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A new year, a new opportunity

2016Well, here we are. The last week of 2015, which I suppose means either a “year in review” kind of thing, or some words about moving forward. I’m not much for looking back at the year that we’re wrapping up. Not that it was terrible, at least not in any memorable way that jumps out at me off the top of my head. 2015 was fine, I suppose. But I’d like for 2016 to be a year in which we can feel like our advocacy can advance in some meaningful ways. For that to happen, some things are going to need to change.

This next year is going to be an important one, because it’s a presidential election year, and one that is shaping up to be more polarized, by far, than any that has come before it. While my own progressive beliefs aren’t a secret and I won’t insult you by pretending to be objective, it doesn’t really matter what your politics might be. The cultural disposition of this country is shifting, and one of the major points of conflict is the question of what our national sense of compassion looks like, or should look like. It comes up in policy debates over immigration and civil rights and education and social services. Who shall we care about, and what will that look like?

One area where we stand to lose most dramatically is in the treatment of those with disabilities. We as a society are going to have to decide how much we value our disabled fellow citizens, and we’re going to have to do so in an environment where, in my opinion, public empathy feels like it is at an all time low. I feel like we’re at a very delicate point in the development of our national conversation about disability. Educational philosophies are changing, social movements are scrambling for their own piece of the narrative pie, and popular culture is trying to figure out where the line between free speech and “don’t be an asshole” lies. This next year, we as a society are going to have to figure a lot of things out. And as a force for advocacy, the disability community is going to need to get its act together more than ever.

We’re not very good at any kind of real unity, are we? We’re not so much a community as a collection of squabbling nation states. Parent advocates and self-advocates, person firsters and social modelists, inclusionists and seclusionists, advocates for the high functioning and low functioning, advocates for referring to it as “high functioning and low functioning” and those adamantly for NOT calling it that, inspiration pornographers and gritty realists, autism advocates and autism advocates, and then those of us whose diagnoses no one has ever heard of who sometimes find ourselves gasping for whatever oxygen remains in the room. Given the choice between finding commonalities and lining up a circular firing squad, well, at least we make pretty circles.

Don’t think the rest of the world doesn’t notice, either. I’ve spoken with a number of developers whose products would have made for a natural association with disability advocacy but who have declined to pursue those possibilities. Companies shy away from working with disability advocacy organizations because they’ve seen how horribly things can go if they don’t get it perfectly right. They’ve watched attempts at creative partnerships turn into boycotts. And they mostly don’t care about the reasonable merits of those subtle points being argued. They only see a toxic environment, one that we’ve largely created ourselves.

This could be the year that we change some of that. In 2016, we’re not just going to be choosing a president. We’re going to be establishing a new social narrative, or at the very least engaging in a more vigorous discussion than we’ve had in a very long time. If we can focus on our commonalities, if we can present a voice that isn’t necessarily unified (because I know better than to think that is likely to happen), but at least harmonized, this year could present a real opportunity to create a national conversation about disability rights and our broken social model, a dialogue that effectively addresses the needs of disabled persons. This could be the year that society responds to the needs of this community reasonably and empathetically, rather than with “oh, god, not these people again”.

I’ve said it before. I believe that as disability advocates, we need to raise our voices in a way that is present, insistent and at times impolite. We need to recognize that there’s truth to the saying that the rising tide lifts all the boats, and when that isn’t true, we need to fix it. And most of all, for the sake of our common struggle for justice, fairness and equal treatment in the eyes of the law and of society, we need to recognize that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

I’m not speaking for any particular group. I don’t represent parent advocates or neurological disabilities or Support for Special Needs (the editors of which I suspect get a little twitchy when I bring up this particular topic, sorry). If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the disability community is a leaderless entity. I’m not always sure that it knows that, however. I think we’ll do better when we figure that out and proceed accordingly.

As an advocacy community, I hope that 2016 will present an opportunity for large strides forward. But regardless, I hope that for you, the individual members of this unruly mob we call a community, this coming year brings moments of success both small and large, of epic breakthroughs and quiet epiphanies, and love most of all. More love and understanding and true human connection than ever before.

I’d like to wish you all a very happy new year. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write over the past twelve months. It has been a privilege for me, truly.

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