Why It’s Time to Launch the Disability Justice Initiative

This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.

Last Friday night I had the fortune of attending Janelle Monae’s concert. I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. I’m a huge Prince fan, and Prince and Monae’s working relationship, the value both place on instrumentation, and Monae’s musical range of influences are all impressive to me. Her showmanship is legendary, and it has a crisp professionalism to it that’s hard not to identify with in a city like DC.

My husband and I sat in the ADA section towards the back of the main floor—I’m a little person, so the only thing I can see in general seating is other concert-goers butts. The show was extraordinary—it was visually stunning, and emotionally empowering. Towards the end of her set, The Electric Lady took a moment to talk about the dark times we are in and the interdependence of social justice movements. As she rattled them off—telling her fans that we “need to fight for black and brown communities, immigrants, the disability community…” —my jaw fell open. Never, in my (almost) 40 years on this planet, have I heard an artist specifically call out my community, let alone use our preferred language (too often we are called “special needs,” “differently abled,” or “handicapable”). There was a flurry of activity as everyone I was sitting with checked with their seatmate to make sure it had actually happened: That a mainstream artist, at a public event, had just included us in their activism.

Monae was leaning into a shift that we’ve seen take place over the past year. Last month, Ava DuVernay pushed back when fans of Queen Sugar asked her to reverse a character’s Lupus. Many folks felt like having a disability made the character weak. But instead of caving to pressure and “healing” the character, DuVernay focused on how disability adds important complexities. She replied, “[r]espectfully, we can have physical illness and still be whole. That’s what this storyline explores among…

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