Not Fair, Still Lovely: The Perpetuating Toxicity of Colorism

advertisement for a skin whitening cream
Source: Adam Jones

This past summer, two pandemics plagued the world: COVID-19 and systemic racial discrimination and prejudice against Black communities. While the former was making modern history, the latter had been happening for centuries. As I thought of ways to address and educate myself and my family on these injustices, I found myself revisiting and reevaluating my own biases, particularly those I’ve experienced within the Indian community.

Growing up in South India, I would mimic my mother and grandma’s daily skin care routine when they used “Fair and Lovely,” a skin lightening and bleaching cream. I was constantly told to not play outside because I might get too dark, and my foundation for dance competitions and rehearsals was often shades lighter that what it needed to be. I was raised in a world where your worth was defined by the color of your skin, and if by chance your skin was too dark or too tan, then you were seen as un-beautiful, unworthy, and incompetent. Most women like my mom, my grandma, and I, as well as other individuals that suffer from the stigma that being dark is ugly, have often fallen prey to companies that profit off the ideology that whiter skin is equivalent to beauty, self-confidence, and self-worth.

Colorism in Indian Society

Colorism is an issue that is often ignored and rooted in societal pressure around fairness. It is a discriminatory practice in which institutions or individuals treat those with lighter skin tones more favorably, upholding instead White, Eurocentric standards of beauty. India is a mixture of diverse cultures, languages, and shades of brown. With different skin tones came colorism that continues to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions. For generations, Indian society has been brainwashed into the ideology that fairer skin is more desirable, leading to the nation  developing a multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry. Everyday products like Olay’s Natural White Glowing Fairness Cream, Lotus Herbal’s White Glow Skin Whitening and Brightening Gel Crème, Pond’s White Beauty Daily Spot-Less Lightening Cream, etc. promote stereotypes against darker skin tones through their marketing strategies. For example, a current advertisement shows a young woman with a darker skin tone being rejected from a job later ends up using a fairness product to become more beautiful and thus confident. She then goes on to score an even better job at the end. Mainstream media also fails to provide accurate representations of India’s population, with many actors being light skinned and with frequent recruitment of foreign and predominantly White-presenting actors. Often the practice of “brown-face” is used among these actors and production companies to fit a certain role or aesthetic, thereby enforcing negative stereotypes when proper recruitment should’ve happened in the first place. Even more disturbing is that these stereotypes are so enforced in people’s homes and daily lives and can affect prospective marriages, job opportunities, and other relationships due to preferential treatment towards lighter skin.

The Origins of Colorism

Often, people mistakenly identify the origins of colorism with the caste system present in India. The caste system divides the Indian population according to labor and promotes the idea that each subgroup has its own functionally important role in society. Over time, this led to misrepresentation and manipulation of the caste system, because higher status on the ladder typically meant more prestigious work related to education, religion, trading, etc., whereas lower status meant more labor-intensive work that typically meant occupations in dirtier, outdoor environments. Naturally, those individuals lower on that ladder became darker due to their exposure to natural environmental conditions. Their natural and seasonal tanning along with their status as Dalits (“the untouchables”) within the caste system can be argued to have contributed to colorism. While the caste system does play a part in this ideology, it doesn’t fully explain why discrimination continues to happen, especially among individuals that identify with a higher status on the caste system but are also darker. Apart from that, multiple text depict Hindu deities as “dark-skinned,” and who hold a tremendous amount of respect, honor, and power. Neither the caste system nor religion can wholly explain the origins or colorism and why it still continues to perpetuate today.

A chart depiction of the Caste system.
Source: Source: The Ancient Wisdom Project

Colonization, the third factor of this equation, seems to be the missing part of the puzzle. Like many countries, India was not exempt from British rule and had only in the past century gained its independence. During the centuries of British rule and oppression, “colonization was embedded in the idea that fair skin people were the ruling class, and darker skinned people were the subjects.” Apart from this, there was also blatant favoritism by the newly erected British government towards light skinned Indians that directly affected social and class mobility as well as a family’s socioeconomic status. This was seen through discriminatory practices, such as offering lighter skinned individuals government pardons, jobs, and a voice, which were not offered to Indians of darker skin tones. This mindset, that the only way to be worthy, to be accomplished, and to be civilized and beautiful, slowly became an innate mantra amongst the Indian population, creating generations of individuals that strive for a beauty standard deeply rooted in anti-ethnic, anti-Indian, and anti-minority sentiments. The effects of colonization intermingled with the stereotypical notions of the caste system to give us unique and deeply rooted coloristic principles.

Difference between racism and colorism

Earlier, I mentioned that I wanted to address my own biases regarding systemic racism and educate myself on this issue. However, as an Indian-American immigrant, I found it difficult to navigate the differences between racism and colorism as the two are often intertwined and seen together in my community. But the more I researched on this issue, I found that people, often non South Asians, frequently mistook colorism for racism because it can perpetuates anti-Black sentiments within South Asian communities. Except, they are very distinct concepts. For example, in the U.S. (but not exclusive to the U.S.), skin color is the foundation of race, and continues to be a criterion in determining how they are evaluated and judged. The United States’ historic treatment and oppression of Black Americans is racially based, and within that exist preferences for certain skin tones. However, in a lot of Asian and colonized countries, race is not the primary indicator of how an individual will be treated. Instead, the color of a person’s skin on the wide range of the color spectrum will be the major determinant. While the two sound very similar, “the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy” is the crucial factor in social and class mobility, not necessarily race. Colorism and racism, while closely related problems need different solutions, and while these some of these solutions may overlap, each has a unique set of problems.

