Disabled people are the single largest minority group on the planet. Yet we are rarely seen in leadership and decision making roles, our visibility in popular culture and media is low, and recognition of our work as thought leaders and influencers is almost non-existent. The work of the disability rights movement often consists of us highlighting our absence from the public domain.
Shifting the status of disabled people to achieve equality will take many people and a long time. It will take a multi pronged approach across a wide range of fields. With 1.5 billion people it will also need to be happening in many places around the globe simultaneously in ways that are suitable to conditions in that myriad of locations.
The global disability rights movement is as diverse as it is large. This is its strength, as it ensures that the simultaneous work required is happening. Across numerous fields, in numerous countries, within all cultures, disabled people are working to assert our rights. Yet the disability rights movement is only a small percentage of disabled people, and a small percentage of the work that is required. Social change movements usually consist of less than 10% of a specific population group, and the disability movement is no different.
Many disabled people work in invisible ways, shifting ground from within existing business and government structures. This work is just as important, just as necessary, as the work of those who use the public domain to challenge assumptions and perspectives on disabled people. Internal institutional barriers need to be addressed as much as social assumptions and social policy. Without taking our place as 15% of global leadership we won’t be in a position to challenge the ableist structural barriers which deny an equitable disabled presence across the public and private domains.
As with any social change movement there are those who speak loudly and those who work behind the scenes. All are vital, particularly with such a large minority. Some demand strong ethical behaviour of themselves denying any solution other than end point outcomes, others are pragmatic and work more incrementally to shift legislation or policy. Some take a leadership role; others work to support those on the frontline of change making. Some work through organisations, many don’t. Some accept recognition for their work, others prefer to be acknowledged only as part of the larger movement. As with all movements, all approaches are vital contributions to the overall outcome of equality.
Curiously, there are those who suggest that only people from certain parts of the political spectrum, or with certain values and ethics, should be accepted as legitimate members of the disability rights movement. Yet, the size of the disability population and the diversity of disabled people would suggest that we must be present across all fields, political backgrounds, and perspectives. With such a large global population it is impossible to consider that we might always agree with each other. It is more likely that we won’t, particularly when intersectional and cultural factors are considered. That doesn’t mean that we can’t support those who work differently, or with whom we disagree, knowing that they too are making a difference.
It’s time to celebrate our work wherever it happens, and recognise that all of it is contributing to the greater visibility and status of disabled people. People should be encouraged to work where they are best placed to do so, using their skills and qualities. Making change is often about getting on the bus that comes past, not waiting for the perfect set of circumstances to arise before acting. If someone jumped on the bus as it went by we should applaud them for embracing the opportunity as it arose.
Periodically people are critical because someone isn’t their choice as the best person for an accolade or an appointment, yet often it is being in the right place at the right time that decides who does something or is asked for comment. Should we remain invisible or should we seize those chances while we can? However people achieve recognition, positions of influence, rights outcomes, or make change it is all valuable and raises our status as global citizens. Being in the room is the key to equality. There are many many rooms, so we need many people to ensure we are in all of them. All of this work contributes to the #Global15Percent
Wherever we do our work and achieve change, disabled people should be supported and celebrated, even if specific individuals don’t work in a way that we personally prefer or use language we’d rather they didn’t. Our diversity is our strength and that means embracing our difference including our different approaches, because our equality requires all that difference. Disability is our common thread, yet it doesn’t make us all the same, and that’s the best thing.
Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, she has worked across 5 social change movements throughout her lifetime including the disability rights movement.