by Jessica Lehman, 2011 Hearne Awardee
In September, thousands of people came out to say: My Medicaid Matters! In front of the U.S. Capitol, a diverse crowd of people came together from all over the country. People with HIV, deaf people, and people with non-apparent and apparent disabilities all shared the importance of our community uniting to stand up for what is right. And people who could not get to Washington DC took action in their own communities, holding local rallies, posting messages about health care, and sending postcards to legislators. The thousands of people who showed up were not just people with disabilities. Allies from women’s organizations and health organizations joined the crowd. Union members and domestic workers were there. Friends came out to show solidarity.
Our movement continues to grow. Incredible sparks are flying today through the Occupy Wall Street movement. People from varied backgrounds and communities are talking about inequality and justice. Thousands are taking to the streets. People with disabilities are camping out in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. This movement has created a buzz among disability rights organizers and activists across the country. Last week, more than 60 people with disabilities participated in an Organizer’s Forum call to explore the role of the disability community in the Occupy movement. The phone lines carried incredible energy, with excitement about seeing people with disabilities take to the streets, attention to what it means to see people with disabilities claiming solidarity with other oppressed communities, and the possibility of reinvigorating the disability rights movement.
This reinvigoration is what I hope to contribute to as a Hearne awardee, and this energy is what sustains me. Over the last several months, I have dedicated time to growing the Organizer’s Forum as a means to supporting community organizing within the disability rights movement and with the ultimate aim of engaging more people with the movement. Our monthly calls now average 40 participants, and a facebook site notifies people about the calls and allows people to post questions and comments. We now have an email group to allow disability rights organizers to discuss issues of community organizing in the disability rights movement.
One of my earliest organizer mentors taught me about seizing opportunities. He taught me that when a hot issue arises, and people are ready to mobilize and take action, jump on it! Over the past year, a new movement has taken shape – a movement for securing fair treatment and respect for domestic workers, including the personal care attendants who allow many of us as people with disabilities to live our lives with dignity and fulfillment. As a Hearne awardee, I have taken on the work of organizing people with disabilities who employ attendants, as an opportunity to connect the disability rights movement with a broader struggle for justice. Through educating the disability community about workers rights, educating workers on the history of disability rights, and working together for mutually respectful, beneficial relationships, we are moving toward collective liberation.
Would I be doing this work without the Hearne award? Some of it, sure. But my work is stronger because of it. The Hearne award has allowed me to set aside time to do new, cross-movement organizing that I hope will change the course of the disability rights movement. The Hearne award has given me access to people from state and national organizations with a wealth of creative and insightful perspectives. And the Hearne award has given me a strong responsibility to do everything I can to build the disability rights movement, to think outside the box, to not be afraid to take actions that might challenge people in uncomfortable ways, as we work to transform the disability rights movement and get a little closer to justice.
The Hearne award can provide a thousand different opportunities for transforming the disability rights movement. As my early mentor taught me, seize that opportunity! Put in your application. Take the process as an opportunity to share your vision of how the disability rights movement can grow and change, and then take us with you on your way to make that happen.