As disability advocacy evolves over time, fight for equity and community building remains

DELMARVA – Advocacy in the disability community has been a decades-long effort. “My grandmother always used to say it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. I took that to heart my whole life, because you have to make noise,” said Ron Pagano.

In The Public Eye

The urgency to make equitable and meaningful change for the disability community has always been the driving force behind that effort, according to disability advocates. Sometimes that call for change looks like protests or demonstrations. Other times, it’s as simple as taking part in the conversation. “Disability is normal, and disability exists in this community. It exists in every community. My passion is to normalize it, talk about it, and I’m here to talk about it,” said Dom Sessa.

Pagano says advocacy has close, and important ties to visibility as well. “The more we’re seen in public, the more people realize, ‘Oh, I had an aunt that was in a wheelchair,’ or ‘I heard way back when there was somebody who was a dwarf in my family,'” he said. “If we reach out with kindness and with love, there’s going to be a positive response to that.”

Activism Evolves

But what those efforts look like have changed over time. Pagano began his activism in the disability community in the early 1970’s. He says back then, activists would do things like block off city streets to call for action. Or, they would occupy government buildings like the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the 504 Sit In of 1977. “It was a matter, back then, of taking control. When you don’t have control of your life or the story that your life is about, you tend to become frustrated,” said Pagano.

Today, other advocates like Sessa, are taking a different approach. It’s one that she calls educating through empathy. “We need to get to a place where education and understanding are at the forefront. When you’re disabled, you have to be an advocate. You have no choice,”  said Sessa.

Using the power of empathy is something that can be extremely impactful, according to Pagano. He says that’s something he’s learned over his decades of activism. “Accessibility, in all its forms, is based in love and how we should be looking at our neighbor,” said Pagano.

Common Interests, Common Ground

Something that hasn’t changed though, is the power behind banding together with other marginalized communities. Pagano says it was the Black Panthers that fed disabled activists in the 504 Sit In. He adds the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for equal rights in the latter half of the 20th century mirrored that of the disability community. “We had to take that back. We had to take back that story line, just as the Black community had to do it, just as the LGBTQ community had to do it,” said Pagano.

And those connections remain today. “I think that, as an activist and an advocate, we should advocate for all. That’s why I identify as a change maker. I want to make a change for all people,” said Sessa.

But closing the gap between disabled people and non-marginalized communities isn’t just about making physical changes, like creating more accessible spaces. “When you start understanding that these are people, and they’re not ‘them’, it becomes a whole different story. Then you start thinking about and understanding things like, ‘Well, why can’t they go into a store?'” said Pagano.

Sessa adds it’s also about building strong and meaningful relationships between those groups. “Access is not just adding a ramp. Access is trying to learn and overcome your ignorance. To me, an ally is someone who tries,” said Sessa. “An ally is a friend you haven’t met yet.”

Past Lessons, Future Priorities

Aside from getting people to treat everyone like a neighbor, regardless of their differences, advocates have other priorities they’re keeping in focus. “Transportation is great if we have somewhere to go. We need transportation. But, we also need employment and recreational facilities,” said Pagano.

Sessa adds, other marginalized communities are included in that issue, too. “I think it’s hard sometimes to understand the need for our access because things weren’t designed with that in mind. As a disabled person, so much of the world has been closed off to me. But, it’s closed off to other people too,” she said. “Community is for everyone. It’s to welcome every person. I think we’re getting there slowly, but surely.”

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