14 An Intersectional Analysis of Disability Resistance Movements: Looking Back to Look Forward

Valerie Borum and Elspeth Slayter

Learning Objectives:

  • To explain the intersectional nature of the disability civil rights and disability justice movements
  • To analyze the involvement of intersectional communities in disability advocacy
  • To assess the progression of disability rights movement
  • To contrast the disability civil rights and disability justice movements



As this textbook comes to a close, it becomes clear that in many of the sectors in which the disability community is involved, their experiences are not always optimal. While much progress has been made in some of these sectors, such as employment, healthcare, and education, other sectors, such as mental health care and addiction treatment, are in need of much work to make empowerment-oriented disability social work a reality (see Chapter 2). With respect to the former, while there have been successes for the disability community through the path of litigation, lawyer David Ferleger (2022) noted in a recent lecture, “Litigation cannot be the primary tool for social reform [related to disability]. Social reform should grow from social movements and transformations of consciousness” (n.p.).

As we begin this review, it is helpful to provide a definition of what we mean by resistance movements. Here addressed are social movements that people engage in to resist oppression. As sociologist Diani (1992, p. 1) states, “social movements are defined as networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities.”

In the case of this chapter, we are talking about movements that benefit the disability community in some way, shape, or form, whether they are disability-identified or are considered in partnership with or accomplices to the disability community. For example, the continued Black struggle for civil rights has had an intersectional impact on equity-seeking movements (e.g., Deaf President Now!). As Hearth (2020) states, “the push for Black freedom and equality began America’s journey towards becoming a true democracy. They fought for rights for Black people initially, and then that had an impact on the women’s rights movement, and eventually on disability rights efforts as well” (p. 1).

In order to lead the way forward, we thought it best to conclude this textbook with an intersectional review of the disability resistance movements in our society’s past and present, with a focus on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status. This is especially important given that many of the books highlighting the disability civil rights movement seem to highlight White activists, for example, without much attention to the many people of color who were very involved in these movements (Bryan; Reid, 2017; Zames Fleischer & Zames, 2011; Vaughn Switzer, 2003; Zames Fleischer & Zames, 2001; Charlton, 1998). We see the same erasure of queer and transgender people, and to a lesser extent, the women’s community. For these reasons, we draw on many non-traditional resources in our citations, including many internet-based resources that report on these topics in a way that we don’t see in the literature. Questions that guide this chapter include: How has the disability community resisted ableism, sanism, and oppression? See definitions of these terms in Chapter 1. How have these efforts manifested across the spectrum of the disability community, intersectionally? How have disability activists partnered with activists from other communities to fight for social justice? How have the resistance movements of other non-disability-identified communities engaged in benefited the disability community as well as themselves?

An Intersectional Approach

Building on the work of Black scholars W.E.B. Dubois and Anna Julia Cooper, Intersectionality was further conceptualized by Crenshaw (1989; 1991). This work entails viewing and understanding diverse and intersecting identities as pathways to coalition building while challenging disability movements to contest exclusionary and oppressive practices that marginalize some community members (e.g., BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ people). It also entails interrogating the history of the disability rights movements as constructing whiteness as the norm (as well as straight, cisgender, and both White men and women with disabilities) In other words, For example, throughout history, disabled people and queer people have shared powerful solidarity, although this intersection is often overlooked (Brownsworth, 2020; Fowler & Wallach, 2022). An analysis of this type is also especially important given the documented challenges the disability rights movement has privileged the voices and experiences of White people (Erkulwater, 2018; Lukin, 2013; Wright & Leung,1993).

A critical and deeper interrogation of solidarity illustrates the complexities and the convergence of real-life power systems, the application of intersectionality principles, and the implications of White-focused solidarity (Crenshaw, 1989; 1991). For example, while the LGBTQIA+ community has made societal gains and acceptance, it continues to engage in historic and contemporary exclusionary practices. For instance, Toronto, Canada’s 2016 Pride parade received a lot of news coverage and social media attention for providing the world evidence of how the absence of an intersectional approach to pride and community can further generate exclusion and marginalization.

During the Pride parade, Black Lives Matter (BLM) staged a 25-minute sit-in and presented the Toronto Pride’s Executive Director with a generated list of demands. The demands consisted of centralizing Black, Indigenous, people of color, trans, and disabled people in key positions in future organizing efforts. BLM members received death threats from both White queer and White non-queer people in response to their BLM activism. What was lost was the fact that the BLM movement was founded by three radical Black queer women organizers in Los Angeles, California, in 2013–Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The BLM movement began after the shooting of Travyon Martin (Thomas et al., 2017). This movement, along with others, originated in the African American community.

We take an intersectional approach in this chapter because, as historian Douglas Baynton remarks, “not only has it been considered justifiable to treat disabled people unequally, but the concept of disability has also been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them” (James, 2022). For example, both prejudice and discrimination related to disability have been used in arguments promoting slavery, women’s oppression, and for the limitation of immigration.

The paradoxical nature of disability and Blackness stems from the historical divide related to the embodiment and experience of disability and Blackness in the United States. For instance, for the majority of African Americans, their experiences are “shaped by an understanding of Black bodies as a productive labor force” (Gavieta, 2020, p.4). Gavieta (2020, p. 5) also states:

This dehumanizing characterization of Black Americans has caused them to be viewed as subjects… barred from weakness—and disability. Since non-normative bodies were conflated with “unsuitability, Black people [couldn’t] afford to be disabled.  Overall, Black Americans never had the luxury of being perceived as weak; those with disabilities were tossed aside. This stigma remains horrifyingly salient in today’s society, and it acts as a significant barrier to Black Americans attempting to acknowledge their disability. It places their “already precarious self at further risk of marginalization and vulnerability to state and medical violence, incarceration, and economic exploitation. These considerations must be kept in mind, and readers ought to be wary of how they approach “Black people’s reluctance to identify as disabled, for their reluctance is rooted in an anxiety of racial oppression and a hyper-awareness of precarity.”

The Challenge of Building Common Disability Identities

Henceforth, activists in both the civil rights movement and the disability rights movement could not determine how to build a common disability identity that honored differences in how oppression is experienced intersectionally (Erkulwater, 2018). Erkulwater (2018, p. 367) notes, “though [disabled activists] yearned for racial solidarity, in practice, activists could not overcome institutions that separated antipoverty and racial politics from disability policy, nor could they figure out how to incorporate minority voices in an identity-based movement forged around disability rather than color.”

