In 1851, Sojourner Truth, a black abolitionist and former slave, delivered a speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. In her speech, she talked about the way women of color were not treated the way everyone seemed to be claiming women should be treated, and about the right to equality between women and men. (for anyone interested, you can read her short speech here – http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.html)
That is true, too, of women with disabilities. Without any further ado, my version of ‘Ain’t I a woman?’
They say that women should have the right to reproductive choice. But the same people tell me not to have children, and call me reckless, hateful, stupid, foolish, and mean because I might pass along my disgustingly flawed genetics, and even if I don’t, I’ll force a child to live with my so-terrible disability. They say I should not have the choice to reproduce. But ain’t I a woman?
They say that women are the equal of men in the workplace, and they have passed legislation that guarantees them equal pay for equal work. But they discriminate against me in hiring, and they cannot pass laws that guarantee me equal pay. My people work for a fraction of minimum wage through disability centers. Ain’t I a woman?
They say a woman has the right to the sanctity of her body. But when my people are sent to residential centers and they have severe disabilities, their caretakers are sometimes encouraged to have them rendered infertile so that when they are raped, at least they will not become pregnant. Aren’t we women?
They say a woman has the right to an education, the same right as a man, but when I sit there in my classes, they sneer at me and fight to avoid making it possible for me to take them. Ain’t I a woman?
They say a woman can choose who she has relationships with, and whether she has them at all. But the media and society say that no one would choose to love a grotesque figure like me. Ain’t I a woman?
They claim that we who are disabled have equality – laws that guard our employment, that call for accessibility, that regulate the way businesses and the government can treat us. And yet, the majority of my people live under the poverty line. We live in the streets. We can get neither work nor government assistance. We have no value, we are told, because we do not put out work. We should rely on the benevolent paternalism of charity instead of having the hard earned dollars of working people syphoned into programs that keep us in poverty but give us enough to keep from dying.
You may say that I am a burden. You may tell me that no one values me. You may patiently explain that I have no friends, no beloved, because I am not worthy of them. You may tell me that you will not hire me because my disability makes me less capable than the next person. You may tell me that I deserve to be in poverty and to not have money to do things that make me happy.
But there is where you are wrong. Why begrudge me my value as a human being? Why deny me the same achievements, the same desires, the same needs as you have? Why slash my value because of a disability that does not affect my ability to dream, to love, to be a human being?
We are one in five of the people around you. We slowly gain political clout, employment, and recognition. All we want is to be treated as human beings with the same value as you have, and one day we will achieve it. Better you stand with us, or out of the way if you cannot bear that, than that you stand against us. We will remember.