Nothing About Us Without Us

The blog this week was written by Michele McGowen from Disability Network Southwest Michigan. This summer I saw 7 individuals who were strangers to one another come together and create magic; the magic of finding pride, community and power in collective action.

This past summer, Disability Network Southwest Michigan piloted its first-ever Advocacy Academy. The plan was to teach leadership, advocacy, and employment skills to young adults with disabilities as well as to provide a paycheck at the end of the 6 week internship. It was designed to be a flexible experience, with an community advocacy project chosen, designed, and directed by the group (within some basic parameters ). They were responsible for setting goals and managing their time and tasks. I was hoping to get a group of people who could one day step into leadership roles as the next generation of the disability rights movement.

The magic started on the second day of the internship, when the group learned about the history of the disability rights movement and saw old footage of the insides of large state institutions, and of people marching/wheeling/protesting for equal access to government buildings and programs. And they got mad. Really mad. And passionate. Why hadn't they learned about this in school? Why didn't anyone tell them about THEIR history?! They recognized themselves in the faces, stories, and experiences of those early disability rights pioneers. They didn’t know that people had fought hard for the rights they have now. They were mad that our schools and our culture does not know and share the story of civil rights movement of people with disabilities they way they share the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement for people of color. At that moment they knew they were part of something larger than themselves and that they were all connected through common experience.

The group chose not one but two projects to work on during their six weeks. The advocacy project was about getting the transit center to have announcements about bus departures and late arrivals to make the transit system more user friendly. They met with transit leaders, prepared presentations, and gave testimony at a public meeting. Their request is now part of the Public Transit/Human Services Coordinated Plan and as unmet need the community will address – a big success in a short amount of time. Their second project is called I Am Not Ashamed and is about eliminating the feeling of shame that can happen when living with a disability in our culture. They created a brochure about person-first language and a facebook page to promote their ideas. Those were big accomplishments for only meeting as a group for 72 hours total!

It was perhaps the best moment of my 14 years of work in the disability rights movement to watch this group of seven strangers - different ages, backgrounds, and disability experiences - find pride, community, and power in collective action this summer. If you would like to meet these young leaders, come to our Annual Meeting on October 22, 2012. They are the keynote speakers.