The Future of Disability Rights Activism is Female

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This post is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists.

The turning point came for activist and writer Emily Flores when she resolved to give a TEDx talk at her high school in Austin, Texas. Flores, 15, who has muscular dystrophy, struggles to find clothing that is both fashionable and easy to independently wear. “I decided to take activism,” she explained to Ms., “and really explore it at a very vulnerable level.”

Although her activism began with her writing, Flores recognizes the effect of public speaking and thinks talking about problems facing her and the disabled community to a large group of people is “one of the most important things about activism.” Her TEDx talk, which made an impression on her peers and teachers, is proof that she’s on to something.

“They told me they didn’t know this issue was so big,” Flores said. “It was the first time they heard about it. For them to hear it on a stage from someone who is disabled, I think it’s really impactful.”

Flores isn’t the only young feminist bringing attention to the disability community. Activists including Anita Cameron, Colleen Flanagan and Stephanie Woodward protested a bill that would establish billions of dollars’ worth of cuts to Medicaid at a demonstration in June 2016. The health care program covers 67.3 million people, including more than 10 million who have a disability—and women have the most at stake when it’s under attack.

“Women are disproportionately affected anytime a healthcare provision gets gutted,” Carrie Wade, programs manager of the American Association for People with Disabilities, explained to Ms. “Healthcare services that people often file away as women’s issues. Those sorts of things are often the first to go.”

Cuts to Medicaid are also detrimental to disabled students who need accommodations. When Fl0res first started high school, she noted her building’s inaccessible elevator and bathroom and talked to her assistant principal. As a result, an accessible elevator and bathroom were put into place a few months later. “I did it for me,” she said, “and for the other students who needed it.”

In February, the House passed HR 620, which removes the incentives from businesses to make public places accessible—a key portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Activists like Ola Ojewumi—who lobbied to save Medicaid and established Project ASCEND, an organization that gives financial funding and political opportunity to disabled youth—are fighting to keep the bill from going to the senate. “It starts with accessibility,” Ojewumi pointed out, “because if we don’t have access, we don’t have equal opportunity.”
These opportunities can be hard to come by for some activists with disabilities. After her writing was rejected by several online publications, Rebekah Harding, 17, started Beat Bias with Bekah. She felt as if her ADD and ADHD was the reason she was turned away—so she created an online format to use her voice as a young woman with a disability. She publishes opinion pieces, interviews and research on the blog, and outreach has been central to its expansion. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who have similar disabilities to me and who are passionate about the same things as me,” she told Ms., “and they thought they were the only one like that.”

Outreach and community is important to NYU film student Melina Nakos, too. The college sophomore uses her work as a tool for intersectionality. Nakos, whose limbs and fingers except for the thumbs were amputated, wants her films to “represent people who are either usually misrepresented or unrepresented,” and she says her drive to do so “plays a huge part” in her knowing the kinds of stories she wants to tell. So does sexism.

“I couldn’t be a disability rights activist and not be a feminist,” she declared. “When you face one kind of discrimination, it’s very very difficult not to identify with other types of discrimination.”

Young women like Nakos are bringing a feminist lens to the fight for disability rights that is critical in the current political climate. “The fact that young women in particular are finding their power during this time to speak out and recognize disability as integral to that process,” Wade said, “is incredibly encouraging.”
Nakos says that the biggest thing she’s done thus far is a TEDx talk about the lack of representation in film for disabled people. But Ojewumi predicts there is much ahead for her and other young women on the front lines of this fight.

“They’re next,” she declared. “They’re training themselves right now to essentially go to Capitol Hill. It’s not just gonna end with a TED talk.”

Fareen Ali is a teen writer from Southern California.

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