Before the 2016 presidential election, Mia Ives-Rublee, a 33-year-old disabled, Asian-American adoptee, was already a veteran in combating structural discrimination for disadvantaged communities. When the election results shocked the political system, Mia knew a tough road lie ahead for vulnerable, American groups, and she swiftly became the Disability Caucus Founder for the Women’s March. Nearly a year later and recently named 2017 Glamour Women of the Year, Mia reflects on the historic event and importance of women with disabilities in political and social justice advocacy.
How did the Women’s March change your perspective on advocacy?
The most surprising aspects of the work were the relationships and connections I made and had no real intentions after the March when I started working with them. I just wanted to make sure the Disability Community was heard, but the whirlwind after the March came as a total surprise. I loved working with all the people I met and they definitely taught me some important lessons in advocacy and activism.
One lesson is the understanding that we cannot fight for just one issue.
We need to do cross justice work. Doing so is the only way to build trust from other communities and grow power within the group.
Second, we have to realize numerous groups exist within the Disability Community and while we are fighting for similar rights, we don’t all agree on how to gain these rights. That division has to be acknowledged and we have to continue to work on bridging these divides.
Some believe the disability rights era peaked with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Why is the disability political voice imperative in today’s environment?
Ableism is pervasive in society, so pervasive that it’s almost invisible. Tied with racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homo-/trans-phobias, ableism judges and violently places people into boxes of worthiness and unworthiness.
To ignore ableism means that we ignore a key part of structural discrimination.
Another reason is because we are a huge part of the population that has been ignored. Disability affects every single identity group in every country around the world. We can never attain true equality across the board without addressing issues that affect so many people.
Lastly, the Disability Community remains an untapped resource in the social justice movement and in society-at-large. Our Community offers a variety of skills that could help press the progressive movement forward.
We, as individuals, live in a highly non-disabled world full of inaccessible locations and services. Our ability to navigate these issues has resulted in our Community being some of the most highly creative people. We know how to negotiate and problem solve.
We know how to think “outside the box” because we’ve had to do so our entire lives yet these highly marketable skills tend to be ignored.
Take self-care for example. People with mental health diagnoses and neurodivergent individuals are highly skilled in self-care. They have to be self-motivated in order to function in today’s highly one-way societal approach. These individuals could teach activists about self-care to help reduce burnout and other mental health symptoms that too often accompany the work we do. Yet this hasn’t happened because mental health and neurodivergence are highly stigmatized, even in the progressive movements. You are seen as weak if you have to take a break from the work.
Marginalized groups have been dealing with discrimination since the beginning of time. That status will continue even after this Administration leaves office. Saying it’s more important now trivializes the pain of the past. I believe it was just as important in the past as it is now and will continue to be important into the future.
Are we on the cusp of political breakthrough with disability issues?
We could be, but it will depend on people with disabilities diverting from their usual silos. We can’t continue to beat for the typical “disability” issues (i.e. accessibility, healthcare, & education). If we do that, we will continue to alienate other marginalized individuals and will not be able to gain the momentum we need. We must connect and empower marginalized individuals and ensure that we fight for equality for all. That means cooperating with Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, Indivisable, and other organizations. Once we see our destinies as intertwined, we can begin to fight against structural inequalities and stop the cycles of marginalization.
How can grassroots activism further include people with disabilities?
We can always work to improve the movement. Anyone who is not interested in making improvements is not going to get very far. We have a long way to go to make the movement more inclusive for all types of disabled people and people with chronic illness. Accessibility is key to making the Disability Community feel comfortable in attending events.
Progressives should make every single event accessible. This should just be a given.
Second, progressives need to start including disability issues into their platforms and various issues they fight for. I know that my activist friends always hold their breath and wait to see if disability is included in the list of marginalized communities whenever there is a speaker. Even that small act of including us in their speeches make us feel more welcome.
I also feel that disability organizations could do better at being disability friendly. Many larger national organizations do not even have a disabled person as their director. This is a big “No.” While I welcome non-disabled allies, disabled people need to be empowered to lead their own organizations. Non-disabled people often do not know the intricacies of what it means to be disabled or have a chronic illness. As a result, many organizations focus on ableist ideals like curing and “preventing” disability. This also encourages the idea that disabled people are broken and need fixing rather than changing social structures.
Can you imagine in today’s world having a white person lead the NAACP or other major organizations that organize people of color?
I believe we need to start following the Deaf President Now approach and start requiring disability organizations to hire disabled directors.
How can disabled women impact progressive activism?
Disabled women have been leaders in the progressive movement since the progressive movement began. Unfortunately, disability itself is often erased or the disabled person’s work is erased. I believe we still need to be leaders in the progressive movement. We are the people who are able to call out individuals and groups who ignore multiple marginalized individuals because we ourselves face these issues. I believe we provide a bridge and a path forward to understanding that people with disabilities are not just one single identity. Many young disabled women have played key roles in ensuring we discuss issues around race, gender, LGBTQ, immigration, and religion. We are breaking the stereotype that we, the Disability Community, need to just focus on the “typical” disability issues (i.e. education, accessibility, and healthcare).
In our Community we are talking more about criminal justice reform, reproductive justice, immigration, racism, sexism, and transphobia. I believe that is because disabled women, especially disabled women of color, are pushing for an expanded definition of what disability issues include.
What’s your advice for disabled women beginning social justice work?
Advocacy work can seem extremely daunting, especially if you’re young. I think it really depends on where you live and how old you are. My suggestion is to first get to know the issues. That means doing your research by attending forums, watching videos, reading books, and talking with others who have been doing the work. I know it doesn’t sound very sexy, but if you don’t know what you’re talking about, you can’t help the cause and you might more do damage than helping.
Once you have a basic framework, think about how different issues affect your own life.
Personal stories are extremely powerful and give you leverage when you are talking about an issue. People are more apt to listen if you have a personal experience.
If you don’t have personal experience, go on social media and follow people who do have experience. You can always help those issues by amplifying other voices.
My next suggestion is to start by getting involved in local events. Volunteer and help out. You gain a lot of experience and can start building relationships. There is no shortcut to advocacy work. Building relationships is key to building trust and gaining social capital. If people have no clue who you are, you may have a more difficult time activating the people you need to help support you.
Don’t stress about making mistakes. Everyone makes them. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes help make you become a better advocate. I’ve made hundreds of mistakes, but I try to learn from each of them. There is no one way to become an activist. We all come from different backgrounds and take different roads to get here. That’s what makes grassroots activism so amazing.