Melissa Harris-Perry: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, in for Tanzina Vega. Of course, we're listening to the godfather of soul, the late great James Brown, declaring he is Black and proud. Released in 1968, this funky protest Anthem is a reminder of the importance of collective pride. Remember that communities who are shunned to shave and shunted to the margins must resist not only inequitable public policies, they must also resist mainstream messages suggesting that they are inadequate.
"I'm Black, and I'm proud gay pride." In the month of July, Disability Pride. Disability Pride Month, first recognized by New York City in 2015 to honor the 25th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. Asserts in no uncertain terms that people with disabilities do not need to be fixed, cured, or healed. Disabled folk aren't waiting on a miracle, disabled folk are miraculous. Since 2015, people across the US have celebrated Disability Pride Month every July, though, it has yet to be recognized formally at the federal level.
Emily Ladau: Many disability activists around the country recognized Disability Pride Month. My hope is that it will eventually become a fixture in the months that we honor to celebrate diverse identities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Emily Ladau is a disability rights activist and author of the forthcoming book, Demystifying Disability. Here's what Emily told me about the connection between disability and pride and why it's important to call the month, Disability Pride Month, instead of something like disability history or awareness month.
Emily Ladau: I often think of the term awareness as something that we use when we're talking about something that we want to solve, a problem to be fixed. Disability is not a problem to be fixed, it's a culture, it's an identity. It's something that so many of us celebrate. Indeed, there is a history, so disability history month would certainly be in order to celebrate but the history is what leads us to feeling pride in who we are. For us, that's so incredibly hard one, especially in a society that doesn't want to celebrate disability, that sees it as a negative thing, so by calling it Disability Pride Month, we're really reclaiming the power in the word, disability, in the identity of disability.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want you to push on that for just a bit more with me. Because I do think that, at least for some listeners, you'll catch them off guard to hear you say, "Oh, yes, disability isn't a problem to be solved".
Emily Ladau: We have been socialized to understand disability solely from a negative perspective. Disability is something that is wrong with a person. Disability is something that is bad, that happened to you, that we want to get rid of and eliminate from society. That's what we've been told, but disability activists are saying, no, that's not true, let's flip the script. Disability is actually something that has brought so much depth and richness to our existence.
That's not to say that it's always easy to be disabled. Certainly, I don't want to give anyone the impression that my life or the lives of other disabled people is always sunshine and roses and Evie. Because we live in a society that doesn't accept us for who we are. At the same time, by embracing disability, by recognizing that it's something we can celebrate and something that makes us part of a community, I think that's what we need to do to start shifting away from these negative attitudes towards disability.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Imagine having pride in experiencing the human depth in an identity that is not well accepted by the broader population. Just shocking, huh?
Emily Ladau: It's the powerful pushback to the common narratives that we hear. I understand why it would give people power. For that matter, it gives me power sometimes. I have a lot that I grapple with within my own body, within my own existence. Sometimes I internalize the way that people think about disability. It's challenging to feel pride, but pride is not just about celebrating who you are as an individual. It's about recognizing that disabled people should be just like any other diverse identity, a celebrated part of our community.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, talk about the diverse identity aspect. I think one of the pleasures, but also traps of February, Black History Month of June, LGBTQ Pride Month, is that, for outsiders, it can flatten community and presume that everyone with a particular identity is the same. Talk to me about the multiple variations and experiences that constitute disability communities.
Emily Ladau: That's so true. I'm really glad that we're talking about this because I want to, very clearly, acknowledge that I am a white woman, a cisgender woman, heterosexual. I use a wheelchair to get around. My disability is physical, and so I am not at all representative of what it means to be disabled. I'm one person, in quite literally, a billion disabled people around the globe. When I talk about disability, it comes very much from the way that disability has shaped my life, but we have to recognize the ways in which other identities intersect and connect with the disability experience.
I come from a place of having a lot of privilege in my experience despite being someone of a marginalized identity. Disability intersects with any and all other identities, it's the only identity that can do that. When we're talking about disability, if we're ignoring the ways other identities connect with disability, then we're simply not talking about the very real and diverse disability experience.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about legislation, the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act. Talk to me about how that has both shifted and what it's failed to do in the lives of people living with disabilities.
