Disability Rights are Human Rights

Women’s March — Pittsburgh Sister March — January 21st, 2017

On January 21, 2017 I was honored and thrilled (and kinda nervous!) to speak about disability rights in front of 25,000 people at Pittsburgh’s Sister March. Sharing the stage with Rev. Bernetta Welch, Dalel Khalil, Ciora Thomas, Christine Mohamed, Monica Ruiz, and Chelsa Wagner was inspiring and empowering. To be in the midst of that energy - to lift my heart and raise my voice - to witness my sisters, brothers, and siblings rising with me - united, strong, and compassionate. I have never been so proud. We will take care of each other. We will take back the world.

I want to sincerely thank Tracy Baton, Lisa Perri-Lang, Tania Lyon, Gayle Kirkwood, and Anna Marie Petrarca Gire for organizing the march and reminding us that we are powerful.


(This is a written version of my speech)

My name is Rachel Kallem Whitman, I am an advocate, an educator, and I live with a disability.

When it comes to disability these are the things we are taught to believe: Disability makes you dependent. Disability equals passivity. Disability makes you less-than. Individuals with disabilities are viewed as broken, often-incurable souls who should be pitied, fixed, and ultimately ignored. But as someone living and working within the disability community I know what a powerful force we can be.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17 years old. Initially I felt a sense of relief -finally things made sense — what I was going through had a name — but at the very same time I was completely devastated.

I was officially “crazy,” I could no longer envision the future I had dreamed of, and my illness made me feel different — ashamed and isolated. For many years I traded my self-esteem for silence. My mental illness made me feel worthless.

But I was lucky. In college I started meeting more and more people with disabilities. People who are proud, unapologetic, and demand equity with authority. I joined the disability community.

We are the largest minority group in the US — as well as the world — and the only minority group that just about everyone will eventually join when they become less mobile, lose their vision, and experience hearing loss.

The disability community has a rich history of engaging in advocacy and activism, ranging from public demonstrations organized to protest the delayed enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, to #CripTheVote a non partisan social media campaign designed to engage both voters and politicians this past election in a productive discussion about disability. In fact, the logistics and accessibility team at the Women’s March predict that at least 45,000 people with disabilities are participating today nation wide, which is the largest assembly of individuals with disabilities in US history.

However these acts of proud defiance and solidarity are often left out of our history books and not shown on TV. Disability oppression or ableism is pervasive in our society, as demonstrated in the recent Presidential election. We do not have the same opportunities or access on an individual, institutional, or systemic level.

Here are just some of the ways systematic oppression affects individuals with disabilities today: we have the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment, we have limited access to comprehensive medical care which will be further impacted by the repeal of Obamacare, we are more likely to be the victims of violence, and students with disabilities have a lower quality education.

Disability rights are human rights. And the city of Pittsburgh is committed to making itself a more accessible city. But across the country many public busses still can’t accommodate wheelchairs. In many cities — including Pittsburgh — steps keep people with disabilities out of buildings and on the sidewalk. And lastly, why is safe, affordable, and accessible housing so hard for us to come by?

Because America denies individuals with disabilities the opportunity to be full citizens. We deny the personhood of individuals with disabilities, dismiss their needs and their right to life, and disempower all people with disabling differences.

My friends and I can share countless stories about what it means to live with a disability in America. Challenging stigma, dismantling prejudice, advocating for accessibility, fighting for opportunities, confronting low expectations every day, and the constant need to remind the world that we have intrinsic value.

But in addition to our shared struggles, we also share hope. Many of us — especially people of color with disabilities — fight daily for representation, for access, for our safety, for the right to exist, to be equal citizens, and we are able to keep advocating because we believe in each other, we embrace our allies, and we have hope that our continued work will improve the world.

Yesterday I was heartbroken. I felt disillusioned with democracy. I questioned our nation’s capacity for humanity. We are all vulnerable to the bigotry and discriminatory rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration, whether it is based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability; especially for those of us living in the intersections.

But today I march with my sisters, my brothers, and my siblings in this city that I love as an act of solidarity and as a sign of our tenacity. I am honored to stand here in front of my community, helping to remind us all that we are stronger together.

And tomorrow I will be hopeful.

I have never felt more frightened and more powerful in my entire life.