The whiteness of the movement has been exacerbated by disability studies research (Dunhamn, Harris, Jarrett, Moore, Nishida, Price, Robinson, & Schalk, 2015; Bell, 2006). Commenting on this, Erkulwater (2018, p. 367) states, “despite the fact that racial minorities report higher rates of disabilities than whites, Chris Bell and Josh Lukin argue that disability studies scholarship largely chronicles the achievements and experiences of white Americans.”

Chronology of Disability Resistance Movements

James (2022, p. 1) identifies three main ‘waves’ of disability activism: “single-issue disability activism (mid-1800s to mid-1900s), cross-disability activism based on accessibility (1960s-1980s), and critical, cultural disability activism (1990s-present).”

Early Disability Organizing Efforts

One of the earliest group efforts to raise awareness of ableism – in this instance, in connection to sexism, was led by Agatha Tiegel Hanson (1873-1959) (James, 2022). She was deaf and was the first woman to graduate with a degree from Gallaudet College. A women’s rights advocate, Tiegel’s activism began at Gallaudet, where she created the group O.W.L.S. (now Phi Kappa Zeta) in 1893, which was known as a secret society for women advocating for voice and representation in the deaf community (James, 2022).

One of the best-known early examples of disability resistance to ableism occurred in the 1930s (Pelka, 1997). However, it was the long and shameful history of discrimination and oppression in Black and African American communities that created a foundation for the disability rights movement (Orange Grove Center, 2019). Disabled people in New York City formed a group named the League for the Physically Handicapped in 1935 during the Great Depression era (Longmore and Goldberger, 2000). Comprised of over 300 members, this group included people with cerebral palsy and the after-effects of polio, among other disabilities (Fleischer and Zames, 2001). They were drawn together by the fact that they had been refused work by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was a government project designed to provide economic relief to the many jobless people in the country at the time (Fleischer and Zames, 2001).

According to The Disability History Project, and other scholars such as Paul Longmore, “the Home Relief Bureau of New York City was supposed to forward their job requests to the WPA, but was stamping all their applications ‘PH’ for physically handicapped, as a signal to the WPA not to give these people jobs” (Disability History Project, 2021, p. 1). After a director refused to meet with members of the League, members staged a sit-in – some advertised it as a “death watch” – which went on for nine days (Fleischer and Zames, 2001). These actions received much popular support and attention from newspapers and other press. A weekend-long sit-in happened at WPA headquarters as well.

In addition to these actions, picket lines and demonstrations in which League members spoke about disability oppression to labor unions also took place (Fleischer and Zames, 2001). These actions led to the creation of several thousand jobs for members of the disability community (Fleischer and Zames, 2001). While the League was only in existence for a few years, it was effective in this effort. And perhaps this effectiveness stuck in the societal consciousness, as starting in 1945, there was a national week entitled “Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” in Washington DC (Acheson, 1945). Sponsored by a Presidential committee, this campaign spread out in state and local areas to highlight the idea that disabled people were competent workers and that hiring them was good for business (Acheson, 1945).

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was founded on November 16, 1940, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The NFB is an organization by and for Blind people that seeks to “promote the economic and social welfare of the blind” and change public policy for disability rights (Fowler & Wallach, 2022, p. 1)

The Start of the Independent Living Movement

Not long after the NFB’s work, a young man named Ed Roberts came down with the disease polio in 1953, causing him to be paralyzed from his neck to his toes and landing him in a countryside polio hospital (Danforth, 2020). This was a happenstance that would change his life, leading him to later become known by some as the father of the independent living movement (Disability Rights Timeline, 2022). A review of how Roberts got from point A to point B is instructive in understanding the development of his part in this resistance movement. Scot Danforth reflects on this in the following narrative of Roberts’ life:

At age 14, after languishing for nine months in a county hospital polio ward, Roberts attempted suicide. Killing yourself takes great creativity when you are paralyzed from neck to toes. The iron lung’s baffle chambers whooshed a 24-hour rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. Only his head peeped out of the end of the colossal steel hull. Chronic indigestion and a lack of appetite came with the poliomyelitis infection. A nurse cajoled and coerced Roberts into eating enough food to sustain his frail frame. Roberts clamped his teeth shut in existential defiance, and his body withered down to 50 pounds.

Describing Roberts’ refusal to eat as a suicide attempt is both accurate and misleading. The poliovirus had stolen a vibrant body from a young athlete, leaving him able to command only his head, one finger, and two toes. One thing he could control fully, however, was what entered his mouth. His feeding battle with a demanding nurse represented the boy’s complete rejection of the scant existence polio had left him. He wouldn’t exist in a mechanized tomb staring up at the ceiling of a hospital ward. He refused to inhabit an empty biography.

But the boy’s hunger strike meant more than the oft-stereotyped wish of a disabled person to die. It was his first step in taking control of his life. His fun-loving youth had been traded overnight for a personage seemingly defined by tragedy and pity. In the 1950s, America had zero imagination for a fulfilling life for a person like this, and Roberts had not yet started to reject the diminished life story that society offered him. So his desperate, vaguely conscious demand was that his life gain significance through his own decisions and actions. Whatever body and life remained in the aftermath of polio must devolve fully to his ownership and control. It might not be much, but it had to be his. (Danforth, 2020, 1)

This formative experience led to Roberts’ later activism in the early 1960s while studying at the University of California, Berkeley (where he was initially rejected for admission due to his disability). He is famous for founding a group known as the ‘Rolling Quads,” short for quadriplegics, who lived at the UC Berkeley Health Center and created the Disabled Students’ Program (Charlton, 2000). This small group is known as the hub of the independent living movement that spread worldwide. They were based in the Center for Independent Living (CIL), which was for the larger community, founded in 1971 (Charlton, 2000). In writing about Roberts’ organizing, Erkulwater (2018, p. 380) notes

“Because independent living first took root on college campuses, its founders were mostly white and much more educated than the typical person with a disability. From the earliest days of the Berkeley center, its leaders were determined to diversify the independent living movement and spread the philosophy of self-help and collective action to minorities. During board meetings between 1971 and 1972, they suggested recruiting more “third world people” and committed themselves to an affirmative action policy for hiring, even as debates over racial preferences roiled college campuses.

Schweik’s (1979) research documents the fact that in 1975, the Berkeley CIL wanted to foster a presence in majority-Black Oakland, CA. This resulted in a partnership with the Black Panthers with a goal of offering independent living services through the community-based health clinic that they ran.  Draper (1979, p. 1) also notes that between 1977-1980, cross-disability organizing and counseling offered in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Tagalog were primary goals of the CIL, “in an effort to hammer home the imperative of a disability identity that transcended traditional social cleavages.”