Woman holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
Source: Socially Urban

Right now, certain skin care and make-up companies, such as Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely,” that release skin whitening, bleaching, and lightening products have issued public apologies and are removing, re-advertising, and rebranding their products. While this alone is not enough, because the consumption of such products is based in generational trauma surrounding discrimination around darker skin and beautiful shades of brown, it is a step forward in addressing how such companies are profiting off anti-Black sentiments and how to halt such practices.

What can I do?

  • Follow Nina Davuluri’s “See My Complexion” petition and project.
  • Continue to callout and critique companies that promote skin bleaching and whitening products because cosmetic changes such as rebranding products is not enough to halt harmful beauty standards.
  • Most importantly, it’s important to address and actively combat our own implicit biases that are rooted in generational trauma.

Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger with Rebecca Traister

Book cover - Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women's Anger
Source: Yahoo Images

On Tuesday, March 10th the Institute for Human Rights alongside the UAB Department of English and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration welcomed Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, to present a lecture entitled, “Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger.” The lecture is a part of the UAB Department of English Alumni Lecture series, a series that invites prominent writers and scholars twice a year to discuss ideas and issues related to the study of English. In this lecture, Traister discussed her inspiration for writing and how she became a writer, women’s anger throughout history, the validity of women’s anger, and how women’s anger can make change in the modern era.

The lecture focused on the consequences of women’s anger, a topic that Traister has extensively written about in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” published in 2018. Traister has also written books entitled “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” published in 2016, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” published in 2010, that focus on similar topics. Alongside her books, Traister has been a feminist journalist for 15 years and describes anger to be a significant part of her work. This anger, Traister says, is a reaction to the many inequalities and injustices in the world. Without anger, it would be impossible to be in the line of work she is in. However, Traister describes being unable to be openly angry. She found that expressing her personal rage would undermine the messages she has been so committed to sharing.

Rebecca Traister speaking.
Rebecca Traister speaking. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

This changed in 2016 with the election that ultimately resulted in Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Traister had covered the Hillary Clinton campaign as a journalist and describes being unsurprised that Clinton had lost but at the same time “shocked to the point of paralysis” that Trump won. She also describes feeling a sense of responsibility for being a part of the demographic that voted for Donald Trump (white, middle aged women) and expresses being unable to think clearly because of her anger. Her husband encouraged her to actively pursue her anger and write about it. In a way, this encouragement permitted her to think about anger very intentionally, prompting her to write her 2018 book.

Traister moved from her personal journey to discuss the historical implications of women’s anger and how history classes often remove this narrative. Traister encouraged the audience to think about what we learned about Rosa Parks from grade school: a stoic, exhausted seamstress who practiced an act of quiet resistance. Traister expands on this well-established narrative of Rosa Parks by reminding the audience of Parks’ other accomplishments as a member of the NAACP and encouraging us to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who participated in conscience political action based in fury. In another example, Abigail Adams is known for saying, “remember the ladies,” in a letter she wrote to her husband John Adams. Traister reminds the audience that in the same letter Adams wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could” and warned her husband that if the founding fathers did not take women into consideration, “women are determined to ferment a rebellion.” Traister also includes Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, into the example, a slave who sued for her freedom and was successful, concluding in a landmark case that was influential in the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. Not many people in the audience had heard Elizabeth Freeman’s name before. It is relatively common to find furious women at the start of many movements in this country, Traister says. The deliberate depiction of women as quiet and merely supplemental or in the right place at the right time removes the purposeful, furious action that women have partaken in throughout history.

Rebecca Traister event
Rebecca Traister event. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

Now why has this become the case? Traister argues that this pattern has occurred because angry women are powerful and powerful women are a danger to the patriarchal society. She proceeds to analyze the many ways that angry women have been portrayed in media and history. The stereotype of angry women is that they are infantile and not worthy of listening to. There are examples of describing high profile, powerful, and angry women as shrill, unhinged, ugly, unnatural and “a crazy aunt.” Traister explains that women’s anger is coded in our minds as unattractive, the opposite of how society perceives an angry white man. The best way to discredit women, Traister states, is to simply show them opening their mouths. However, Traister describes some of anger’s most important roles. It can bring people together by creating a movement around a shared fury. It can encourage people to become involved in politics, inciting political change. Black Lives Matter, Mom’s Demand Action, Black Lives Matter, Brett Kavanaugh protests, Time’s Up, #metoo, and many others were all started by women.

At the end of her lecture, Traister encourages us to think about anger differently, as fuel propelling us forward. She states that a movement is made up of many moments and the movement for full equality has been ongoing for two centuries. Each person must decide whether or not to change the world and should we decide to do so, our anger is what is going to keep us fighting. Traister ends the lecture by giving each audience member the same task: keep going, do not turn back, and stay angry for a long time.

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

Kenya and Beyond: Including Human Rights in Conservation

Nelson and Maggie Reiyia watched in despair as their community slowly fell into decline despite tourism profits from nearby Maasai Mara National Reserve. As indigenous Maasai themselves, the Reiyias were determined to reinvigorate their community despite the massive forces of ‘big’ conservation and outside development. Thus, they set out to create the first Maasai-run conservancy in the history of Kenya and reconnect their people, culture, and livestock to the land and its wild inhabitants.

