One of the greatest contributions the disability community and various movements for disability rights and disability justice make to the wider world is the assertion that everyone gets basic human rights, and there can be no compromise on that. That precept is the best of who we are. At times, various groups within our movements and communities have slipped up and made appalling arguments that they are more like than different from nondisabled people. Sometimes, some of us are guilty of arguing “at least our minds/intellects/bodies… are fine” or accepting unacceptable behavior toward some disabled people on the basis of other traits, like race or gender. At our best, however, we have an unyielding way of demanding the full scope of human rights for everyone. That is who we must always strive to be, both because it’s right and because it’s the only way to ensure our own safety and well being.
We don’t all need to be activists on every issue. Activism often works best when people dig into particular issues, gaining knowledge, experience, and expertise, developing deep connections with the communities they serve. However, we must always resist the temptation to compare and contrast, to treat human rights as zero sum, to throw someone else under the bus in an effort to save ourselves or improve our own lot. The only kind of people we shouldn’t accept in our work are those who don’t accept human rights as universal. This is both for moral reasons and because people who can’t accept that kind of basic ground rule have a long track record of ultimately excluding us from the category of people they believe deserve the full scope of human rights. There is no safe way for the disability community to align itself with someone who rejects some people’s humanity. Someone who has crossed that line once could do it again. It might be in regards to someone else today, but the group being dehumanized and scapegoated could be ours tomorrow.
Propagating the idea that human rights are for everyone, that no one is too impaired, or too anything, to deserve them, and that everyone is entitled to live in the world is one of the disability communities’ biggest contributions to the wider world. Any of our leaders who buy into the lie that human rights are a zero-sum game and argue for the rights of disabled people or some group of disabled people above, rather than along side of, the rights of everyone else has broken what should be the most basic ground rule of life in our communities. Any such conduct by a disability community leader should seriously undermine our confidence in that person’s competence to guide, protect, and speak for people with disabilities. It should also undermine our confidence in that person’s moral character and worthiness to lead. Our communities will not sustain themselves over time if we engage in cancel culture, refusing to let people make mistakes, be accountable for their actions, and, ultimately, learn and grow, but leading us is not a right. It’s a privilege and a difficult task, one for which not everyone is qualified.
The fact of the matter is that people with disabilities are marginalized. We face exclusion and discrimination. Our experience teaches us what marginalization and discrimination are like, and the plainest lesson of those experiences is not to treat anyone else that way. We must also reject every moral principle or ethical system that fails to grant every human being certain basic rights unconditionally by necessity. If anyone is excluded for reasons of identity, rather than conduct, it’s a safe bet we will be, especially people whose disabilities relate to cognition or mental health. Our moral intuition at its best and our self-interest both align with intersectionality. This principle is so fundamental to our safety and ability to thrive that we cannot accept anyone who fails to understand it as a leader.