Reflecting more broadly, Erkulwater (2018, p. 370) notes that this movement emerged at a time when America’s racial order was in turmoil. In the 1960s, blatant white supremacy gave way to a formal commitment to egalitarianism, not just with respect to race but also gender. By the 1970s, however, efforts to transform social and economic institutions so as to achieve egalitarianism in fact, rather than just in name, had stalled…Though they aspired to an inclusive movement, in practice, activists could not overcome institutions that separated antipoverty and racial politics from disability policy.

Ed Roberts is said to have noted of this challenge that “African Americans are reluctant to embrace disability rights because Blackness in the United States has so often been equated with physical and mental deficits. Disability becomes just another hardship that Blacks must deal with (Brune, 2015, p. 122). How accurate this is, or what the Black community felt about this at the time, is unknown.

White activist Kitty Cone was also a part of this work at the time (James, 2022). Often seen as a White effort only, recent historical research has uncovered the fact that Black disabled activists such as Donald Galloway were “fierce advocates for the rights of people with disabilities and for the inclusion of people of color in the disability rights movement” while working at the Berkeley, CA CIL (Center for Learner Equity, 2022, p. 1). Later, Galloway obtained a master’s degree in social work, worked as the executive director for the Colorado Governor’s Council on Disability in Denver, directed Peace Corps operations in Jamaica, and ran the Center for Independent Living’s Washington, D.C (Center for Learner Equity, 2022). After that, he was employed as a disability affairs specialist by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (Center for Learner Equity, 2022).

Key to the founding of one of the other early CILs (Hayward, CA) was Black disabled womanist advocate Johnnie Lacy (Center for Learner Equity, 2022). She was instrumental in helping to found the CIL at Berkeley and was the Director of Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL) in Hayward, California. She earned grants, funding, acquired a building, and oversaw the plans for the construction of its independent office. Lacy’s leadership also entailed integrating the “mostly-white and oblivious disability rights activist movement of her time and heightened intraracial understandings about Blackness and Disability…” (Mwatuangi, 2020). It is important to remember that the history of the independent living movement is inextricably connected to the Black civil rights movement of the late 1960s and 1970s (HASL Center for Independent Living, 2022). As an activist, Johnnie Lacy ​​”brought to light the intersectionality of race and disability and worked to tackle ableism in the Black community and racism in the largely white-dominated disability community” (Center for Learner Equity, 2022, p. 1).

During this period in the mid-1960s, the racial justice-focused civil rights movement was well underway in the United States. One well-known leader of this movement and member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Fannie Lou Hamer, was a disabled Black woman (American Association of People with Disabilities, AAPD, 2022; Center for Learner Equity, 2022). SNCC was an interracial civil rights group known for playing a vital role in organizing Black residents in the Southern states to register to vote (Blain, 2022). Hamer became a well-known advocate for voting rights. Notably, Hamer lived with the long-term effects of polio and became further impaired, losing most of her sight, among other impairments, due to a four-day series of beatings she received when in police custody due to her activism in this movement (Blain, 2020; Center for Learner Equity, 2022). Among her many accomplishments as an activist, she advocated for more federal funding for Head Start programs benefiting disabled children, lobbied for public housing programs, and was instrumental in founding the National Women’s Political Caucus to foster women’s political participation (Center for Learner Equity, 2022). Her legacy marks her as crucial to the Civil Rights movement and the women’s rights movement, as well as the foundations of the disability rights movement Center for Learner Equity, 2022).

Concurrent with the work of the independent living movement on the west coast, disabled educator and activist Judy Heumann was living on the east coast in New York City. Her actions also spurred the independent living movement. An early act of disability-related resistance in her career involved suing the New York City Board of Education in 1971 when her application for a teaching license was denied due to her disability – specifically, the idea that her wheelchair was a fire hazard. The principles of the independent living movement that activists such as Kitty Cone, Judy Heumann, and others created were that disabled people should be based in the community wherever possible, that services should be delivered in a cohesive versus fragmented manner, and that disabled people should be honored as the experts on their own lives (James, 2022). These principles are core to empowerment-oriented social work practice still today.

The Disability Civil Rights Movement Takes Hold

In 1970, another one of the first organizations led by members of the disability community was founded in Philadelphia, PA, ‘Disabled in Action’ (DIA) (Fleischer and Zames, 2001). While Judy Heumann is often noted as the founder of DIA, other disabled activists involved at its inception were Denise McQuade (White), Bobbi Linn (White), Frieda Tankas (unknown race and ethnicity), Fred Francis (unknown race and ethnicity), and Pat Figueroa (unknown race and ethnicity). DIA is famous for adopting the slogan “Nothing about us without us” from the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa (Fleischer and Zames, 2001). Their mission statement is:

We are a civil rights organization committed to ending discrimination against people with disabilities-all disabilities. We fight to eliminate the barriers that prevent us from enjoying full equality in American society. Founded in 1970, DIA is a democratic, not-for-profit, tax-exempt, membership organization. DIA consists primarily of and is directed by people with disabilities. We believe in the motto, “Nothing about us without us!” (Disabled in Action, 2022, p. 1).

Building on the foundation of this mission, DIA sought to raise consciousness about ableism, paternalism, and stigma in addition to policies creating disability oppression (DIA, 2022). This also meant advocating for effective legislative and budget initiatives centered around independent living (DIA, 2022). All of this translated into creating an organization for disabled activists to work in community towards these efforts (DIA, 2022). In reflecting on the DIA’s work and the reasons for the savviness and political involvement of its members, Denise Figueroa states, as noted in Bonney, 2000, p. 1:

“I do think it really had so much to do with the fact that the women’s movement and the civil rights movement were–I mean, we were just right on the edge of all of that stuff. You had the ’64 Civil Rights Acts, you had the seventies women’s rights–you know the seventies was the women’s rights actions and movement, and here we were, it was ’72. You had the antiwar movement in there. The college campuses were really active. Everybody was very political at the time. We were just all fired up.

Later led in part by Patricio “Pat” Figueroa (Latino activist), the DIA is also famous for its action in 1976, where they conducted a picketing of the United Cerebral Palsy’s annual telethon, naming telethons as “demeaning and paternalistic shows which celebrate and encourage pity” (New York State Independent Living Council, 2022; Disability History Timeline, 2022, p. 1).

