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'Disability Rights Are Civil Rights': Inside the CAP's New Disability Justice Initiative

A conversation with Rebecca Cokley and Rebecca Vallas.
Rebecca Cokley and Senator Tammy Duckworth at the launch of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, July 26th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Cokley and Senator Tammy Duckworth at the launch of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, July 26th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Why aren't more Americans mobilizing around disability? In the last presidential election, according to our best numbers, 46 percent of all disabled Americans and a slightly greater percentage of their families supported Donald Trump for president. This pattern held true even though Trump has espoused policies that have been harmful to people with disabilities. One possible explanation, according to many leaders in the disability rights world, is that, while the disability community has its own network of non-partisan non-profits and independent activists, the larger world of well-funded progressive think tanks has been slow to recognize that disability matters as a matter of policy and basic human rights. The Center for American Progress, one of the best-known liberal think tanks in Washington, D.C., aims to change that.

On July 26th, the 28th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), CAP launched a major new project: the Disability Justice Initiative. The organization's plan is to include disability expertise in all internal conversations and projects, while modeling the necessity and utility of such inclusion to other groups that work in progressive spaces. The thinking behind the Disability Justice Initiative is that we can't address core progressive issues—poverty, health care, the environment, and more—without recognizing the specific vulnerabilities that disabled people face, and the contributions that disabled people can make. What's more, disability isn't a niche issue; there are over 57 million Americans with disabilities. Too often, though, disability remains an afterthought, even in progressive policymaking. The CAP itself, in its former proposals around health care, didn't really address the disability-related gaps in the Affordable Care Act. Its leadership now says that such an initiative has been too long in coming, and that they want progressives across the board to do better.

I spoke with Rebecca Cokley, the new director of the Disability Justice Initiative, and Rebecca Vallas, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program, about their plans.


How did this new initiative get started?

Rebecca Cokley: Right now there's an opportunity. 2017 saw the disability community get the attention it has deserved—that it has deserved for the last 40-plus years—for its holding the line for civil rights initiatives across the board. Progressives are taking note that disability rights are civil rights.

Our center has a couple of different focuses. [One is that] we want to add the disability lens throughout progressive space, making sure disabled folks are having their voices heard and centered in the issues affecting them, including stuff not usually seen as disability issues.

Like what?

Cokley: [We need to go] beyond special education and Medicaid, [to issues like] nutrition programs or immigrants being traumatized.

The other piece, really, is also continuing to build out disability policy that centers multiply marginalized disabled folks, making sure it centers black and brown leaders, immigrants, LGBT folks, Muslims with disabilities, etc., because we haven't done a good job in that space as well. We're talking about people with chronic illness, eating disorders, in recovery, people who have never seen themselves as people with disabilities but either accessed accommodations or had the right to access accommodations. That's what we're trying to build.

Tell me a bit about what it means atthe CAP to have a disability center. What's the difference in defining this as a disability justice center rather than just hiring folks like Cokley?

Rebecca Vallas: Our view is that, for too long, the notion of disability policy and disability issues has lived in a silo, artificially and counterproductively separate from the fight to end poverty and tackle inequality, separate from the fight for climate change, criminal justice reform, opioid addiction, or even—absurdly—universal health care. Siloed thinking paves the way for policy that's ableist, like straw bans; [like] policies that restrict access to opioids that manage chronic pain [or] so-called universal health-care proposals that leave out people with disabilities because they don't include long-term support and services.

So as wonderful as it is to see disability activism get recognition by the progressive community [because of disability rights groups like ADAPT], it's not enough. The disability community must be understood not just as part of an outreach strategy; fighting for social justice doesn't make our work accessible or inclusive on it's own. It doesn't mean just calling up ADAPT to get arrested to get earned media around a cause.

We're going to apply disability as a lens across each and every issue we work on, building an inclusive movement, and that's why we're launching this disability justice initiative.

So will you be hiring a lot of people and building a big team? What does it mean to create a "center" in your organization?

Vallas: Hiring yes, but also about helping a place like the CAP really and truly live our values and make all of the work better: modeling what doing this work right and smarter and more inclusively looks like. We don't see it stopping with the CAP. This is not successful if, three years down the road, we aren't looking across the progressive space and seeing similar initiatives growing across progressive organizations.

[For example], fighting to protect the Americans With Disabilities Act had been defined as a "disability issue" as opposed to a civil rights issue that [all progressives] had broadly understood as our fight. There's proposal after proposal that purports to be universal health care but leaves people with disabilities behind. It can't be universal health care if it doesn't include long-term support and services.

Why "disability justice" as opposed to "disability rights?"

Cokley: Disability justice comes out of the phenomenal work of activists in the Bay Area: Leroy Moore, Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, and others. It comes from a place of wholeness, not [characterizing] people with disabilities as missing anything. It's about recognizing and identifying intersecting oppressions that people from multiply marginalized communities face. It focuses on cross-movement organizing, and moves beyond rights to the reality of what disability is. We are very clear that, in this work, we are paying homage to the folks that have started this: lifting up, amplifying, and elevating folks.

Your inaugural event was kicked off by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), but featured all women from diverse backgrounds. Tell me about that choice.

Cokley: Movements have always been borne on the backs of women, but movements are very quick to recognize those who identify as men. When you look at the conversation historically of the ADA, people always talk about the "fathers of the ADA." We really want to turn it on its head and see women on the front lines. Our ADA event looks different than every other ADA event. I can't remember the last time we had a conversation between two disabled moms. We need to center the voices of women.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.