25 years ago today . . .

I wrote a piece on this blog five years ago, describing my experiences in the first twenty years of my career as a community organizer. On February 5th, 1994 I walked into the offices of Syracuse United Neighbors, a community group working with residents of the south, southwest and near west sides of the city. It was my first day as a community organizer–a job title and line of work that would come to define my life.

Just six months after writing that post, I would leave my job of over 20 years at SUN. My new job lost the community part of the title, but I have decided (as I wrote in another blog post after taking my new position) that I am still an organizer:

After much soul-searching, I have decided that, yes, I am still an organizer. I organize people to fight for their rights as persons with disabilities to live independently. I am still helping people fight for safe and affordable housing, but now it also needs to be accessible and community-based. I am still helping people fight for good jobs, especially since 70% of persons with disabilities are unemployed. I’m still helping people fight for the things that matter to them: good public transit, a decent education and a way out of the poverty that is slowly strangling so many families in our increasingly unequal society. I am still organizing in the street.

What have I discovered in the five years since I became an organizer for disability rights?

  • I am disabled, by virtue of the swelling in my legs (lymphedema) and my tendency to develop blood clots. I no longer have to intellectualize my connection to the oppression of the people I work for. I am my people.
  • The issue of health care and its provision to folks with disabilities is as byzantine and impossible to understand as any I have ever encountered.
  • The invisibility of people with disabilities, the tendency to be ignored and written off by those without disabilities, is the most serious problem we face.
  • People with disabilities are the nation’s largest minority group and our admissions policy is “anyone may join, at any time.”
  • I am standing on the shoulders of giants. The past champions of disability rights were not only role models and freedom fighters, but they were strategic geniuses. Their work left us with legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, court cases such as L.C v. Olmstead and myriad technological fixes for everyday living–curb cuts, texting, audio books, screen readers, powerchairs . . .

I am a disability rights organizer! Here’s to another 25 years!

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