Where are the young disability community voices? 

As the 2022 Minnesota Legislature enters its final days, it’s tempting to think ahead to 2023 and what that session could be like. Changes are on the horizon. Many new state lawmakers will be on hand to meet and work with, given the number of retiring House and Senate members. 

We hope the disability community is back in-person at hearings, policy information sessions and rally days in 2023. Virtual events have offered much broader participation and more access for Minnesotans with disabilities statewide. The importance of that cannot be discounted. But virtual proceedings don’t offer the power of packed hearing rooms or a capitol rotunda full of people. 

We look forward to our people being able to sit down with legislators in the same room and share our stories, to hand-letter signs in the Transportation Building cafeteria and to gather in person for Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Tuesdays at the Capitol. We especially look forward to seeing the marches of hundreds of people to the capitol. Marches are a visible and powerful act. 

We hope to see many new faces in the disability community’s self-advocacy ranks by the time the 2023 session rolls around. We especially hope to see a younger and more diverse group taking up the many causes that help us to live full, involved lives in our home communities. 

But where are the younger self-advocates in Minnesota? Where are the younger and diverse disabled people whose voices are needed on boards or committees? Many of us were asking that before the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a question that comes up more and more often among community leaders. And while it’s not the job of a newspaper to rectify that situation, we can offer some factors that may be at play. 

Younger people with disabilities have more opportunities to join the work force than ever before. Those of us who had doors shut in our faces years ago applaud them. Public and private sectors commitments to hire disabled people, on top of improved workplace accommodations, have made a positive difference in many lives. Certainly if someone can work and earn a good wage and benefits, that path can and should be chosen. But their voices of advocacy are missed. 

The collapse of our staffing system keeps other young people at home and unable to effectively advocate for their needs. The irony when staffing is one of the main disability community focuses is not lost on us. 

Another factor may be the long-term move to more paid staff doing lobbying for disability service organizations. While staff work hard for our many and varied needs, self-advocates’ voices are also needed. We cannot expect organizational staff to do it all. 

Here’s other thoughts for disabled people of all ages to consider. How has organizing around issues changed? How has volunteerism changed? 

If younger people are not “joiners,” what can attract them to a group or cause or volunteer role? How do groups or causes change? Should they change? It’s not enough to simply post on social media and call yourself an activist but we see more of that. Hands-on approaches are always going to be needed. 

Are older disability community leaders not serving as mentors? Should there be more active planning for succession or are we dealing with a “dog in the manger” attitude, refusing to make room for newcomers? 

More self-advocacy voices are needed. When the same few people are heard from, it’s all too easy to tune them out. We need a wider array of self-advocacy voices and group of new and different faces to join the old guard. 

And while disability advocates and elder advocates share many issues, we need disability issues seen in their own light. A member of ADAPT has different needs than a member of AARP. Unique issues facing younger people with disabilities need attention. Those issues get lost when there isn’t participation. 

The other need is to always train our replacements, daunting as that may be. We are losing more and more of our disability community members who remember the days of few if any accommodations. We are losing those who remember what it was like with no Americans with Disabilities Act and the changes that brought. 

Self-advocacy is so important. Sharing of disabled life experiences provides needed perspective on what we face every day. If the world is indeed run by those who show up, it’s concerning to see fewer younger people taking active roles on our issues. It’s their turn.