Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

From Civil Rights to Human Rights

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

From Civil Rights to Human Rights

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article traces the development of the Deaf President Now move- ment and its similarities to the black civil rights movement.

My first involvement with disability rights came in April 1977, when Section 504, the regulations implementing the U.S. Rehabilitation Act, was pending, waiting to be signed into law. Without $04 there might well be no Americans with Disabilities Act, which finally put disabilities on a par with gender and race in the pantheon of federal civil rights laws.

I joined a protest in San Francisco, part of a nationwide demonstration, at the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) offices, now called Health and Human Services. We were there to insist strong regulations be adopted. Section 504 would force hospitals, universities-any place that got federal money-to remove obstacles to services and would provide access to public transportation and public places for persons with disabilities. It was the first civil rights law guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabili ties. Although I did not stay that long, the sit-in of 120-plus people with disabilities at HEW in San Francisco lasted twenty-eight days and was critical in forcing the signing of the regulations almost unchanged.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 extended Section 504 to much of the private sector: "Before section 504, responsibility for the consequences of disability rested only on the shoulders of the person with a disability rather than being understood as a societal responsibility. Section 504 dramatically changed that societal and legal perception."11 was happy to have played a small role in bringing about this important change and a bigger role in the civil rights movement that made it possible.

In 1968, the year he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the successes and failures of the modern civil rights movement:

[Wjhile this period . . . represented a frontal attack on the doctrine and practice of white supremacy, it did not defeat the monster of racism. ... [I]f we are to see what is wrong we will have to face the fact that America has been and continues to be largely a racist society. And the roots of racism are very deep in this country, started a long time ago. . . . [R]acism is a faith, a form of idolatry; it is the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned to eternal inferiority and another ethnic group is somehow given the status of eternal superiority. . . . [I]t is not based on going out and studying the facts and then coming back out of it and saying as a result of experimental studies that these people are behind because of environmental conditions. Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the contention that the very being of a people is inferior. And the ultimate logic of racism is genocide.2

King was speaking almost 350 years after racism-white supremacy -was introduced to these shores, and forty-five years ago, but he might as well have been speaking today. He could have been speaking for Trayvon Martin. Or Barack Obama.

Racism is the subordination of blacks based on skin color. It is a self-perpetuating system of advantage based on race. It is prejudice plus power. White supremacy is the ideology that justifies white domination. Martin Luther King described it as a faith, a form of idolatry.

No other ethnic group, except American Indians, experienced a comparable mix of xenophobic attitudinal and structural limitations and dictatorial constraints on their development. It is absolutely without parallel in the American experience.

We think of racism in terms of individual behavior and individual actions, but it is a complex set of societal actions and attitudes. There are two kinds of racist behavior, active and passive. They are conscious and unconscious, and each provides benefits, both material and psychological, to its practitioners.

Active racist behavior involves walking forward at top speed on a moving sidewalk. …

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