Meanwhile, also in 1970, Latina transgender activist Sylvia Rivera and Black disabled transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which focused on trans and disability rights from an intersectional perspective. Johnson’s efforts to stop forced psychiatric incarceration of queer people and to end conversion therapy are well known, although her disability identity is not (Fowler & Wallach, 2022). Of her commitment to noticing and acting on intersecting social identities, Johnson said, “How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean, how many years does it take people to see that? We’re all in this rat race together!” (Cheung, 2020).

In the early 1970s, the Willowbrook scandal broke in Staten Island, New York. The terrible conditions in which disabled people lived were broadcast on television for all to see. Approximately one-third of the people living in Willowbrook at the time were Black or Latinx, specifically Puerto Rican. Approximately 200 of the non-ambulatory disabled residents were transferred to a facility in Manhattan but, due to budget cuts, were later threatened with being moved back to the large institutional setting on Staten Island. What has received little coverage is the fact that the Gouverneur Parents Association (GPA), named for the facility to which these residents were moved, engaged in actions which combined racial justice work with disability civil rights work. The GPA protested the transfer of these residents spurred on by the leadership of Willie Mae Goodman, a Black school cafeteria worker whose rallying cry was “only over our dead bodies.” (The Staten Island Advance, 1971). The GPA conducted street protests and engaged in court battles to temporarily stop the transfer of the residents. Another leader in this movement was Maria Caceres, who was advocating for her disabled son, and who is also known for organizing other Spanish-speaking parents (Valldejuli, 2019).

Around the time of the founding of the DIA and STAR, we also saw the Disabled Women’s Coalition emerge at the University of California, Berkeley in 1974, led by Susan Sygall (White), Deborah Kaplan (White, immigrant), Kitty Cone (White), Corbett O’Toole (White), and Susan Schapiro (White). This organization ran support groups, organized retreats specifically for disabled women, provided writing for feminist journals, and provided speakers on issues related to the intersections of disability and women’s issues. Reflecting on her involvement in the Coalition, Corbett O’Toole says:

[In] March of ’74, I went to International Women’s Day. UC Berkeley had a big event and Sue Sygall was sitting there, staffing a table because she and Debby Kaplan had decided to start having meetings for disabled women–it was called the Disabled Women’s Coalition. They had a booth there. Susie was in her chair, and I was on my cane and I walked past her booth, looking at different things, and then turned around and walked past her booth again. This went on for about twenty minutes and finally, I walked up and said, “I don’t know if I’m disabled enough for your group, but [laughter] could I get information?” Susie laughed and said, “Fine, just show up. There’s all this stuff happening”…“I really wanted to do something…personal, and so I started a disabled women’s rap group that used to meet at the old disabled students’ program at UC Berkeley on like Sunday afternoons. So that got my foot in the door about women in disability issues. (Sherer Jacobson, 1998)

Also in 1974, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), founded largely by George Veditz, adopted a mission to “promote, protect and preserve the civil, human, and linguistic rights of the deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States” (NAD, 2013, p. 1). Soon after its founding, NAD saw the need for a data-driven approach to disability advocacy and conducted a census of D/deaf Americans (Garretson, 1996). They determined that there were 13.4 million hearing Americans and 1.8 million D/deaf Americans.

The timing of the NAD census coincided with the Inaugural Convention of People First in Portland, Oregon. This nationwide group was founded by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who promoted the idea of self-advocacy and self-determination. This effort was focused on people supporting one another in learning to speak up for themselves; the self-advocacy movement led by this community continues to this day.

Implementation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

A landmark year in the history of disability resistance movements was 1977, when on April 5th, a group of disabled people staged a sit-in at the Health, Education, and Welfare Department in San Francisco. This was done to protest Secretary Joseph Califano’s refusal to complete and implement the regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law would have made it illegal for federal agencies, public universities, and public institutions that received federal monies to discriminate due to disability. Representing a coalition of movements, the Section 504 sit-in brought together a racially diverse group of disabled people who were bolstered by the Black Panther Party and the gay rights Butterfly Brigade (Erkulwater, 2018). This disability resistance action lasted for just shy of one month and is the longest occupation of a federal office by protestors in U.S. history.

The efforts of the group were successful in forcing the regulations to be signed and concurrently allowed for raising awareness of the need for disability civil rights along the way. This sit-in was led by Judy Heumann, although Black activist and Black Panther member Brad Lomax was also heavily involved in leading the organization of the action (Connelly, 2020; Scweik, 2013; Hall, 2005). Brad Lomax became engaged with the disability civil rights movement as a result of his personal experiences as a wheelchair user. Conelly (2020, p. 1) notes, “in Oakland, Lomax struggled to navigate its transit system. To board a bus, his brother, Glenn, would have to lift him out of his wheelchair, carry him up the steps and place him in a seat, then go back to retrieve the wheelchair.”

With respect to Lomax’s involvement in the 504 sit-in, his participation was crucial to the success of the action. In reflection on the connection between the Black Panther’s organizational mission and the disability rights movement, Judy Heumann notes that “Brad was able to get the Black Panther Party to see that this was critical to the work that they were doing…he was the linchpin for that” (Connelly, 2020). Lomax, and his personal care attendant, Chuck Jackson, were central to obtaining the solidarity and support of the Black Panthers, who brought hot meals and other necessities to the sit-in every day (Connelly, 2020). White, lesbian activist Corbett O’Toole, now considered an elder in the disability communities, notes, “without the presence of Brad Lomax and Chuck Jackson, the Black Panthers would not have fed the 504 participants occupying the H.E.W. (United States Department of Health, Education & Welfare) building…without that food, the sit-in would have collapsed” (Connelly, 2020, p. 1).

An Increase in Recognizing Different Identities in Disability Advocacy

We also began to see more intersectional collaboration in 1977, when the Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf (RAD) was founded in Florida. This is an organization focused on promoting D/deaf rights and offering community for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing queer people (Fowler & Wallach, 2022). 1977 further proved it was an active year in the history of disability resistance movements as in May of that year, Corbett O’Toole, mentioned above, founded the National Disabled Women’s Educational Equity Project (which was based at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) co-founded by Mary Lou Breslin and Patrisha Wright in 1976) in Berkeley, CA (Temple University Disability Timeline, 2020; James, 1992). This group’s founding is a demonstration of disabled women’s awareness of the oppression they faced as well as their community organizing efforts during the ‘second wave’ of feminism (Price, 2011).

