June 19, 2019
“Latinx representation in literature has been increasing, but now it’s time for us to ask for something more than representation. It’s not enough for Latinx characters to exist, instead of not existing; we’re ready for a range of Latinx characters as varied and vital as the white characters we’ve been reading for so long.” —Ruby Mora, on the next generation of Latinx literature.
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Ali Stroker, who plays Ado Annie in the revival of the musical Oklahoma!, made history last week for being the first wheelchair-using performer to win a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. She reflects on what it’s like to be a performer with a disability: “I was used to people staring at me, but they were staring at me because I was in a wheelchair. And when I was on stage, they were staring at me because I was the star.” She points out that while many of the Broadway theaters in New York are accessible to patrons, making them accessible to performers was essentially unheard of until now. At the theater where Oklahoma! is performed, they added a chairlift, ramping, and an accessible bathroom. She worries that in future roles, she will have to start the conversation all over again to make another theater accessible for her.
It’s especially moving to see Ali Stroker’s success because of how well it flies in the face of common assumptions about disability. As she puts it, “So many times, our society is taught, ‘Don’t look, don’t stare and don’t ask—that would be rude...As an artist, I’m saying, ‘Look at me now. Look at my body. Look how I move my chair.’”
Are there roles or functions that you may have assumed a person with a disability couldn’t take on? Next time you feel unsure of someone’s abilities, think of Ali Stroker’s story and how well she encapsulates the notion that disability should not be generalized or brushed over; that it is a variation with its own unique characteristics and qualities.
Founded by Native Americans to “help close gaps in educational opportunities and outcomes for Native students,” the Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA) began offering a Native-focused program called the Clear Sky Native Youth Council to Seattle Public Schools in 2013. Now, SPS plans to abruptly terminate Clear Sky due to their rising tensions with UNEA. This is despite the overwhelming success of the program—in the 2017–2018 school year, more than 800 students and volunteers participated in Clear Sky. All regular participants have gone on to graduate, improving the graduation rate for Native American students in the district by 23%. Sarah Sense-Wilson, UNEA’s board president, credits Clear Sky with the students’ success: “It's not just about doing your homework, but about connecting [students] to their roots and tradition.” In addition, SPS officials are now also considering reducing, merging, or moving Licton Springs—a “Native heritage option” school that offers Clear Sky—to another location. Sense-Wilson says this decision would be “especially devastating, considering the spiritual significance of the school’s location to the Duwamish tribe...To me, [all of this] is a reenactment of historical experiences of being displaced and discarded and dishonored.”
Research shows that programs like Clear Sky are critical to the success of marginalized students. We’re sorry to see Seattle Public Schools land on a decision that not only disadvantages Native American students, but causes pain and distress to Native communities in the area.
As Sense-Wilson points out, SPS’ decisions to end Clear Sky and dismantle Licton Springs are “antithetical” to their 2019–2024 strategic plan, which “pledges to ‘unapologetically address the needs of students of color who are furthest from educational justice,’ including students of Native American heritage.” If your organization acts in ways that contradict its professed values, are there things you can do to make sure marginalized people don’t suffer as a result?
The neurodiversity movement has four main tenets about neurological variations like autism and ADHD: 1) They are disabilities, but they are not flaws; 2) they do not “diminish personhood;” 3) they are a “vital part of humanity;” and 4) they are often characterized more by societal expectations than by the reality of the conditions themselves. Those in the neurodiversity community argue that many of the challenges autistic people face, for instance, are actually caused by neurotypical people’s decisions. Neurotypical people are often reluctant to interact with autistic people because they seem “different,” and caregivers often pressure autistic children to follow unnecessary social norms, causing more harm than good. Research is finally starting to line up with what adults with autism have been telling us for years: The best outcomes come from teaching caregivers, not those with autism, how to behave differently.
Often those with neurological variations are pitied because of a perceived lack of independence. They are also often denied basic human rights to privacy and consent. Advocates challenge us to consider what we mean when we think of independence: “...Is independence really about being able to brush your own teeth, or is it more about being able to choose your own friends?” There might be practical skills someone needs help with on a daily basis, but that should not deny them empowerment, dignity, and self-determination, let alone basic human rights.
Those in the neurodiversity community make a fundamental point about many disabilities—that often the environment and non-disabled are the ones that create barriers, not the disabilities or disabled persons themselves. This is a useful notion to keep in mind. Always ask yourself, “what can I do to remove barriers for this person?” while remembering to observe ability first—you don’t want to assume someone needs your help when they can actually manage just fine.