On an ideal summer afternoon in a quaint Bethesda, MD, shopping district, one lone voice stood out from the hum of whooshing breezes, passing cars and chattering teens.
“Change? Change? Anybody? Change?” A man walked the street holding a tattered Coke cup, seeking a few coins or a spare dollar from anyone willing to give.
Granted, it isn’t uncommon to hear such requests, but on this particular day and with this particular man, something seemed different. I couldn’t help but watch as he approached from almost a block away. As he got closer, he transformed from a nondescript figure to a middleaged man with medium build, olive skin, brown hair, Southern accent, and eyes that revealed the change he needed had little to do with money.
People passed him without acknowledgement, paying more attention to “Summer Close-Out” signs in windows. Perhaps they were so accustomed to hearing his voice that it no longer stood out. Perhaps there was a discomfort in the separation of social class that he represented. Perhaps they felt that, as individuals, their actions couldn’t provide all the change he required. Or perhaps his way of life was too different from theirs for them to get what he really needed.
A growing number of organizations, boards, and individuals within the disability movement are also on the brink of change, and they’re seeking the partnership of young leaders. While social inclusion is a positive first step, many younger people see the existent paths as dead ends.
These emerging activists are busy creating fresh visions for where and how the disability rights movement should proceed, and they’re reaching out for guidance, recommendations, and support from those veterans who have wrought social change over the decades.
Earlier this summer, I served on a team that worked with disability rights leaders of Uganda. After a long day of discussion and presentations arranged by professionals, I asked a 16-year-old girl, who had attended the day’s events, what she thought.
“I don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” she said, as her eyes met mine. “It’s old. It’s outdated, and it applies to no one other than those in that circle.” She went on to say that she thought that the leaders were merely paying lip-service to the ‘leaders of tomorrow,’ yet little of what they said seemed relevant to people her age. Finally, she concluded:
“What they don’t realize is that we are the leaders of today, and if they don’t trust and support what we are doing, there will be no tomorrow for us to lead.”
I nodded. She was right.
It’s understandable that a Ugandan teen might be more acutely aware of time than an American teen. In that East African country, youth usually ends in the late teens, due to marriage or pregnancy, and the life expectancy—according to the nation’s ministry of health—is somewhere in the late 40s.
It’s understandable, as well, that young people in both the US and Uganda might grow impatient as disability rights leaders in both countries shift priorities, seeking new goals and new methods by which to attain them.
Those who led the disability rights movement in the States in the ‘60s and ‘70s created an innovative and necessary niche. They redefined justice and reshaped social norms regarding disability. They also took hold of the power that, for far too long, had been deserved but out of reach. Today, these leaders tell us they are in search of members of the next generation who can carry the torch and build upon the work that has been done.
Young people seem to be willing to shoulder the responsibility. But they want those from whom they take the torch to understand that once that it’s handed off, they may choose a different course.
“Activists describe the differences in social conditions, and feminists’ responses to them as waves,” said Stacey Milbern, a blogger who identifies as a woman of color with a disability.
“The first wave (voting-rights and property-rights work done in the early 1900s) is very different from the second wave (access to birth control and workplace rights sought in the ‘60s and ‘70s), and both are even more different from the current wave.
“Leaders of the disability rights movement seem to want to stay in one wave. But the needs of people with disabilities have changed, and if we want to remain relevant, our vision and understanding of change must evolve.”
In one of his signature books, Hope Dies Last, historian Studs Terkel recorded the insights shared by civil-rights activist Mel Leventhal. “We need young people to do more of what young people did in the ‘60s: Keep America honest,” he told Terkel. “We need to make sure they learn their history. It’s important to stand back and see the whole world is in a downswing when it comes to human rights… But I’m not giving up.
I can’t afford to.” Leventhal’s statement is directly applicable to the future of the disability rights movement. First, we do need to keep America honest. Within that honesty exists the recognition that sometimes change is not only for the better, but is also necessary and, perhaps, even time-sensitive. Many of the changes we seek are ready to be implemented through new leadership. To truly implement change, however, we have to make adjustments to the tried-and-true methods and meld with the visions of those who will responsible for carrying them out over the next 40 years.
Second, we need to make sure young people learn disability history and culture. It’s tough to know where we’re going, if we don’t know where we’ve been. What we know serves as the basis for what will be. To make this possible, intergenerational communication is critical.
“As young people define and navigate their way in the next wave, experienced leaders can share their wisdom, mentor younger leaders, and most of all, communicate trust,” said disability rights activist Laurie Powers, who is the associate dean for research and director of Regional Research, Institute for Human Services at Portland State University. She added that more adult leaders must be willing to be followers, as young people put forth their vision of disability culture and inclusion in the broader humanrights agenda.
A change is coming, and we now have a prime opportunity to unite generations, merge visions and strengthen our community. Perhaps Leventhal said it best: “Everything meaningful that’s ever happened in the world— any change, any improvement—comes about because of optimism. The pessimists don’t get anything done. They’re naysayers. You have to see the potential for change. And you’ve got to see it not in terms of the moment, but in terms of the long haul.”
The challenges before us will require us to find a way to make that long haul together. Social change for the rights of the disability community—rights that make us equal world citizens with equal responsibilities—is something to which we are all entitled. It’s also a purpose towards which we must all work. This universal goal is important. At the same time, the diverse methods by which we reach this goal, may be divided along generational lines. As we ask those outside our community to grasp change, we must do the same.
by Betsy Valnes
Betsy is an active member of the youth disability rights movement in the United States and abroad.