This group also saw the need for data-driven work and conducted the first national survey on disability and gender, likely due to intersections with the women’s movement at the time (Temple University Disability Timeline, 2020) Other activities the Project engaged in included publishing No More Stares for young disabled women, organizing regional training programs targeting younger disabled women’s empowerment and putting together the first national Conference on Disabled Women’s Educational Equity, held in Bethesda, Maryland (Locsin and Purnell, (2009).

A related project spearheaded by Harilyn Rousso based at the YWCA in New York City focused on putting together the Networking Project on Disabled Women and Girls and writing a book (later a film) titled, “Loud, Proud and Female.” Building on the momentum of these projects, in 1980, Womyn’s Braille Press (WBP) was founded to make lesbian and feminist literature accessible to blind people (Folwer & Wallach, 2022). Producing and distributing 800+ books on tape as well as 40 in Braille, the WBP also provided a quarterly newsletter in multiple formats. Wallach & Folwer (2022) note that these projects created a sense of community for disabled lesbians and other queer women. Barbara Faye Waxman’s work around disability and sexuality is tied into this work.

As the women’s movement continued, Black scholar and activist Audre Lorde became known for commenting on how gender, sexuality, race, and disability, among other social identities, intersect and as well are foundational to many social movements. While Lorde did not identify as disabled, she explored the topics of disability and illness in her book The Cancer Journals (1980) and A Burst of Light (1988) about her experience with breast cancer. Lorde is known for lifting up the importance of accepting difference as a resource versus perceiving it as a threat (Wallach & Fowler, 2022).

In 1981 we saw the first Disabled Lesbian Conference, honoring the intersection of those two social identities, spearheaded by Connie Panzarino (Wallach & Fowler, 2022). Building on this momentum, a group of disabled lesbians in Wisconsin founded a grassroots newsletter entitled Dykes, Disability & Stuff (DD&S), which began with the goal of promoting access to lesbian culture and community (Wallach & Fowler, 2022). Jumping ahead to 1982, the United Nations General Assembly took a stance on disability rights due to disability advocacy and adopted “The World Program of Action Concerning the Disabled.” The goal of this document was to promote full participation and equality for disabled people worldwide. Commentary on the effect of this document? Back in the United States, A Pennsylvania group known as Speaking for Ourselves emerged with a focus on self-advocacy.

Intensified Advocacy and Activism for Disability Rights

In 1983, a group that would become central to the next phase of disability resistance was founded, Americans with Disabilities for Accessible Transportation (ADAPT) in Colorado (Vaughn Switzer, 2003). Chanting, “We will ride!,” disabled activists staged seven years’ worth of protests in Denver, Colorado over the fact that public transportation was not accessible to wheelchair users (ADAPT, 2022). Key leaders in this organization were Bob Kafka, Stephanie Thomas, and Mike Auberger (Fleischer and Zames, 2001). These leaders were known for blocking, among other companies, Greyhound buses, in a range of U.S. cities in order to engage in radical tactics to show that there was a need for accessibility for all as part of the “Wheels of Justice” effort (ADAPT, 2022).

At the end of the decade, in 1988, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., was the location of a major protest in the D/deaf community. The rallying cry of these protests was “Deaf President Now!” at the world’s only university dedicated to D/deaf and Hard of Hearing students. This protest emerged when a faction from the National Association of the Deaf, known as the ‘ducks’ stepped forward. The University’s Board of Trustees put in place a hearing president yet again after many others, instead of honoring the community through being representative of that community in their choice of a president. Led by four Gallaudet students, Bridgetta Bourne, Jerry Covell, Greg Hlibok, and Tim Rarus.The protest became world-famous in the D/deaf community and resulted in the appointment of I. King Jordan, Ph.D., as the first D/deaf president at Gallaudet University. As Tim Rarus notes, “It represented Deaf People Now and their freedom. Freedom from ignorance. Freedom from being oppressed. It made me very proud to be a Deaf American (Gallaudet University, 2022).

While Deaf members of the dominant culture (read: White) were feeling empowered as a result of this historic protest, many BIPOC D/deaf people felt marginalized and excluded from the Deaf President Now! Movement (Stuart & Gilchrist, 1991). For example, many compare this protest to the 1960s civil rights movement. There were calls by Deaf protestors to “end the plantation mentality” at Gallaudet University. In mirroring one powerful image, protestors directly borrowed from the “I Have a Dream” speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, BIPOC D/deaf people experienced marginalization and exclusion from this historic protest. Twenty D/deaf leaders were chosen from various organizations throughout the United States to lead the protest. Twenty white D/deaf people were chosen. Angel Ramos, a deaf Hispanic/Latino math teacher, stated (Stuart & Gilchrist, 1991 p. 3), “There are no black leaders up there; there are no Hispanic leaders up there.’ I am not saying this was intentional, but it was the same kind of oversight we minority deaf experience again and again in the deaf world.”

Dr. Steven Chough, an Asian D/deaf Coordinator of International Student Services during this time, stated the following (Stuart & Gilchrist, 1991, pp. 3-4):

Prejudice still exists within the deaf community as well as in society as a whole. Deafness does not erase racism…The issue of racism in the deaf community is not different from the issue of racism in the hearing community. While it is true that deaf people are bound by the commonality of hearing loss, we still come from diverse backgrounds that are influenced by the larger society. The deaf community needs to learn to respect cultural differences within its own community and realize that we are not all the same just because we are all deaf.

The isolation experienced by Black D/deaf members was apparent, as they were only admitted into the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) as late as 1965 (Stuart & Gilchrist, 1991). However, their issues pertaining to the Black D/deaf community did not make it to NAD’s agenda. Two Black D/deaf members, Linwood Smith and Carolyn Mccaskill-Emerson, assessed the Black D/deaf community in terms of holding a national conference. Overwhelming support for this idea was gathered by June of 1980. By August 0f 1980, “the movement had a name: Black Deaf Advocates (BDA)” (p. 11).

Challenges continue with the Deaf community. For example, Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL) are based primarily on White Deaf members (Whitmer, M.A., 2021, Fernandes & Myers, 2009). The normative and all-encompassing Deaf culture and the accompanying ASL have been synonymous with White. As a result, there is a demand for BIPOC D/deaf people to conform to the “core White Deaf community’s” standards (p. 19). This assumption and demand for conformity have been so central to identity that BIPOC cultures of D/deaf people are marginalized and labeled as “deviations from the norm of Deaf culture, as non-Deaf, or even as unhealthy manifestations of deaf people with unrealized Deafhood” (p. 19) In 1988, we saw the founding of Disability Awareness Month, an effort to bring attention to the community en masse – this event has, more recently, shifted to a focus on disability employment (Department of Labor, 2021).