A Maasai man in traditional red clothing overlooks the Sekenani River. Nearby vegetation reflects off the water's rippled surface.
A Maasai tribe member overlooks the Sekenani River. The Sekenani restoration project is one of many local initiatives conducted by the Nashulai Conservancy. (Photo credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/sekenani-river-restoration)

Historically, the Maasai and other Kenyan tribes occupied these lands until Western colonial powers began to forcibly move people to make room for themselves and their ever expanding game reserves. Sadly, there is a long history of colonial and post-colonial entities removing people from their lands in the name of conservation and game management. This tendency to ‘Other’ people unlike us – that is, to assume their inferiority as humans – continues to taint conservation and often results in counterproductive efforts to save endangered species.

Sadly, this model of conservation has been adopted the world over and partly stems from the assumption that Indigenous people lack the ability to govern themselves or the knowledge to sustainably manage their lands. Yet, in the case of the Maasai, they have occupied the landscape long enough for it to become an integral part of their culture and worldview. Of course this is hardy meant to reference to the outdated ‘noble savage’ cliché; rather, it is an attempt to force us to consider who was already managing these lands and critical resources before the colonizers arrived.

A herd of wildebeest and zebras meandering about the vast and empty Maasai Mara National Reserve.
A herd of wildebeests cross the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Every year the migration of these animals attracts tourists from around the globe. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

An additional assumption held by Western society and much of modern conservation is that people should be removed from their lands in order to establish pristine areas for wildlife. Enter the additional force of tourism – a massive economic influence that often turns sentiments against local populations thought to be spoiling the landscape, competing with wildlife, and over-hunting the animals we so desperately seek on our travels. Don’t get me wrong, tourism can be a positive source of income for a region. But when money takes precedence over people depending on ancestral lands, it is unethical at best.

Finally, we cannot forget the horrid calls to shoot poachers on-sight and emotional outcries against trophy hunting. In our Western need to anthropomorphize wildlife, especially the ‘cute’ or charismatic animals, we fail to see the socioeconomic complexities of people and place. We also have to remind ourselves these are not our animals to govern. These animals – if they can be thought of to belong to anyone – are clearly in the domain of the countries in which they reside and the people living among them. In other instances, certain animals represent a critical source of local income through legal trophy hunting. But as we saw with the ‘Cecil the Lion’ outrage, the Western world is appalled at the thought of killing a lion for any reason while giving little thought to the ribeye steak on our dinner plate.

Two zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where the grass and sky both seem endless. Few people are seen aside from tour guides and tourists.
Zebras graze in the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve where few people are seen aside from tourists and their tour guides. (Photo credit: Sherrie Alexander)

Conservation is complicated so we have to look at the bigger picture. It is often as much about humans as it is about wildlife and ‘wild’ spaces. The combined result of ‘Othering’ indigenous populations and disregarding their traditional ecological knowledge, while simultaneously anthropomorphizing wildlife and claiming ownership over entire ecosystems, has led us to our current circumstances. While many conservation initiatives are beginning to take local and Indigenous voices into account, the unfortunate fact is that neocolonial conservation is alive and well.

Over the last decade I have watched as the push for social science integration with conservation biology has slowly gained momentum. Such calls for interdisciplinary approaches have arisen from the desperate need to better understand the multifaceted human dimension of conservation. ‘Fortress conservation’ and the forced removal of people from their lands, or lack of access to resources and profits from their lands, are outdated practices and clear human-rights violations. From conservation to tourism, local cultures have a right to be included. In fact, research from myself and others has demonstrated that when communities are intimately involved there is an increased likelihood of long-term conservation success.

The Nashulai model diagrams depicts their commitment to helping both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage.
The integrated Nashulai model emphasizes the need to help both people and wildlife while also preserving cultural heritage. (Image credit: The Nashulai Conservancy, http://www.nashulai.com/)

After hearing Nelson and Maggie Reiyia speak at UAB about their indigenous-run conservancy and the advances they have achieved for both their cultural and biological heritage, I believe there is hope that we can shift the narrative of conservation to one that is more inclusive and ethical. Simply put, supporting initiatives like the Nashulai Conservancy can help push back against ongoing injustices and bring human rights to the forefront of conservation.

Sherrie D. Alexander, MA
University of Alabama at Birmingham, Researcher and Instructor of Anthropology
IUCN Primate Specialist Group, Section for Human-Primate Interactions, Member
Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation, North American representative

Land acknowledgement: The University of Alabama at Birmingham is located on the traditional lands of the Muskogee Creek Indians.  

 

 

Golf and Life Lessons: The Dennis Walters Story

On Wednesday, February 5th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside College of Arts and Sciences and Lakeshore Foundation to present World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Dennis Walters. During his lecture, he addressed his passion for golf, experience with disability, and journey of perseverance.

Raised in New Jersey and playing college golf at the University of North Texas, Walters had dreams of being on the PGA Tour. Amid his burgeoning career as a professional golfer, Walters experienced a golf cart accident that left him paralyzed from the waist-down. Following the accident, Walters underwent four months of excruciating rehabilitation, peering at the golf course across the street with a desire to drive a ball across the green. Although his doctor claimed he would no longer play golf, but Walters’ vision suggested otherwise.

