As a person with a disability, I know what it is like to be systematically and individually treated like lesser than other people. I know what it is like to be surprised when I see a person with a disability portrayed in popular media in a positive light because too often our portrayal is unrealistic or completely absent. I know what it is like to be overlooked or ignored by people who are uncomfortable with disability and therefore me. I know what it is like to have to teach courses that teach people that our lives matter and that we should be treated with respect. I know what it is like to advocate for our voice to be added to policies, government, committees and other groups that naturally let in people without disabilities. I know what it is like to have to fight for the right for people with disabilities to work, to go to school, to not be segregated, to not be institutionalized, and to not be treated as lesser than other groups. I know what it is like to have to put up with ignorant comments and being treated differently and having different expectations that affect my ability to live my life, that affect my self-esteem and that have me constantly advocating to educate and enlighten people who don’t have disabilities. I know what is like to be told I am too sensitive about words, that is was just a joke, that I should lighten up. I also know what it is like to have a history of people who came before me who were abused, who fought to be heard, who lost their lives speaking out and who fought for the right to be part of the community, not hidden or shuttered away. I know what it is like to want to honour those people who fought against oppression by continuing that fight while at the same time not wanting to have to still fight that fight, not wanting to still have to tell people that people with disabilities aren’t lesser than, that we deserve respect, that we live full lives and that we are productive members of our community. I will continue the fight though because I don’t feel I have a choice, society hasn’t given me the option to move to the sidelines yet because so much work still has to be done. I am tired of having to repeat what generations of me before me have repeated, that we deserve equal access, that we deserve to live in our community, that we deserve to be independent, that we deserve to be seen, that we deserve to be heard and that we deserve to see ourselves reflected more realistically (or at all) in popular media. I shouldn’t have to still be telling groups that strive for diversity but leave out people with disabilities that we deserve to be at the table, but I do – and I will until society finally realizes that instinctually.
What I don’t know what it’s like is to fear for my life because my skin is different from others. I don’t know what it is like to wonder if a loved one will make it home from a trip to a store because they are wearing a hoodie or were rude to the wrong person or were stopped for a minor traffic infraction. I don’t know what it is like to live with the history of brutal oppression that is slavery. I don’t know what it is like to feel pride in seeing Black Lives Matter then disappointment and anger when someone changes it to All Lives Matter. I don’t know what it is like to have so much of a culture appreciated in arts and popular media but to have individuals and communities treated as lesser than. I don’t know what it is like to see a powerfully eloquent speech by a member of my community (Jesse Williams) that acknowledges the daily and systematic struggles we face then see that people have created a petition to have him fired from his job because they were uncomfortable with him holding a mirror up to society. I don’t know what it is like to see a video of a person hired to protect and serve shoot or choke a person of my colour and wonder how many days will pass before the next video, the next death.
There is a lot I don’t know but because of my own experience as a minority I have great empathy for those in the black community and I will do my best to reflect that empathy by learning and listening and supporting with not just words but actions. And I will start by sharing my belief that saying All Lives Matter is disrespectful and ignorant to the issue at hand. We shouldn’t have to say Black Lives Matter, we as a society should know this and reflect it, but we don’t and so we have to hear this message until it sinks in. If you don’t see yourself reflected in the hashtag, it doesn’t mean you don’t matter, it means that you are fortunate enough to not need a hashtag, to not need to educate others about how your life is worthwhile. And you can choose to replace “All” for “Black” and prove that our society has a long way to go or you can reflect, listen, read, learn and then work to help right society so that one day no hashtag is needed at all.
And finally, I know that ally is a word all too often used to soothe people, to make them feel like they are not part of the problem, but often the word ally is used without any weight behind it. To be an ally you must speak up, you must educate yourself, you must look at your life and your privilege and see what you can do to help change the situation. It is not enough to sit to the side and use a term for yourself that claims support, you must move into the fray and actually support with words, deeds and action. We, as a society, have a long way to go on multiple fronts, and we won’t get there until people individually look at their lives, their workplaces, their communities, their words, their attitudes, their privilege and see how they can make concrete changes for the better.