Advocacy for and Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Beyond

1990 was a watershed year in the history of disability resistance movements. Of particular note is the “Capitol Crawl protest,” which took place on March 12, 1990, when disability activists came to the U.S. Capitol in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Over a thousand protesters convened to decry the delay in passing the act. Approximately sixty activists collectively abandoned their wheelchairs and other mobility aids to crawl up the 83 steps to the U.S. Capitol Building, in what has become an iconic action. Chants used by these protesters included “What do we want?” ADA! When do we want it? NOW!” One protester was interviewed about her reasons for participating in what became known as the ‘Capital Crawl.’ This protester stated, “I want my civil rights,” Paulette Patterson said, an activist from Chicago stated as she inched her way to the top (Disability Rights Timeline, 2022). Another stated, “I want to be treated like a human being.” The “Capitol Crawl” has become an iconic moment instrumental in the passage of the ADA (Disability Rights Timeline, 2022). To mark the passing of the law, disabled people based in Boston created the inaugural Disability Pride Day, which included speakers and a parade. The notion of disability pride celebrates disability as a part of human diversity, similar to how the queer pride movement provides a space to celebrate queerness (Fowler & Wallach, 2022).

What received much less attention in 1990 was the founding of the National Black Disability Coalition in response to the need for Black disabled people to organize around their unique concerns. Focusing on poverty, the organization’s purpose was to take an intersectional approach to what being Black and disabled in the United States was like. The organization supports the idea that Black disabled people must coalesce to secure the rights and privileges of full community participation.  Drawing on approaches from the racial justice civil rights movement, the organization’s focus is on achieving collective power and inclusion for Black disabled people in the family and faith contexts as well as in the disability community (Lead On Network, 2016).

In 1991, Roland Johnson was a Black activist with an intellectual disability who is known for his work in the fight to shut down the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, where he had endured unspeakable abuses for thirteen years. He founded Self Advocates Becoming Empowered and is also known for his involvement in the Philadelphia chapter of Speaking for Ourselves (Rifkin, 2020). Also in 1991, Black disabled activist Donald Galloway (mentioned above) was involved in a key court case related to the rights of visually impaired people (Center for Learner Equity, 2022). When he was called for jury duty in Washington, DC, he brought his guide dog but was dismissed by the judge “on the grounds that being unable to see the proceedings meant he could not fulfill the duties of a juror” (Center for Learner Equity, 2022, p. 1).  Galloway sued in 1992, stating that the automatic disqualification of blind people from jury duty violated the Constitution and won. In the finding, it was noted that jury membership should represent a cross-section of the peers of the defendants in question, including disabled people.

After the Olmstead Decision

In 1999, the disability community celebrated the Olmstead v. L.C. case, which determined that unjustified segregation of disabled people with disabilities was a violation of the ADA. This meant that it was unconstitutional for people to be forced to remain institutionalized when they had the capacity to live in community settings. One of two plaintiffs in this case was Black disability activist Lois Curtis, a person with cognitive disabilities, who had lived in a Georgia institution from age 11 to 29 despite being capable of achieving community inclusion (Elaine Wilson, a white woman, was the other plaintiff). The state had refused to pay for this type of placement. The Olmstead case paved the way for thousands of disabled people to live in the community (Center for Learner Equity, 2022).

Starting in the early 2000s, we began to see the autistic self-advocacy movement, sometimes called the autism rights movement or the autistic acceptance movement. Building on work by autistic activists in the 1980s and 1990s who emphasized that a cure for autism was not needed, this movement focuses on neurodiversity and the idea that autism is a result of natural variations in brain function as opposed to an impairment that should be fixed (Solomon, 2008). The goals of this movement are for society to evidence better acceptance of autistic behaviors; autism services that address how to improve quality of life as opposed to fitting into neurotypical societal expectations, and on recognizing the autistic community as a minority group. The Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a prominent organization in this movement and is well-known for its role in the Autism Speaks Boycott, which protested the lack of representation of autistic people in the organization and for engaging in exploitative practices (ASAN, 2019). More recently, a central figure in this movement is Autistic attorney Lydia X.Z. Brown (who created the blog, Autistic Hoya). They partnered with Autistic Women and Non-Binary Network to edit and publish a book entitled All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism in 2017. Modeling reflectivity and reflexivity, the editors of this groundbreaking book reconsidered their work after identifying unintentionally racist and otherwise oppressive commentary was reflected upon (Brown, Ashkenazy, Giwa Onaiwu & daVanport 2021).

In 2002, hundreds of disabled queer activists took part in the first-ever Queer Disability Conference in San Francisco, CA. At the conference, sessions focused on medical discrimination, coming out in the workplace, queer crip performance, work with partners and allies, queer crip sexualities, and other topics. Fowler & Wallach (2022) report that the conference created room for discussions, community, networking, and mutual learning across identities. A central focus was the use of medically unnecessary surgeries for people identifying as intersex.

Founded in 2003 with a solid focus on the social model of disability in which the environment is seen as disabling, The Icarus Project focused on creating a space that acknowledged the flawed world we live in, and how this can create mental health struggles for people. After a series of internal conflicts related to racism, transphobia, heterosexism, and sexism, this group re-emerged as the Fireweed Collective, now centering the voices and leadership of people of color, members of the Queer communities and women/femmes, among other oppressed populations (Fireweed Collective, 2022).

The Birth of the Disability Justice Movement

In 2005, disabled Asian American activists Mia Mingus, Patty Berne, Stacy Milbern, and other disabled activists of color and from the Queer communities such as Leah Lakshmi-Piepzna-Samharasinha (author of Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement) gathered as part of Sins Invalids (Berne & Sins Invalid, 2015) to discuss the ways in which the disability civil rights movement often took a single social identity frame (i.e. disabled), erasing the other aspects of social identity in the community (Kafai, 2021). Explaining this phenomenon, Berne notes:

Its leadership has historically centered white experiences; its framework leaves out other forms of oppression and the ways in which privilege is leveraged at differing times and for various purposes; it centers people with mobility impairments, marginalizing other forms of impairment; and centers people who can achieve rights and access through a legal or rights-based framework. The political strategy of the disability rights movement relied on litigation and the establishment of a disability bureaucratic sector at the expense of developing a broad-based popular movement. While a concrete and radical move forward toward justice, the disability rights movement simultaneously invisibilized the lives of people who lived at intersecting junctures of oppression – disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities who are houseless, people with disabilities who are incarcerated, people with disabilities who have had their ancestral lands stolen, amongst others (Berne, 2022, p. 2).

