The mountain as metaphor looms large in the lives of marginalized people, people whose bones get crushed in the grind of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy. How many of us have struggled up the mountain, measured ourselves against it, failed up there, lived its shadow? We’ve hit our heads on glass ceilings, tried to climb the class ladder, lost fights against assimilation, scrambled toward the phantom called normality.
We hear from the summit that the world is grand from up there, that we live down here at the bottom because we are lazy, stupid, weak, and ugly. We decide to climb that mountain, or make a pact that our children will climb it. The climbing turns out to be unimaginably difficult. We are afraid; every time we look ahead we can find nothing remotely familiar or comfortable. We lose the trail. Our wheelchairs get stuck We speak the wrong languages with the wrong accents, wear the wrong clothes, carry our bodies the wrong ways, ask the wrong questions, love the wrong people. And it’s goddamn lonely up there on the mountain. We decide to stop climbing and build a new house right where we are. Or we decide to climb back down to the people we love, where the food, the clothes, the dirt, the sidewalk, the steaming asphalt under our feet, our crutches, all feel right. Or we find the path again, decide to continue climbing only to have the very people who told us how wonderful life is at the summit booby-trap the trail. They burn the bridge over the impassable canyon. They redraw our topo maps so that we end up walking in circles. They send their goons—those working-class and poor people they employ as their official brutes—to push us over the edge. Maybe we get to the summit but probably not. And the price we pay is huge.
Up there on the mountain, we confront the external forces, the power brokers who benefit so much from the status quo and their privileged position at the very summit. But just as vividly, we come face-to-face with our own bodies, all that we cherish and despise, all that lies imbedded there. This I know because I have caught myself lurching up the mountain.
I am a gimp. a crip, disabled with cerebral palsy. The story of me lurching up the mountain begins not on the mountain, but with one of the dominant images of disabled people, the supercrip. A boy without hands bats .486 on his Little League team. A blind man hikes the Appalachian Trail from end to end. An adolescent girl with Down syndrome learns to drive and has a boyfriend. A guy with one leg runs across Canada. The nondisabled world is saturated with these stories: stories about gimps who engage in activities as grand as walking 2,500 miles or as mundane as learning to drive. They focus on disabled people “overcoming” our disabilities. They reinforce the superiority of the nondisabled body and mind. They turn individual disabled people, who are simply leading their lives, into symbols of inspiration.
Supercrip stories never focus on the conditions that make it so difficult for people with Downs to have romantic partners, for blind people to have adventures. for disabled kids to play sports. I don’t mean medical conditions. I mean material, social, legal conditions. I mean lack of access, lack of employment, lack of education, lack of personal attendant services. I mean stereotypes and attitudes. I mean oppression. The dominant story about disability should be about ableism, not the inspirational supercrip crap, the believe-it-or-not disability story....
In the decade since the initial release of Exile and Pride, I’ve often been asked, “What do you want readers to take away from your book?’ The answer has become one of my activist mantras: “I want nondisabled progressive activists to add disability to their political agenda. And at the same time I want disability activists to abandon their single-issue politics and strategies.” My answer remains as true in 2009 as it was in 1999.
It’s only been ten years, but I must say I’m impatient for my mantra to lose its relevancy. How long must we wait, for instance, before ADAPT and Critical Resistance join forces? As an identity-based, disability rights organization, ADAPT organizes direct-action protests to shut down nursing homes and stop the institutionalization of disabled people. In the last two decades, hundreds, if not thousands, of disability activists have been arrested while blockading doors, occupying offices, and stopping traffic. During the same period of time, Critical Resistance has organized grassroots opposition to the prison-industrial complex, rejecting prison reform as a viable strategy and building support for prison abolition. How would a vision of liberation be reshaped if these two groups understood and acted upon the connections between different ways of locking people up and between the different institutions profiting from these incarcerations?
Unfortunately, not many disability or nondisabled progressive groups engage in multi-issue thinking and organizing that deeply embeds disability politics into an agenda that includes race, class, gender, and sexuality. At an ADAPT demo recently, I saw a flyer that read “You think prison is bad, try a nursing home.” In one simple slogan, disability activists advanced a hierarchy of institutions and oppressions, defined disability as their sole focus, and revealed profound ignorance about the ways being locked up in prisons cause bone-crushing damage, particularly in communities of color. This slogan and the disability politics behind it leave little chance for making connections and addressing the daily complexities of folks who know the grief and outrage of both prisons and nursing homes....