Following his rehabilitation, Walters moved back home with his parents in New Jersey while he became accustomed to his new way of life. One day, he finally mustered the courage to swing a golf club. With help from his father, they had a makeshift system that included a pillow, waist strap, rope, and a tree to assist with Walters’ swing. As a result, Walters was hitting golf balls as he did before which kept his golfs dreams alive. The first time Walters played on a course after his accident, he received cheering support from fellow golfers and, soon after, a re-purposed bar stool for his golf cart. Thus, The Dennis Walters Golf Show was born.

However, not everyone was originally thrilled about Walters’ show. After his father wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus and told him of his son’s ambition, Walters’ career took off. Although Walter’s show is not just any golf exhibition, it’s a performance! His show includes golf shots with a three-headed club, fishing rod, radiator hose, gavel, left-handed club, crooked club, and tall tee as well some bad jokes and a four-legged sidekick. After more than 40 years, Walters has traveled over 3 million miles and done over 3,000 golf shows for fans near and far.

Walters exclaimed, “There’s no expiration date on your dreams” and offered the crowd his five P’s for success:

    1. Preparation (establish a plan)
    2. Perspiration (hard work pays off)
    3. Precision (stay focused)
    4. Passion (live what you do)
    5. Perseverance (stay on the path or else the other four don’t matter)
This is a picture of Walters posing with members of UAB Men's and Women's Golf teams.
Walters with members UAB Men’s and Women’s Golf teams. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Walters asked himself, “Why have this dream?”. At times, he felt entirely hopeless about golfing again. However, golf was like therapy to him, both mentally and physically, which he claimed was better than medicine. He then closed by expressing, “The good about golf is the people you know”, which highlights the importance of inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities on and off the green.

The Refugee Education Crisis

Child writes in workbook at a desk.
Getting Syria’s children back to school in Lebanon. Source: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development, Creative Commons.

Now more than ever, people are fleeing their home countries because of war, persecution, or violence, hoping to find a better life in a different country. In fact, we haven’t seen a refugee crisis this large since World War II: there are 70.8 million refugees worldwide, and estimates show that around 37 thousand people are forcibly displaced every day. They risk their lives to escape a situation they feel they won’t survive, but when these refugees finally find a place they feel safer in, they face new challenges, including the education of their children.

Children, in every society and culture, are the future; they will grow up and have an impact on society. The significance of the impact and whether it’s positive or negative is greatly affected by the child’s education. If a child is refused an education, it will be hard for them to positively contribute to society. Additionally, a lack of education can prevent people from knowing their rights and being informed about their health.

For refugee children, education is even more important. In addition to the importance of education in general, education can give a child back their sense of identity and purpose after being stripped away from everything they know. Often, refugee children are taken to a country that is much different from their native country, especially with regards to culture and language. However, receiving an education can lessen the growing pains, especially if teachers are trained to help children from different cultures and speak different languages. Additionally, going to school can help children learn the intricacies of the new culture by being exposed to it for extended periods of time.

While it may seem obvious that education is important for every child, the education gap between refugee and nondisplaced children continues to grow. Worldwide, 91 percent of children attend primary school, but only 63 percent of refugee children attend primary school. While the number drops for secondary school across the board, the decline is much more dramatic for refugee children: only 24 percent of refugee children will attend secondary school. This is alarming because secondary school is typically the minimum level of education needed to attain a desirable job. The vast majority of these children, who are already put at a disadvantage, have even less of a chance of receiving the education they need.

Worldwide, there are many reasons refugee children are not receiving a quality education. First of all, the language in their new country may be different from any language they speak, which could cause them to fall behind in their studies. Second of all, there may be discrimination and bullying, which can make it much harder to focus on and excel at their studies. Additionally, in some areas, there may be limited spots in secondary schools for refugees, limiting the number of refugees that can receive an education. Finally, many refugees are denied the right to attend school, as many governments have policies in place that block their enrollment. These policies can include the requirement of residency documentation, which is nearly impossible to attain, essentially making their enrollment in school impossible.

In the US, there are two laws in place that are meant to protect children’s education: the Flores Settlement and Plyler v. Doe. The Flores Settlement outlines the regulations and restrictions regarding detaining minors, including refugees, at the border. It ensures proper treatment within detainment centers and includes a section specifically regarding education. Children are required to receive an individualized educational plan including basic education and lessons in English. However, in June, there were reports that the Trump administration decided to suspend many services in juvenile detainment camps, including education, because of a lack of resources. This act would’ve gone directly against the Flores Settlement.

Plyler v. Doe protects the rights of undocumented children to get a primary and secondary education, stating that they fall under the Equal Protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. Plyler v. Doe shows that in this country, every child has a right to an education. However, this right is not always granted. There are many schools that require birth certificates and ask about immigration statuses as a way to keep undocumented children out of school, even though it is illegal.

There are many benefits to the communities that accept refugees. Many of those against admitting refugees to Europe, the United States, or wherever they may live, cite the economic strain refugees put on the government as their reason for opposing the intake of refugees in their country. However, they are ignoring the fact that through taxes refugees generally boost the economy more than they strain it. This can only be improved by educating the children as well. The best way for someone to positively impact the economy is to be well educated; in a study done over 40 years comparing 50 countries’ economies and education levels, they found that the higher the average cognitive ability, the faster the gross domestic product (GDP) increased. If a country refuses to educate any of the children that live there—including refugees—it will not only negatively affect the children, but will also negatively affect the entire country. Additionally, schools that allow refugee children will have more diversity, which promotes higher levels of tolerance, not only among them, but also among parents and the community.