Emily Ladau: Disability advocates are still having many of the same conversations that they were having well before the ADA was implemented. I often say that you can create policy, but you can't legislate an attitude change. That's really the crux of the issue. The ADA is absolutely a crucial and vital law to have in place, but until we start shifting attitudes, it's almost impossible to get people to fully implement the policies, even though they're, at this point, about 31 years old.
My particular fight, if you will, is constantly getting people to understand that, yes, the Americans with Disability Act is incredibly important, accessibility is incredibly important, but we have to get people to the point of first accepting disability so that they'll understand why the implementation of legislation like the ADA is so crucial.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In your forthcoming book, Demystifying Disability, you write about how many people, specifically the non-disabled, don't know how to act around disabled people or they don't know what to say. Can you talk a little bit about why that is maybe and some of the ways that we can address those issues within a broader life?
Emily Ladau: There's such a great fear of the unknown and disability is considered the unknown. It's something that people see and they say, "I don't want that to happen to me," or "I can't imagine my life like that." Because of that unfamiliarity and because of that feeling of discomfort and potentially, knowing that it could happen to you and seeing that as a bad thing, people aren't really sure how to behave around disabled people.
We're pushed away and treated as the other, but I tell people that disability etiquette is really not that complicated. Just be yourself. There's no reason to go out of your way to be nice to someone with a disability, but also, there's no reason to be rude to someone with a disability. Act the way that you would when you're interacting with anybody else.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's worth pointing out that, so far in the conversation, we've talked about disability as though it is a zero-one box, either you're a person with a disability, or you're a person living without a disability. Over the course of our lifetimes, those of us who typically might be living without a disability, might in our elder years, or might as a result of illness or injury, become people living with disability, at least for some period of our lives. How might those experiences of actually experiencing disability impact our ability to be as non-disabled folks? People who are behaving, I almost hate the word, ally, but in good, ally or co-conspiratorial relationships?
Emily Ladau: Disability is the only identity group that anybody can join at any time. That's not a threat, that's actually something that I think is pretty cool. Anyone can become part of this community. When you're thinking about it from that perspective, why wouldn't you want to create a world that's better for disabled people, knowing that one day, that world might also make your life better and easier? There's a phrase that some people like to use, temporarily able-bodied, meaning that, as you mentioned, at some point in our lives, we're likely going to experience some disability.
Now, I don't necessarily mean to say that if you have broken a bone, that you are suddenly a complete expert on the disability experience. I've had so many people say to me, "Oh, well, I broke my leg and so I was in a wheelchair for six weeks and now I totally get the disability experience." That's not quite what we're asking. What we are asking is that if there is a change that happens in your body, why not contribute now to making the world easier so that if and when that change happens, the world is a better more livable place for you and for everybody.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm thinking in this moment, I'm the youngest of five but my second oldest sister lost her sight to MS in her early 30s and became a person living with the definition of legal blindness without sight. It certainly changed not only my perspective but that of our family who'd never had someone very close in our family who was living without sight and all of a sudden, a wide variety of issues from public transportation to work opportunities all became part of how we were managing life in a very different way. Can we talk for a minute about language? How should we be talking about disability when we're having these conversations particularly, maybe in a public policy sphere?
Emily Ladau: Well, first, I just wanted to thank you for sharing about your sister. I think that really highlights that everybody knows somebody who's disabled whether or not they identify disability as something that impacts one and for American adults. We have to recognize that this is not just something that we should push to the wayside. Disability is very much a part of the human experience. That means that when we talk about disability, we need to know the right words to use but there's a lot of confusion around that. I really understand that because there isn't one right way to talk about disability and there isn't one right way for people to identify.
What I like to tell people is that disability itself is not a bad word. Disability is, in fact, what I have disabled as what I am. There are many people who prefer to say a person with a disability and put the person first. There are many people who prefer to put their identity first and say, disabled person. I embrace saying disabled person but I know that's not everybody's choice. Then I'd also just add very briefly that it's really important to consider not using words that avoid saying disability. We often hear special needs as differently able than physically challenged. Those words aren't really getting to the heart of it. Disability is what it is, it's not a bad word.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Emily Ladau is a disability rights activist and author of the forthcoming book, Demystifying Disability. Emily, thank you so much for joining us.
Emily Ladau: Thanks for having me.
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