Leadership Crisis in the Disability Community, Pt. 1

The recent passing of Charlie Smith, Editor and Publisher of Access Press, has caused me to stop and reflect on […]

The recent passing of Charlie Smith, Editor and Publisher of Access Press, has caused me to stop and reflect on the status of systems advocacy and activism in the metro area disability community.  The picture I’m getting is rather disturbing. 

My understanding of systems change has always been based on the concept of a continuum: On one end of the continuum is direct action, with groups like ADAPT.  Moving on, some might see the Independent Living movement consumer-run and consumer-driven organizations, which, if viewed as a quilt, has various shades and hues within it.  Next would come the more moderate and conservative organizations, which typically use more conventional approaches.  Finally, strategies like incremental change and legislative public policy work might fall at the other end of the continuum.

Over the past six years I have observed the small core activist/advocacy community changing.  It has moved away from being a community comfortable with confronting ableism and discrimination and being willing to speak truth to power, toward being a community which has moved toward the center of the continuum and which is more comfortable using what it views as “sophisticated” strategies such as adopting primarily a legislative focus and an approach of incremental change. 

Incremental change is where a systems advocate spends most of his/her time.  It is painfully slow, often taking years to see the desired results.  It involves going to endless meetings, always wondering whether the time spent has been productive.  The advocate gets little or no positive reinforcement from the community for this type of advocacy because it appears to the consumer that nothing is happening.  It is also not gratifying for the advocate much of the time.

There is no right way or wrong way to do advocacy.  There are many strategies and approaches that work and can even work together in an organized fashion including both confrontation and incremental change work.  However, it seems as movements mature and their participants move in from the margins of society, that strategies and tactics that once worked to bring about change are discouraged, frowned on, or even discarded.  Those who would advocate the use of such strategies or tactics are thought to be not as sophisticated and possibly behind the times.

Imagine the past and current pictures of this advocacy community on a television screen.  Six years ago, the picture would take up the whole screen.  Today, the picture would appear at the center of the screen, and take less than half of the right side of the screen.

Some of the tools have been removed from the advocate’s toolbox.  The advocates themselves have done this.  This limits the effectiveness of their advocacy and does not adequately serve the people with disabilities who depend on them to be their voice.

The actions taken by activists five years ago when Courage Center brought in Christopher Reeve to receive the Courage Award would not happen today.  Yet they brought about much needed change within Courage Center.  This past December two advocates discussed bringing the issue of getting a “gap filler,” for the platforms in the Light Rail system to “the streets,” when incremental change strategies met the brick wall of state and regional governmental agencies.   They decided it wouldn’t work because they couldn’t muster enough support in the community to
make the protest worthwhile and get the message out effectively.  “Who would show up?” was the question posed.  The answer was a disturbing “handful of people.”   The passion the fire is gone from this community.  Several factors have contributed to the loss of these things.

Next month, Lolly gives some ideas about how to replace some of the tools that have been taken out of the disability rights toolbox.