It is imperative for the development of the individual and the well-being of the host country that refugee children have the opportunity for an education. However, it is not enough to just give them access to an education. They must have the resources necessary for them to succeed, such as teachers that are willing to work with them through language barriers and accurate credit for courses taken in their native country, among others. They must be given the same opportunities that the other children in the country are given if they are to succeed and we are to close the gap in education between refugee and nondisplaced children. Many countries have already started making an effort to close the educational gap and take down barriers: Turkey has made significant efforts to prepare school-age refugee children for a transition to Turkish schools, and Ecuador has passed laws to give undocumented Venezuelan children easier access to school. There are many benefits to the education of refugee children and ignoring them will have grave consequences for refugees and the communities they are a part of.

A Seat at the Table: Learning the True Meaning of Representation at COSP12

Image showing a sculpture of a globe outside the United Nations building in New York.
Globe outside the United Nations. Photo by Samih Eloubeidi.

A few months ago, I was sent to the United Nations as an Official Rapporteur to the 12th Session of the Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (COSP). The theme of this year’s COSP was implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in society. While at the conference, I attended several side events that highlighted how different NGOs, companies, and organizations have made efforts to include PWD in all facets of society. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to transcribe the General Debate and Round Table Three Discussion of the General Assembly, both of which focused specifically on the inclusion of PWD in society through participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sport. For this blog post, though, I want to focus on two of the side events I attended, because I believe that the personal lessons they taught me were the most valuable lessons I learned at the conference.

The first side event I attended detailed how artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology can be used to increase the inclusion, participation, and independence of PWD. Many of the panelists noted that while AI can help PWD, it can also be an obstacle that further perpetuates the societal exclusion of PWD. In response to this point, Megan Lowery, the representative for Microsoft, highlighted the importance of including PWD in the creation and dissemination of technology, noting that their input is indispensable for ensuring that the AI is in fact facilitating PWD’s inclusion and participation. As a testament to this, Alejandro Moledo from the European Disability Forum (EDF) detailed “Plug and Pray?”, a report created by the EDF to provide a perspective from PWD on emerging technologies. The report highlights the concerns and risks PWD have about these technologies and provides partial recommendations to policy makers and AI creators.

The second side event I attended focused on deinstitutionalization in the Arab region to support the inclusion and independence of PWD. As a Middle Easterner myself, I was particularly excited about this panel and the insights it would provide. Her Excellency Haifa Abu Ghazaleh and Her Excellency Ghada Wali both detailed that institutions should be made to provide health care, educational opportunities, and other resources for PWD rather than just being institutions where PWD are placed. In this way, PWD would have systems of support that would allow them to live independently while also giving them access to opportunities that could increase their inclusion in society. The discussion was opened to the panelists, all of whom were PWD; Mr. Ibrahim Abdullah, Mr. Mohammed Lotfy, and Mr. Muhannad Alazzeh. Mr. Abdullah stated that he is supportive of deinstitutionalization due to the fact that institutions isolate children with disabilities from their communities, while both Mr. Lotfy and Mr. Alazzeh supported transforming the institutions into support systems for PWD.

While these events were incredibly informative, it is not the information alone that has stuck with me. As I watched the panelists and speakers share their thoughts, the phrase, “a seat at the table”, continuously came to mind; the panelists and speakers at both side events I detailed were PWD discussing issues that PWD face. To me, this is what true representation is supposed to look like. When dealing with issues pertaining to any minority group, the people from that minority group should be responsible for leading the discourse. It is upsetting to see, then, that many people try to lead discourse when the discourse is not theirs to lead. Being well versed on the plight and issues that other minority groups face does not and should not make allies feel as though we can adequately address these issues. It is true that all minorities face struggle, but that is the extent of the commonality between us; every minority faces struggles differently, and we cannot assume that our own struggles are similar to, or even on the same level as, the struggles others face. After being at the conference, I realized that sometimes I too try to be a voice for others. However, I understand now that when it comes to discourse pertaining to other minorities, my voice is solely meant to be used to support, rather than to supplant, their voices.

From this, I also learned what it means to truly be an ally. An ally is someone who stands on the periphery of the aforementioned table, allowing the ones whose issues are being discussed to be the ones claiming the seats. However, as allies, we cannot be selective on which tables we stand on the periphery of, and this is where the conference revealed a major fault in my being an ally. I pride myself on being an adherent to intersectionality, so I was disappointed in myself when I realized that I have never included PWD within the realm of my discourse pertaining to minority rights. However, to be pro-black, pro-Muslim, pro-women, etc. is to be an advocate for the rights of PWD; these identities are not mutually exclusive. Thus, when I say that I am an adherent to intersectionality, I have a responsibility to include all minorities within this claim of adherence.

I believe that for any internal growth to occur, we need to be challenged. Without being challenged, our thought processes and views of life are static, hindering us from moving forward and evolving into better versions of ourselves. I am grateful to the IHR and Dr. Reuter for giving me the opportunity to attend the COSP, for without this experience, I do not think I would have had these faults revealed to me as clearly as they were. As I move forward, I will carry these lessons with me and continue working on bettering myself as both a person and an ally.

