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The Future Liberation of Disability Movements

The Future Liberation of Disability Movements

Valerie Novack

Plain language summary

The room is full of young nursing students eager to learn more about disability. I have sat through this presentation before. The one where the speaker tells the audience about how the 504 Sit-Ins were their communities’ March on Washington, how prisons are the new asylums, how community integration is necessary for freedom. It isn’t always the same speaker, but it is always the same message. That the fight for disability rights is the new civil rights. Like the ‘old’ one that my Black and Brown parents and grandparents fought for was won and left behind. The analogy is made like we don’t still march, now we say ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ and we are in both prisons and asylums, both still full of Black and Brown bodies, and I have still been refused service in the middle of some of our most progressive urban spaces.

When I first found the disability community, I called it home. I had found this wonderful world I didn’t know about, that told me it was okay that my bodymind functioned outside of the norm. That my queerness, sadness, confusion, and fragility were part of what made me who I am, and that it was okay to be proud of that. I didn’t need to pray it away, it wasn’t a reason to be ashamed. That provided an intoxicating freedom to be proud of who I was. I didn’t expect that over time, they’d also say that my fight as a Black disabled person was secondary, that it was somehow separate from my fight as a Black woman. That my Blackness, my Latina side, somehow didn’t factor into my fight as a disabled person.  

It came as a surprise but shouldn’t have. I remember my first time reading Audre Lorde, and the arguments that followed with fellow disability studies undergrads on whether or not the autobiography, My Name is Zami was a story about disability. I debated with my (largely white) peers whether or not Audre was writing explicitly about her disability, she was Black and she was disabled, therefore any biography is a disability narrative. I tried to explain that neither Blackness nor disability can be removed from my experience. I am not either/or, and people don’t notice one or the other, but both aspects of who I am. It didn’t seem to land. Still I didn’t realize until several years later, after being fully immersed in the disability rights world, that while many advocated for identity first language, and claimed their disability central to all they did, somehow my Blackness couldn’t be similarly central. That somehow I could be a Disabled Person or a Black Person but only one needed to take precedent. 

This became more evident as my career in disability advocacy began to take shape and I realized that my disabled peers weren’t fighting for my inclusion, my access, my liberation. My peers were fighting to be part of the status quo, to be part of the norm. To have access to all the privilege they felt denied as white disabled people. Largely, they didn’t want to fight for something new, better, and just, they wanted to fight for access to the systems we have and know were built on the bodies of our ancestors and that these systems thrive on continued oppression of BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). I learned that the disability rights movement wasn’t a push for equity, but for equality in the hierarchy of structures offered to other people. 

Overtime, I began to feel like this community I thought of as home, only wanted to co-opt my anger and passion and fight to prop up white supremacy within the disability community. This community wasn’t a place for healing, it was just another version of the same world I once found solace from.

I watch as we cry, ‘free our people’ but we mean nursing homes and institutions, and don’t touch the prisons where Black and Brown people are housed. We demand an end to sub-minimum wage but remain silent on prison slavery. We protest ABA (applied behavioral analysis) and shock therapy but are quiet on issues of conversion therapy. We demand community services and supports but can’t be found on discussions of public charge rules for immigrants.  We want access to nondiscriminatory healthcare, but don’t fight for Black mothers and neighborhoods of color with no healthcare at all. We fight for medication access but don’t fight the war on drugs. Disability Rights does not fight for liberation of all, it fights for some, and despite my dedication to it, I’ve learned I am not included in that group. By liberation, I mean the freedomno, the encouragement to exist. To be wholly, and authentically me in a society in which that is safe and valued. 

I can imagine my peers reading this, shifting in their seats, ready to object, because I’ve heard it before. But we can’t get better if we can’t be honest about where we fall short. 

Despite this, I do see a future of liberation with our disability movement spaces. 2020 has been a year of taking hold of the interdependence of Ed Roberts and the cross movement solidarity of Bradley Lomax. Of applying lessons taught by BIPOC and queer disabled people via efforts like Sins Invalid. There is potential to grasp that freeing our people cannot happen without all of our people. Now is time that has shown clearly why we need to make a shift from rights to justice, not just in the language we use, or the images we share, but in the fight we partake in by existing. This is time to center BIPOC, to uplift trans disabled people, to listen to our siblings in the intellectual and developmental disability communities, and to protect those with chemical and electro-sensitivities. 

In the 30th year of the ADA, I hope my community can reimagine a future that is nothing about me, without my people. That honors the BIPOC and other disabled people that have long stood beside white peers, cis peers, more easily accommodated or understood peers, fighting for rights that would be denied them. Even and especially when those are different than what is expected. Particularly when they are hard and uncomfortable. That the disability community would become the home I once thought it was. 



Biracial woman with curly black hair is smiling for the camera. She has black-rimmed glasses and is wearing a blue, flowered romper. She is seated in a coffee shop, backs of patrons visible behind her.
Biracial woman with curly black hair is smiling for the camera. She has black-rimmed glasses and is wearing a blue, flowered romper. She is seated in a coffee shop, backs of patrons visible behind her.

Valerie Novack (she/her) is a Black and Latina disability policy researcher focusing on inclusive infrastructure and emergency management practices. She focuses on integrating the expertise of lived experience and grassroots efforts of marginalized peoples into policymaking at the local, state, and federal levels. Valerie was a 2019 Portlight Fellow focusing on legislative solutions to inaccessible emergency response practices in the United States. Currently Valerie teaches a college course on disability policy and justice and works as a disability policy fellow. Novack has a bachelor’s degree in disability studies and urban planning from the University of Toledo and a master’s degree in disaster preparedness and emergency management from Arkansas State University. 

Valerie is a proud, queer and MAD woman who loves to travel, make music, and spend time with her husband, Chase, and her dog, Mac.


Read all 13 essays from the #ADA3oInColor series 


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