Last week the White House Office of Public Engagement hosted a disability issues oriented event as part of our observance of National African American History Month under this year’s theme of Civil Rights in America. This event brought together civil and disability rights advocates, youths with disabilities, service providers, educators, as well as federal disability policy officials. The program provided a forum for dialogue on the intersection of race and disability.
Though race and disability are unique identities, they do intersect. This intersectionality occurs as African American with disabilities are facing added barriers to employment, health disparities, income inequity, unequal access to healthcare, low high school graduation rates and limited means of attaining higher education. This is in part due to the doubled edge sword of disadvantage created by ableism and prejudice. As a result, people of color with disabilities are working to etch a place for themselves within the modern disability rights movement. This is being executed through increased measures to add diversity and inclusiveness in public policy and societal support for disability rights.
The beauty of African American history is that it created avenues for other marginalized groups to dismantle forms of institutionalized discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a means for the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Similarly, the sits in and protests spearheaded by freedom fighters of the past were replicated by disability activists advocating against ableism and for inclusion. The issues both groups promoted mirror each other (i.e. school desegregation, equal employment, education, and fundamental human rights that had been denied for decades). Ironically, many African American history makers such as Malcolm X, Octavia Butler, Harriet Tubman, and Wilma Rudolph - had disabilities.
Last week’s program also provided an opportunity for open discourse about the importance of mentorship for African American youths with disabilities and the impact of intersectional identity on social, cultural and economic opportunities. Each of us holds the power to bring issues of social justice for people of color and those living with disabilities to the forefront. Together, we can create a better America through using our voices to activate real social change.
Claudia Gordon is an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement.