Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán is the Senior Policy Manager for AIDS United, where she brings her own unique intersectional specialties to the fight against the HIV epidemic. Particular areas of expertise and focus are the intersections of issues affecting people living at the intersections of transgender identity, disability and mental illness from a social justice lens. She frequently speaks on discrimination issues impacting the trans and disability communities. She has been profiled in multiple national media outlets and has been published in multiple academic outlets. Prior to joining AIDS United, she was senior policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Task Force where she led the Trans/GNC Justice Project and the Disability Justice Project. She currently serves in the board of directors of HIPS, an organization dedicated to harm reduction for sex work and drug use in the District of Columbia and of Equality New York, New York State’s leading LGBTQ equality organization. Victoria holds a B.A. in psychology with honors from the University of Puerto Rico, and a J.D. from the University of Maine School of Law. She lives in the Washington, DC area.
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So I’m Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan. My day job is a senior policy manager at AIDS United, where we work to end the HIV epidemic. And I would say I’m a disability advocate at heart because of my own mental health disabilities. And I bring them throughout my entire life to try to push the disability world into one that is inclusive of all mental health and developmental disabilities, not just the photogenic disabilities. So I was a year old when the ADA passed, I am 31 years old and we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary. So I have no memory. I grew up with it. My first memory of the ADA was my mother who was diabetic getting, talking about accommodations that are word to store insulin and her in the work fridge, along those lines. And I remember her talking about this new thing called the ADA, you know, how people talk about work at home.
But the ADA I had, I would say I had my own mental conception of what is a disabled person, until I myself was dealing with the, I feel different both because of my being trans, because of my mental health, and eventually dealing with it and getting treatment when I was some law school, which I know a law school is always an interesting experience in and of itself. It’s a three year hazing ritual, but I would say one of the things that motivate me and for the stability is seeing just how much in disability. We often treat people as either poor things of pity or as scary and need to be locked away. You face often with physical disabilities, it’s the object of pity. With mental health disabilities, it’s the scary, let’s lock them away, why are we allowing those people out in the community? And having seen that, having being scared of it, having being worried about my career, if I were out, which says a lot as a trans person being worried about being out as, someone with a mental health disability. I don’t, I think we need to fundamentally alter how society sees what is normal and not, and how that works as far as inclusive, being inclusive of all disabilities.
I would say that one of the things that impacted me the most was for example, when I got out of law school. In law school, I received accommodations right as I was about to graduate, and help from the assistant Dean of students, Sherrie Abbott, at the time, because I was pretty much experiencing a lot of problems that are related to my disability and that probably wouldn’t have been possible without the ADA, without the spirit of it. And later when I started my career a few months later, actually I joined as a Schedule A hire in the US Department of Labor. If it weren’t for the initiative of the federal government, that was partially inspired by the ADA to make sure that people with disabilities are hired by the federal government, then maybe I wouldn’t have started in civil rights in DC when I did. So it has made a difference for me in receiving accommodations at the jobs I’ve had and so forth.
So it is a question of how do we, we already have a whole generation like myself who are in our early thirties and our twenties, all the millennials and zoomers that don’t remember the dark days before the ADA, but we can’t just coast on the “yay, we did the ADA, now let’s all go home and party” because there is so much more work to be done basically. Like people with disabilities are still routinely having to fight for their rights under the ADA to be solved. If we went around DC, spotting architectural barriers, we could spot a dozen in a single mile radius, and that is a problem. And this is especially true, I like to call it, talk about the sexy versus the non-sexy disabilities. When we talk about disability, people often get this inspiration porn, mental image of the photogenic person in a wheelchair, extra bonus point, if they’re straight and white, but don’t want to talk and exclude from the picture from that pretty group picture, the person who stutters the person who has chronic pain and can’t work because of it, the person with mental health disability who has had psychosis or other experiences like that.
And even when we talk about mental health, we try and end the stigma and other such calls for action, we often focus on the idea of let’s talk about people who were depressed and took some Prozac and got better, but don’t want to talk about people who are in longterm institutions, like people who experienced psychosis or like people who experienced bipolar disorder and so forth. And we need to be clear that it’s all disabled people that matter basically at the risk of sounding all lives matterish, not just those we like the most.
I would say fundamentally there needs to be a change in how federal law treats people with mental health disabilities. We need to fundamentally and institutionalization. We need to include universal health coverage because people shouldn’t be relying on having a job to have access to affordable healthcare. And I am also thinking as a major change, the fundamental idea that people with mental health and developmental disabilities have rights in general. I like to tell people, use your privilege. Kind of like how they put the signs on the Metro in the New York subway that says, “If you see something, say something.” Well, it applies here. If you see something say it, don’t let, don’t wait until someone with a disability who is exhausted having to fight for themselves has to say it. And when people bring it up, evaluate and help them. Be an ally.
In partnership with Diana Pastora Carson, M.Ed.
Author: Beyond Awareness: Bringing Disability into Diversity Work in K-12 Schools & Communities, and children’s book Ed Roberts: Champion of Disability Rights, ADA 30th Anniversary Edition https://www.dianapastoracarson.com/store
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