ADA: Civil Rights Legislation for All

* This is a repost from summer 2017

by ABBY ROSS

July 26 1990 ADA Signing Ceremony
July 26 1990, Signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Source: United Spinal Association

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). This was a truly groundbreaking piece of civil rights legislation that finally took permanent steps towards ensuring equality for all Americans. The ADA requires private and public entities to not discriminate against people with disabilities, and was crafted with the goal of integration in all aspects of society – employment, social settings, government, transportation, and beyond.

James Weisman, President & CEO of United Spinal Association – a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with spinal cord injury/disorder – has been a disability rights attorney for nearly forty years and had significant involvement in drafting portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He sued New York City as a young lawyer over inaccessible buses and subway stations. The implementation of mandatory bus lifts and key subway stations with elevators for wheelchair access were direct results of his lawsuit. This became the basis of the transportation sections of the ADA, and created a precedent across the country giving individuals with physical disabilities access to transportation and thus increasing independence.

Unbeknownst to Weisman, it was just the beginning of his advocacy work specifically related to transportation accessibility for wheelchair users. In the 1990s, United Spinal Association again brought litigation against the City of New York this time related to curb ramps – the corner of sidewalks that are altered to allow wheelchair users and parents with strollers to access the sidewalk from the street. The City was ordered to install ramps on all sidewalks and some twenty years later is still working to fully complete the project. He works on wheelchair accessibility in the taxi and transportation realms with companies like Uber and Lyft. With technology transforming transportation services, he remains committed to ensuring that accessibility is a priority from design to implementation across the transportation industry. Transportation is only a slice of the work that he has been involved in throughout the last forty years as disability rights truly extend to every aspect of an individual’s life. I wanted to hear his thoughts on this important anniversary, forty years of activism as well as reflections on today’s disability rights movement.

Senator Tom Harkin, ADA Sponsor & James Weisman at the NYC ADA25 Disability Pride Parade. Source: United Spinal Association

AR: What is the connection between disability rights and human rights?

JW: Disability rights has always been the bastard child of the rights movement. There is no real “ism” attached. Ableism is the closest thing but that is not definitive. Disability is in every group. There is no country, population or demographic that doesn’t include people with disabilities yet they still can face the hallmark issues of human rights discrimination. Poverty, isolation, inadequate healthcare, underemployment and exclusion are all barriers to independence and equality. People with disabilities face these issues day in and day out.

AR: Where do you see disability rights discussions and action moving in the future?

JW: For a few years, we were making significant progress across the board but with the new administration, we are back to basic rights. Now, the choice to live in the disability community is gravely threatened. Funding for support services that would allow people with disabilities to live independently, work, go to school, shop, go to the movies – live a “normal” life – is being slashed and the impact is tremendous. The proposed changes to healthcare would also have a dramatic effect on quality of life, self-sufficiency and frankly, life expectancy for severely disabled individuals. Simply staying alive is becoming a goal of advocacy again.

Apart from these issues of the day, which will likely always be present in some form, mental health stigma is the next biggest issue and will take the most work to overcome. The complexity of diagnoses and treatments paired with the lack of education and familiarity has created enormous barriers and misunderstanding.

And of course, transportation is always an issue. Innovation must include accessibility. Every new modality should be accessible from inception. – in 2017 it is ridiculous to even consider developing technology that wouldn’t include everyone and consider an aging population in design.

AR: Where have you seen the most progress in disability rights in the last 27 years?

JW: Without a doubt, it is the built environment. Physical accessibility is the easiest to measure, quantify, regulate and learn how to fix. There have been amazing advancements in what is considered normal in terms of building design and features. Automatic entries, lever style door handles, accessible restroom stalls – all things many people don’t even notice but are essential for wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments.

James Weisman and Ian Ruder at United Spinal’s Roll on Capitol Hill Advocacy Event, 2012. Source: United Spinal Association

AR: In your opinion, what is missing from the movement?

JW: Collective identity with the rest of the country. People with disabilities are a tremendous minority group but generally not understood or engaged in the same respect that the able-bodied public is in terms of employment, education, media, advertisers, athletics, etc. Society seems to perpetually need to be re-educated about disability. The image of people with disabilities used to range from heroic to pathetic – that has changed and I believe now ranges from needy to competent but continues to be somewhat one dimensional. For instance, the wheelchair user who is the leading man’s best friend but not the leading man. One in five Americans have a disability. – We all have a friend, uncle, neighbor or colleague with a disability that we consider “our disabled guy” – we know they operate in the world, go to work, school, church, buy groceries and socialize but somehow our personal experiences are not extrapolated out to our experiences with the greater disability community.

To some degree we are missing the next generation of disability rights leaders. Many of my colleagues have been involved in these battles for thirty years or longer when the fights were about the basics – access to buildings, transportation, education. Fortunately, we have progressed since then to more sophisticated issues but there are still barriers on many fronts. The next generation of leaders will need to understand the history of the movement, the landscape of the challenges and the best possible outcomes for the disability community. We have so many bright individuals, disabled and able-bodied, that are doing wonderful work around the country – I am sure that the disability rights movement will be in good hands.

AR: What lessons have you learned in your decades of disability activism?

JW: Good ideas eventually come to fruition. It just takes time. You must keep them on the table, keep talking, keep pushing. Nothing changes if you don’t push. That often means you lose and it is one step forward three steps back but I’ve seen dramatic change in a relatively short time so I know it can happen.

