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“Disability Rights Are Civil Rights:” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Impact on Disability Justice

by Daniel Parker, RDPFS Intern

If the idea that the third Monday in January, commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is “a day on, not a day off” reminds us of one thing, it is that there remains a mountain of work to be done to realize Dr. King’s vision of a society where people from all races and backgrounds are treated with equity and without prejudice. In doing so, it is vital that we understand his teachings, and those of others in the Civil Rights Movement, as they relate to the struggle for disability rights as well as the rights of all minorities. Last year, National Council on Disability (NCD) chairman Andrés Gallegos issued a statement on how Dr. King’s legacy intersects with disability advocacy. Gallegos states that the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, spurred by nonviolent protest, would not have happened without Dr. King laying the groundwork decades before. That sentiment was echoed by a post on the AMS Vans blog. Gallegos added, “It was Dr. King who…said, ‘Of all forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.’ Then he was challenging the use of federal funds to support a segregated healthcare system. As NCD works toward the establishment of a health equity framework for all people with disabilities, we heed the words of Dr. King in calling for prioritization of people with disabilities in the COVID-19 response and health equity.” Some disability groups have marched in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parades, such as this one in Atlanta in 2020. The post linked above mentions the slogans these groups have used to educate participants and onlookers about the issue, including “disability rights are civil rights,” “nothing about us without us,” “our home, not nursing homes,” and “we have spoken, we’re not broken.” In addition, the Center for Disability Empowerment (CDE) and The Mighty provide lists of inspirational quotes from Dr. King applying to disability justice. Here is the CDE’s list and here is The Mighty’s list. Lastly, this post from activist and attorney Talila Lewis emphasizes the importance of disability solidarity and the perspectives of those who are disabled and belong to other minority groups. As this holiday is designated a National Day of Service, you can use your “day on” as a reminder to champion equity and justice for all throughout the year.