Op Ed

Juneteenth: Reflections and Reckonings

Emily Blum
June 18, 2021

As the Executive Director of Disability Lead and a leader with a disability who is deeply committed to disability justice—a social movement that centers our complex intersectional identities, calls for institutional change and is led by those who have been most impacted by systemic oppression—Juneteenth offers a moment for personal and organizational reflection and reckoning.

Our work to advance disability leadership is often misunderstood from the lens of our built environment around securing the rights of and physical access for disabled people. And while that is an important aspect of equality, in this moment, it is not enough to achieve equity. Our work is too often seen as only serving a singular White demographic, which results in an erasure of the depth of the disability experience across race, gender, and sexuality – a intersectional diversity upon which our Network draws its strength.

I proudly and publicly commit to helping build and shape something new and needed: a transformational culture shift, which redefines disability to reveal the greater impact we can have if we work across sectors and partners both within and outside the disability community to champion equity and justice. I enter this work with passion and humility as a White cisgender woman with a disability. I recognize that today it is long overdue that our predominately White-led institutions, like Disability Lead, are held accountable to the communities of color that they serve. Therefore, as its leader, I am committed to addressing racism, anti-Blackness, and White supremacy both at the structural level of the organization itself and through its programs and have created new programs to center that work.

Amidst moments of progress, the political and cultural climate we are living in is still both ableist and racist. Last year, our nation celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the most sweeping civil rights legislation that was established to protect the rights of those with disabilities. And in that same year of celebration, we also witnessed: discrimination and rationing of healthcare for those who were disabled and contracted COVID-19; a needed nationwide reckoning of police brutality yet with little acknowledgement that half of those killed by police are also disabled and get little to no justice; and a vaccine rollout that unceremoniously deprioritized those who are at most at-risk due to pre-existing conditions yet live in neighborhoods most affected by the pandemic. The overarching narrative of 2020 was that our disabled bodies were disposable, unworthy, or forgotten.

2021 so far is not that different. Recently, I attended a virtual town hall meeting intended for the disability community. The outpouring of questions coming from the audience, consisting of many of our Members, was a real-time display of hurt, anger, pain that people with disabilities feel and have felt during the pandemic. Concerns were raised around housing discrimination, lack of accessible transportation, and justice for the hundreds of thousands of disabled lives we lost in nursing homes and institutions. We deserve and demand to be seen, for our questions to be answered.

Today, our team at Disability Lead is observing Juneteenth, which is on its way to becoming a national holiday. For our staff of color with disabilities, Juneteenth offers an opportunity for rest and resistance. For me, I’m using this time to continue to do the deep work needed to fundamentally change our institutions of power and influence to value the intersectional and authentic disability experience. I believe disability justice can be achieved when we actively combat systemic oppression and push for solutions for collective liberation.

On a closing personal note, this past week, I’ve been reflecting on how to navigate rejection. Often, rejection is felt as a process that happens to us. But there is power in recognizing that rejection works both ways. We can reject systems, policies, and institutions that no longer serve us or keep us in mind.

Liberation is possible, and I’m hopeful, excited, and proud to be part of the hard work needed to make equity, and ultimately justice, a reality. And I call on fellow leaders to do the same.

Op Ed