Bias goes away if you expose it. Again, not necessary quickly and not completely, but every little bit helps.

I’ve found that it is extremely rewarding to be a part of this community and social fabric. I have developed extremely meaningful relationships through my work in disability rights. It is a very effect way to mature as a person – to understand the grand scale of the movement and issues as well as the microcosm of individual struggles and concerns.

AR: Finally, why should disability rights matter to every American?

JW: Dependence is expensive. Way more expensive than independence. Dependence is person specific and labor intensive whereas independence often requires only one-time investments. Motorized wheelchairs, building alterations and other assistive technologies certainly aren’t cheap but are essential tools for personal liberty.  The goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the goal of all the work that we do around rights is simple – to give opportunity. I always say that the greatest opera ever written or the cure for cancer or other remarkable achievements may be locked in the head of an individual with disabilities who without the services, tools and right to independence will never have the opportunities they deserve to share, create and succeed. Do we want to pay to take care of everyone when the alternative – increasing access to education, employment and opportunities is by far the better alternative?

Disability rights are human rights. People with disabilities are individuals of all ages and backgrounds who are striving to be independent and active participants in society. They are moms, colleagues, wounded warriors, uncles, kids with big dreams, best friends and neighbors. They have families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes and problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them.

 

Abby Ross is the Chief Operating Officer of United Spinal Association headquartered in NYC.

James Weisman was the General Counsel of United Spinal Association for 35 years prior to becoming President & CEO in 2015.

CRPD: Implementation for the people, by the people

** As the IHR and other sponsors prepare for the “Symposium on Disability Rights,” the next few weeks will highlight some posts from the past as well as feature new posts written to provide some background into the various panel focuses.  

* This is a repost from summer 2017.

a picture of the CRPD CoSP banner outside of the UN
Source: Ajanet Rountree

The UAB IHR team had the opportunity to participate as rapporteurs in the Conference of State Parties (CoSP) annual meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. In accordance with Article 40 of the Convention on the Rights of Person with Disabilities (CRPD), CoSP consists of convention signatories responsible for the implementation of the Convention. This annual meeting is the “most diverse international disability meeting in the world” because it brings together UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, human rights institutions, disabled persons organizations (DPOs), and civil society.

Estimated at 1 billion, persons with disabilities are the largest minority worldwide, facing considerable marginalization in every day life. The CRPD is the first human rights treaty of the 21st century, with the expressed purpose of ensuring that “all persons with all types of disabilities…enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006, the CRPD is the first treaty “open for signature by regional integration organizations” (app) who exercise the social development dimension by changing attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities.

The UN Enable website designates the mandate of CRPD as “the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects”  of charity, medical treatment, and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights, and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.” In other words, CRPD focuses on the human being rather than the disability, and its implementation teaches the world to do the same. As of November 2016, 168 states and the European Union ratified the Convention; the United States has not.

The CRPD presents a disabled perspective to an able-bodied norm. Through the CRPD, persons with disabilities– disempowered through invisibility that is rooted in an able-bodied world, which often forgets their existence—benefit as their human rights infuse with other conventions, standards and norms of treatment.

a map of the nations that have and have not ratified the CRPD
Source: UN Enable

Janet Lord argues that the language utilized in the CRPD reinforces the need to reframe disability as a contribution to society, rather than a hindrance. Pointing to the American Disability Act (ADA) as a stepping-stone to the CRPD creation, she makes a clear delineation that CRPD is not an international version of ADA. “[CRPD] provides a framework for the development of disability rights in countries that is, in large part, inspired by the principles and concepts found in the ADA—nondiscrimination, inclusion, autonomy, human dignity. Like any other human rights treaty, the CRPD seeks to ensure that the human rights to which all are entitle are actually implemented for persons with disabilities.” She hones in on two essential themes of the CRPD: non-discrimination and employment.

First, non-discrimination is all-inclusive as defined in Article 2 and outlined in Article 5. “Discrimination on the basis of disability means any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. It includes all forms of discrimination, including the denial of reasonable accommodation.” Akiko Ito, Chief of the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, insists the need for at least two perspectives, disabled and gendered, when mainstreaming disability as a measure to counter discrimination. Unfortunately, the layers of discrimination are not limited to two perspectives; therefore, it is necessary to include race and/or ethnicity, given the intersectionality of an individual life.

Second, barriers to employment reinforce exclusion and marginalization. While employment barriers differ depending on the disability, the overarching concept lies in accessibility. As an able-bodied person, I take accessibility for granted. Consider how a wheelchair user gets to work if there is not access to a bus, cab, or car that is accessible; or how a visually impaired person gets information from the internet, if there is no voice-over technology. Article 27 of the CRPD challenges and demands the labor market to be “open, inclusive and accessible…by taking appropriate steps” for persons with disabilities to participate and enjoy the right to work. UN Enable reports that there is difficulty in obtaining data on persons with disabilities, specific to employment; however, here some of what we know:

  • In the US, a 2004 survey reported that 35% of persons with disabilities have employment when compared to 78% of the rest of the population.
  • China has an estimated 83 million persons with disability – that is 6.3% of the country’s population
  • In Ireland, 37% of persons 15-64 have a disability and are employed
  • Thailand states that 1.3 million of the 4.8 million persons with disabilities are working age
  • 70% of Russia’s disabled population is unemployed

The rights to employment and non-discrimination fall into the categories of economic and social affairs. While CoSP ensures the practical application of the CRPD on the local level, the Department of Economics and Social Affairs (DESA) advises, develops, and oversees policy creation and the implementation of CRPD on the national level. Ito explains, “DESA works to support the development pillars of the United Nations – peace and security, and human rights.” CRPD and its implementation align with the 1945 UN Charter that seeks to identify progress in economic and social development, and promote human rights through the creation and maintenance of a peaceful and prosperous world.

