January 12, 2023
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Movement for Disability Justice
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, all Americans can reflect on the movement for civil rights in the United States and its achievements as well as its unrealized aims and goals. For the disability community, Dr. King’s life and work can serve as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. The fight for Black equality is still unfinished, but through the bravery of countless people throughout the last century, our country has come closer to Dr. King’s dream. Similarly, the fight for equality for people with disabilities and a world where everyone can be known, valued, and included continues.
When Rev. Dr. King said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere,” he summarized his own beliefs about how to organize for change. A centerpiece of his philosophy was the idea of solidarity: standing with a person or group that you yourself may not be a part of or may not benefit from. Dr. King’s focus in his life was on the civil, legal, and economic rights of Black Americans, but over and over he reached out to and formed coalitions with other groups that had different stated goals, such as striking sewage workers in Memphis, the American Jewish community, and indigenous people in the United States. By uniting to help other groups take steps towards their own goals, the civil rights movement demonstrated that these struggles are shared and come from a common source. As Dr. King said, “It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.”
The disability community is a unique one, because a person with a disability can be any race, gender, age, or sexuality. “Person with a disability” is the only group that anybody can join at any time, which is one reason it is so vital for everyone, including and especially people without any disability, to ensure equal access and treatment for people with disabilities. When a person with a disability is also a racial minority or a member of some other marginalized group, their struggle can be compounded, and so in a very real way, ensuring the equal rights and treatment of people of people with disabilities also helps the social movement towards the equal rights and treatment of all. Dr. King’s life and work are inspirational to anyone struggling for justice, and celebrating his legacy involves continuing to move our society towards justice.