Responding to this reality, this group of activists promoted the development of a progressive and radical movement conceptualized as a ‘second wave’ of disability rights, now known as the Disability Justice movement. In describing this movement, Berne (2022) notes:

A Disability Justice framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential and that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We know that we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. We understand that all bodies are caught in these bindings of ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation-state, and imperialism and that we cannot separate them (Berne, 2022, p. 4).

In 2007, Leroy F. Moore founded Krip-Hop Nation, a collective for artists with disabilities. Moore is a Black/African American writer, poet, and community activist who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (Gavieta, 2022). In the disability justice tradition, Moore relied on the use of the hip-hop medium for political activism that would connect the Black/African American and disabled communities, noting the oppression that both groups face in hip-hop culture. Krip-Hop was conceptualized as a form of intersectional advocacy that stands up to racism and ableism in society as well as specifically calling out police brutality, racial profiling, and ever-present access barriers (Gavieta, 2022. KripHop Nation embraces as a series of tenets: use politically correct lyrics; do not put down other minorities; use our music to advocate and teach not only about ourselves, but also about the system we live under; challenge mainstream & all media on the ways they frame disability; increase the inclusion of voices that are missing from within the popular culture; recognize our disabled ancestors, knowing that we are built on what they left us, and nothing is new, just borrowed and know that sometimes we fail to meet the above standards but we are trying (Gavieta, 2022).

Also following in the disability justice tradition, in 2014, after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by law enforcement, Black, transgender, disabled activist Ki’tay Davidson created the #DisabilitySolidarity hashtag as well as the @dissolidarity Twitter account. Ki’tay’s work was vital in creating a societal conversation about the intersection between disability, race, and ethnicity (Yo! Disabled and Proud, 2019). The social media platform Twitter has become a central space for disability civil rights and disability justice organizing (Sarkar, Forber-Pratt, Hanebutt,  & Cohen, 2021).  Ki’tay pointed out that disabled people of color and/or with LGBTQA identities, along with other multiply-marginalized communities, are more likely to face violence, especially from law enforcement. He championed the idea that these are disability rights issues (Yo! Disabled and Proud, 2019).

While primarily considered an achievement of the LGBTQIA+ movement, in 2015, the Supreme Court decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, stated that couples of any gender could get married in all 50 states as well as be granted the right to full, equal recognition under the law (Wallach). Little known is that Jim Obergefell’s husband, John Arthur, had ALS, a chronic health condition covered under the ADA. After John Arthur’s death, James Obergefell became a plaintiff in the fight for federal recognition of their marriage (Fowler & Wallach, 2022).

Onset of the #CripTheVote

Asian American activist Alice Wong and White activist Andrew Pulrang founded the #CripTheVote movement in 2016 (Beratran, Pulrang, and Wong, 2016). Describing the movement, Beratran, Pulrang and Wong (2016) note:

#CripTheVote is a nonpartisan online movement activating and engaging disabled people on policies and practices important to the disability community. Our movement is grounded in online conversations encouraging individual and collective action in the face of inequality, ableism, and oppression in all forms. Our movement is intersectional, local, global, and focused on the political participation of disabled people. (p. 1)

The architects of this movement have pledged to continue to be an intersectional movement by and for the entire disability community that remains online and as decentralized as possible in their effort to promote political participation (Beratran, Pulrang & Wong, 2016). In doing this work, #CripTheVote intends to ask questions of and demand accountability from elected and public officials regarding disability concerns (Beratran, Pulrang, and Wong, 2016). This translates to engagement with disability concerns in local, state, national, and international domains (Beratran, Pulrang, and Wong, 2016). The movement seeks to support direct actions and their disabled organizers by sharing and amplifying information about them (Beratran, Pulrang, and Wong, 2016). This requires partnership with disabled people to broaden the movement’s perspectives and garner more expertise (Beratran, Pulrang, and Wong, 2016). Further, the movement pledges to oppose any policy or practice that could harm the members of the disability community. This includes exploring and/or promoting ideas for improved disability policies and programs (Beratran, Pulrang, and Wong, 2016).

Moving ahead to 2020, Rebecca Cokely (2022) notes that we began to see the fruit of the #CripTheVote movement and the disability justice movement in general in the 2020 presidential election. At this time, 15 candidates issued disability policy platforms, from Kamala Harris’ concise approach focusing on, for example, disability marriage equality, sub-minimum wage payment, and increased funding for home and community-based services, to Bernie Sanders’ 35-page platform. Cokely notes that this reality speaks to the power of the disability civil rights and disability justice movements, such as the action in support of Obamacare in 2017 discussed above. Those protests highlighted the connections between disability rights and the rights of all people. In addition to these movements, Cokely notes, equally important is the case law coming from disability rights organizations as well as allies in and out of government. During the 2020 election, we began to see leadership in the House and Senate begin to identify as disabled, such as Katie Porter, Tina Smith, Ayanna Pressley, and Tammy Duckworth. Moving beyond the “all but disability” (ABD) tradition, these leaders have seen disability as a lens for policy work in all sectors, such as when working on an education bill, thinking about how it impacts disabled children or considering access for disabled workers in bills about small business (Cokely, 2022).

More Attention to Intersectionality

2016 also saw the founding of The National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities (CNLD) volunteer organization comprised of Disabled Latinx leaders and allies in the United States. Of their purpose, the group states, “We came together in 2016 to form CNLD because we shared the experience of living fractured identities (in Disabled and Latinx worlds, respectively).” The organization was inspired to develop connectedness in the community because approximately 12 million Latinx-disabled people reside in the United States. Conchita Hernández Legorreta is a primary leader in this group seeking a national scope (CNLD, 2022).

2017 saw the development of the virtual Disability March movement – perhaps building on the community building emanating from #CripTheVote. This ‘march’ was created in response to the 2016 election, which was followed by the large protest known as the Women’s March, in Washington in January 2017. Focused on lifting up “disabled activists who could not take part in the physical Women’s March but needed to have their voices heard,” event organizer Sonya Huber and team featured 3,104 photos with accompanying text for individual ‘marchers.’ The group’s mission statement indicates:

While we did not come together to adopt a formal mission statement, the effort was launched through a desire to have disabled people visible during a time in which far-right policies will fall hard on the disabled community. The disabled community is endangered because much able activism is difficult to access, and that needs to change. We need to be visible, to be leading and forming alliances, to be counted as activists and as members of our communities (Disability March 2022, p. 1).

