hotel chicken.
In my four years of working in human services, it has long since become clear that when people with disabilities are given the opportunity to speak for themselves and lead the way, we are all the better for it. And that is what I saw and experienced in Athens. As Dr. Beth Mount, one of the keynote speakers at the symposium, stated in her message, “Person-centered planning, which was once so pure, has become so clinical. These days, it is more about filling out paperwork than it is about working with the person to discover what drives them.”
In other words, when we lose the person, we lose everything.
In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to engage with and hear from a lively and passionate group of guests. The panel who sat for the Q+A session was intersectional at its best: a combination of various genders, races, ethnicities, religions, and abilities. Men and women from truly diverse backgrounds with widely varying perspectives who all stood for the most important things: representation, opportunity, and equality.
It is wonderful to hear from those who have worked so tirelessly in this field for decades, regardless of ability. But when I heard from the marginalized people who are most affected by our willingness (or lack thereof) to stand for and with them, it really struck hard at the deepest privilege within me, the place I sometimes still avoid because even though I work on staff with one of the most person-centered organizations in the state, some ableistic demons remain. It can be so easy to ignore those demons. But here is the crux of that truth: If it is easy for me, it is because I don’t have to confront them. I am not forced, day in and day out, to do battle with a society that still doesn’t see my true value. As an able-bodied, neurotypical person, I have a choice to not confront my privilege, a privilege that, by definition, is denied to many.
Parker Glick, the social media guru for Georgia’s Statewide Independent Living Council told symposium attendees that he is constantly asking the question, “Are you seeing this? If you are, how does it not matter to you?” This is the question we must be willing to ask—and answer honestly—for ourselves. Because when people with disabilities are spurned from employment opportunities, housing, intimate relationships, autonomy, and equality, it DOES matter. It DOES affect us, even if we don’t realize it.
A few weeks ago, I heard a woman I know only in passing declare that the Pride Parade in Atlanta was “taking equal rights too far.” Such a declaration is, in itself, a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as taking equal rights too far. If every person’s rights have gone as far as they can, that is simply equality. Anything more, and one person has privilege while another doesn’t. That is the position we find ourselves in now. And that is the position that must change.
I am looking forward to continuing my work and partnering alongside people with disabilities. I am looking forward to being a part of the day equality has been taken as far as it can possibly go.