#WhereIsDisability in the Resistance?

A common sight in the post-inauguration political protests and demonstrations are the adaptations of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous poem about the rise of Nazism in Germany and the silence of the German people. The original poem begins, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.” This has been revised by protesters at events like the Women’s March and airport demonstrations to read, “First they came for the Muslims” or “First they came for the immigrants”. Although Niemoller’s early drafts of the poem included people with disabilities, later revisions omitted them entirely. Basically, the modern adaptations of Niemoller’s poem are repeating another of history’s mistakes: ignoring the systematic marginalization of people with disabilities.

Critical to the Nazi goal of creating an Aryan master race was the idea of eugenics and forced sterilization of people with undesirable traits. This was made into law in 1933 when the Nazi government enacted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases,” which demanded the sterilization of all mentally and physically disabled people including those with addictions and learning disabilities. Nazi propaganda only furthered this dehumanization of disabled people by calling them “life unworthy of life”. In 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered a euthanization program named “Operation T4” that resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 disabled Austrians and Germans in the first year alone. Ultimately, 275,000 disabled people died as a result of these ableist and genocidal policies. (Statistics and quotes courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Unfortunately, Nazi Germany was not alone in having policies of forced sterilization and euthanization. Prior to Hitler’s rise to power, the United States led the world in its forced sterilization and incarceration of people with disabilities. These policies were legally protected by the landmark case Buck v. Bell (1927) in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the forced sterilization of a mentally disabled man. Although these historical atrocities feel disconnected from the modern American political climate, there are frightening similarities in the exclusion of anti-ableism from many protest groups’ agendas. In fact, President Donald Trump’s first actions upon being elected to office were to move against the Affordable Care Act, which ensures no person can be denied insurance based on a pre-existing condition or disability.

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic

Lack of access to healthcare is a significant issue for people with disabilities, yet it is rarely discussed despite the estimates that between 30,000–40,000 people will die as a result of an ACA repeal. First, they came for people with disabilities, though most protest and resistance groups remained silent.

Similarly, there are numerous efforts to reform the voting process due to voter suppression, but the fact most polls remain inaccessible to people with disabilities is not a target of reform. In fact, when I prepared to participate in the Women’s March, I scoured their website for accessibility information only to find that they decided to make no accommodations whatsoever for disabled attendees. The scant accessibility section of the FAQ informs disabled people that it is our job to “make the needed arrangements to participate.” Although it is the job of the organizers to create an accessible event, the Women’s March organizers put the burden on people with disabilities, effectively excluding them. By denying such a substantial percentage of the population their human right to accessibility, protest planners are betraying their founding principle: equity and inclusion for all.

#WhereisDisability in your activism?