The role of civil society is imperative in the implementation of the CRPD. Article 33 makes allowance that persons with disabilities and their organizations are involved and participate in the monitoring process; this outlet is CoSP. Civil society participation is uncharted territory as no other human rights treaty acknowledges the advocacy, accountability, and the representation of NGOs. By recognizing the mandates and positions of NGOs within communities and around the globe, CoSP is striving to ensure the full inclusion of persons with disabilities into an accessible and accepting society. To be clear, the implementation process is complex, difficult, and far from over. Fortunately, having persons with disabilities led and dominate discussions, CoSP represents a microcosm of dedicated innovation and a relentless pursuit of excellence as they collaborate to create, maintain, and reframe equal representation of human rights through participation and partnership.

Over the course of this week, the team will share personal experiences and takeaways from this incredible week that included the official launch of the CRPD app and sharing of Making Disability Rights Real in Southeast Asia by Dr. Derrick Cogburn and Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter.

 

 

Representing Disability 

Representation shapes the way we view the world – media regularly exposes us to perspectives and truths that we may otherwise never experience. Disability is one perspective that abled society frequently avoids. Persons with disabilities are heavily under-represented in media, and existing representations often perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Persons with disabilities are rarely depicted with agency or dignity. More often, disability in media is associated with helplessness, pity, or as a perverted source of inspiration for abled people.

However, times are changing. GLAAD’s Where We Are On TV is an annual report on diversity in television; findings from the recent 2018-2019 television season report a positive trend on representation for people with disabilities. Last year’s report found that 1.8% of all series regulars on primetime broadcast television had disabilities, while this year’s report lists 2.1%. This is only a small increase, and still under-represents the proportion of Americans with disabilities. According to the United States Census Bureau, Americans with disabilities make up between 1219% of the population (variation in range is due to inconsistent definitions of disability).

Three people in wheelchairs face each other while talking.
“Creative Accessibility Mapping Tour.” Source: Andi Weiland / SOZIALHELDEN, Creative Commons.

But that 2.1% consists of a variety of compelling characters with disabilities. Popular television shows Speechless is groundbreaking for its representations of differently-abled youth. The show is centered around a young man with cerebral palsy, JJ, and his wacky family and friends. Speechless is unique in its approach of wholesome humor to deal with the difficulties of navigating personal agency, inclusivity and the struggles of teen life. Disability is so often viewed from a lens of misery, alienation, and darkness, but this show handles tough topics without demonizing disability. Speechless demonstrates that life with disabilities is much like any other, filled with pain but also joy and laughter. Though this is only one show, Speechless empowers persons with disabilities and sets a better tone for disability representation.

Despite under-representation in mainstream media, people with disabilities have found power in creating a culture of agency within their respective communities. Superfest, a disability film festival, was held in October of this year and showcased a range of perspectives from quadriplegia to cerebral palsy to Deafness. Social media allows persons with disabilities to present their own image of independence and beauty, empowering themselves and others. Advocate/blogger/model Mama Cax is an amputee woman of color with nearly 200k followers on Instagram (@mamacaxx). Cax, who modeled in popular designer brand Chromat’s inclusive Pool Rules campaign, is an inspiration to many women with disabilities who have never seen bodies like theirs proudly and unapologetically represented as beautiful.

Positive strides are also being taken in terms of political representation. Notable people with disabilities in politics include former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and former Senator Tammy Duckworth. FDR was the first and only United States president who used a wheelchair; Duckworth was the first woman with a disability to be elected to Congress. Currently, no member of Congress has openly identified as having a disability, but the recent midterms did include several candidates with disabilities. Disability Action for America is an organization dedicated to increasing representation for persons with disabilities in the American political arena. Disability Action for American endorsed 16 candidates and raised money to aid their campaigns through the grassroots effort Disability Action Network. With their help, Jennifer Longdon is the first full-time wheelchair user to be elected to Arizona’s State Legislature.

“Ignite Phoenix 9 – Jennifer Longdon.” Source: Sheila Dee, Creative Commons.

“I think that my own marginalization, my own minority status, gives me a point of view that some of the other candidates might not share. It’s all interconnected. We’ve got to work together to get solutions… It touches education and employment. It touches housing and public transportation and health care and how the criminal justice system works. It touches disability and being LGBTQ, disability and being undocumented, disability and being black or brown, disability and being poor, being uneducated, being whatever else that made you ‘other.” – Jennifer Longdon

People with disabilities are a large and significant community. Increasing representation in media and politics is a critical step towards the acknowledgement of the rights of persons of disabilities at all levels, in all arenas. The examples discussed in this blog are few, but I believe that representation will grow from here. As more people see disability through better representation, disability becomes less distant and more easily understood and accepted. Disability advocates and activists are already growing in number as social justice movements have made efforts towards inclusion and intersectionality. These factors combine to create a positive force for change. Though there are still plenty of barriers to dismantle, disability representation and inclusion in society is on an upward swing.