For example, individual ‘marchers’ cited the ways in which requiring accessibility aids, including service dogs, as well as facing physical and/or mental limitations as reasons for not being able to participate in the in-person march (James, 2022). This group challenged both the assumptions as well as the disability definitions of the non-disabled community as well as the dominant disability rights community (James, 2022).

As the disability justice movement overall continued to take effect in the disability community, activists such as Asian American organizer Sandy Ho and colleagues saw the need for more of a focus on intersectional identities in that community. Putting together the Disability Intersectionality Summit (DIS), first organized in 2016, members of the disability community gathered to elucidate themes related to intersecting social identities in their community. One of the campaigns coming out of DIS is framed by the #AccessIsLove hashtag and website. This campaign seeks to get out the message that accessibility is understood as an act of love versus being seen as a burden or even an afterthought. Focused on raising accessibility awareness, this campaign encourages the incorporation of access into everyday patterns.

In 2019, The National Alliance of Multicultural Disabled Advocates (NAMD) was founded. This is a group led by disabled Black Indigenous People of Color (B.I.P.O.C.) who worked collectively to conduct a demonstration during the National Centers for Independent Living conference. At the time, their stated purpose was “to address the ongoing issues of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, and ableism in the broader disability rights movement” (Gray, 2022). In their position statement at the time, the group noted:

Disabled B.I.P.O.C., particularly black and brown disabled people, are disproportionately locked up in detention camps, jails, prisons, institutions, and nursing homes. Additionally, disabled B.I.P.O.C. are more economically disadvantaged by hiring practices in our own community and are rarely elevated into management and executive roles. The reasons for this are not for lack of people or talent but rather discrimination, tokenism, and systemic oppression. We can no longer ignore the pain and suffering of our people just to satisfy those who call for “unity.” We, the NAMD, must resist comfort and speak out about the discrimination and violence that remains rampant in disability organizations (Lead On Network, 2022, p. 1). Their current mission statement indicates that they are:

a network that supports the leadership of disabled Black and Brown change agents, advocates, entrepreneurs, and communicators. We convene leaders who have a collective commitment to racial & disability justice, and we share fundamental strategies with individuals that work to enhance the social, political, and economic standards of their communities.

Later, in 2019, Keri Gray and Justice Shorter, Black disabled activists, coined the hashtag campaign #BlackDisabledLivesMatter. Reflecting on why they coined the hashtag, Shorter and Gray state that they “knew that they weren’t the only ones who felt limited by the inaccessibility of protests but still wanted to be seen and heard in this global movement” (Kim, 2020, p. 1). This built on the fact that the original Black Lives Matter creators were attentive to recognizing the disability community in their mission statement, although simultaneously critiqued at times by disabled people of color for the lack of disability awareness in many of their organizing spaces nationally (Doucette, 2017). Regardless of this, NAMD felt it was important to amplify the intersections of ableism and racism through the use of the hashtag (Kim, 2020, p. 1). One of the primary reasons for this given by the women was that they feel that disability narratives are erased in the Black community, a practice going back over two hundred years (such as the fact that Harriet Tubman was disabled).

Although controversial for some proponents of the #BlackLivesMatter movement who argue against the need for ‘disabled’ in the traditional #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in favor of lifting up harm to the Black and brown communities, a number of disabled people of color embrace this campaign, such as the Movement for Black Lives (Harriet Tubman Collective, 2016). Of the campaign, Shorter notes:

I hope that we continue to have those types of conversations, but if nothing else, it has helped people feel seen, it has helped people feel heard…It has helped people just feel a sense of community, which is so important during a time where so many of us have felt isolated” (Kim, 2020, p. 1). Related to this work is the hashtag campaign #DisabilityRightsInBlack, where activists such as Kayla Smith and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu promote an intersectional approach. Kayla is known as a young self-advocate who created another hashtag campaign, #AutisticBlackPride (National Disability Rights Network, 2020).

Perhaps the first large-scale exposure the disability civil rights and disability justice movements received was in the release of the documentary “Crip Camp” in 2020. What is not well publicized is the role of Black disabled activist Andraéa LaVant. LaVant, the ‘impact producer’ of this film, led the film’s efforts to promote an understanding of disability as a social justice issue and to build coalitions around this idea (LaVant, 2022).  Moving forward, it is important that the study of disability resistance movements entails more attention to how colonial (pre-and-post) violence intersects with present-day oppression, disability, and, for example, Black Lives Matter via direct, cultural, and structural processes of violence against Black bodies (Galtung & Fischer 2013). Such a focus and intentional inclusion can assist activists, educators, and social workers with an overall intersectional, anti-oppressive, critical coalition building across diverse peoples and communities, including the National Black Disability Coalition, National Coalition of Latinxs with Disabilities, and Asian Americans with Disabilities, etc. (AADI, 2022).


This chapter has discussed the need to take an intersectional approach to the history of disability resistance movements in the United States. We reviewed the chronology of major aspects of disability resistance movements since the late 1890s. As advocacy for disability rights has evolved from a single issue focus to a more multifaceted one, social workers can learn from this evolution. It will be important for social workers to see all of the social identities their disabled clients have, and how, together, all of those social identities impact their intervention experience. This review of disability activism should serve as inspiration for how we can listen to the diverse members of the disability community as we move forward to make the social work profession as disability-affirming and disability aware as it should be.

For social workers involved with policy formulation and implementation, taking an intersectional approach to thinking about policy will also be important. With an understanding of the history of disability activism and resistance movements, social workers can see where we have come from, and where we still need to go – such as the resolution of the disability marriage penalty and the use of sub-minimum wage for disabled people. As you consider what you have learned in this chapter, please consider the following discussion questions:

  1. Given the challenges that disability resistance movements face concerning an intersectional framework and the resulting building of bridges across social justice movements, how does your practice participate in this regard, and what could you be doing better?
  2. Consider a policy that impacts your professional practice working with persons with disabilities/disabled persons. Does it take a single-issue focus on disability or more of an intersectional one that honors the complexities of social identities, locations, and positionalities?
  3. As an implementer of disability policy in your practice with individuals at a micro level, do you take a single-issue focus on disability or more of an intersectional one that honors social identities and their connection with systems of power, privilege, and oppression?
  4. Which of the current disability activism organizing groups discussed (or not discussed) are you curious to learn more about so as to apply this knowledge to your practice?
  5. How does the #CripTheVote help the disability community and exclude members of the disability community (e.g., access to online resources/computers/internet services, etc.)? And how can you connect clients and colleagues to #CripTheVote and make it more accessible to all disabled persons?


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