Anita Cameron: Black Womyn Disability Rights Activist, One Million Gimp March
"I was called the 'angry Black woman' in an effort to silence me and put me down. I turned it around on my detractors and started Angry Black Womyn to highlight Blackness and disability, how we intersect and how sometimes, there is conflict."
Anita Cameron is a passionate Black womyn, disability rights activist who writes about various, intersectional issues on her site, Musings of an Angry Black Womyn, and is organizing the One Million Gimp March. In this interview, Anita shares more about her intersectionality, some important issues facing disabled folks, and her life long activism. This woman has done A LOT of amazing, vital work in the world, and I feel honored to share her voice! You can follow her on Twitter along with the One Million Gimp March.
You use "womyn" instead of "woman." I know that some feminists have a history of using womyn to give womyn an identity that is not reliant on "man." I'd love to hear why you choose womyn and why you think it's important.
Yes, I use "womyn" when referring to myself because my identity and being are not reliant on "man". I don't need "man" to define me. That's important to me because being a self-reliant, strong womyn is how I live my life.
Your website is called "Musings of An Angry Black Womyn" (which I love!). Please tell me more about it, including what kinds of topics you blog about.
I've been blogging for 11 years now, mostly about activism and "brain droppings". A couple of years ago, I decided to become more militant, if you will, about talking about being Black. I'd been a disability rights activist for almost three decades and nobody really wanted to talk about how disability affected Black folks, or acknowledge our contributions to the disability rights movement. When I tried bringing those things up, I was called the "angry Black woman" in an effort to silence me and put me down. I turned it around on my detractors and started Angry Black Womyn to highlight Blackness and disability, how we intersect and how sometimes, there is conflict. I've blogged about police brutality, the Americans with Disabilities Act, emergency preparedness, Ferguson, suicide, derailing, employment, you name it!
You joined the social change and social justice movement when you were 16, and, now, you're 49. So, it's been 33 years since you've been doing activist work! How did you first get involved at 16 years old? Tell me more about the evolution of your activism. What have you been engaged in?
I'm actually 50, and about to celebrate my 51st birthday in a couple of months. I grew up on Chicago's South side, in a neighborhood that, at the time, was very nice. As a teenager, I moved to a working class neighborhood on the West side and lived with nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame; this group of sisters were very much into social justice. I became involved in the anti-nuclear movement and was arrested doing nonviolent civil disobedience at 17; I was charged as an adult. I then became involved several other movements, but after coming out at age 21, began fighting for LGBT rights, helping to get nondiscrimination ordinances in Chicago and Denver, and helping to organize the first Gay Pride parade in Colorado Springs. The same year that I came out, I took a job at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. My supervisor was deaf-blind and used a wheelchair. It was then that I was introduced to the disability rights movement.
"Understand that "of color" includes many groups, some of who may identify more with Whiteness and actually be anti Black. For this reason, I don't lump Black folks into people of color."
How can feminism be more intersectional to include womyn of color?
Understand that our experience with womanhood and how we navigate it is different from White womyn. Understand also that "of color" includes many groups, some of who may identify more with Whiteness and actually be anti Black. For this reason, I don't lump Black folks into people of color. Feminism is still seen as a White thing and must reach out and embrace Black womyn and womyn of color, realizing that our form of feminism is different than the dominant culture.
You are a disability rights activist. Tell me more about your involvement and activism with disability rights.
As I said above, I was introduced to the disability rights movement when I took a job at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. The group was called ADAPT. It is a national, grassroots disability rights organization best known for its use of nonviolent civil disobedience. ADAPT was started in Denver in 1983. At the time I joined in 1986, ADAPT was fighting for accessible public transportation; at the time, buses were not wheelchair accessible. I moved to Colorado the following year to work directly with ADAPT and Wade Blank, one of the founders. In 1992, I became the first disabled person in the City and County of Denver to serve as an election judge.
The cool thing about ADAPT was that there were many Blacks in ADAPT. The other movements I'd participated in where either all, or mostly White.
After the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we looked back to our history (the core Denver group were young people who'd been rescued from nursing homes) and began the fight for attendant services nationwide so that people with disabilities and seniors could live at home independently. Over time, this has evolved into a civil rights issue, rather than a medical issue.
There is unnecessary institutionalization in nursing facilities and other institutions. In nursing homes, one has no civil rights; people in these homes cannot leave the facility or its grounds. Disabled people are rarely put in nursing homes because they want to be there. Instead, they are placed in these homes because of prejudice, lack of services and supports in their communities, or lack of knowledge that services and support exists that will keep them independent. The vast majority of disabled and seniors want to live at home!
In 1999, the US Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C., upheld the right of people with disabilities to live at home in our communities, stating that "unnecessary institutionalization is discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act." It further mandated that disabled must receive services and support "in the most integrated setting possible."
This is why the Disability Integration Act (S. 2427) is so important-it address the freedom to live in the community, not as a medical issue but as a civil rights issue.
Another thing keeping folks with disabilities trapped in nursing facilities is the lack of accessible affordable integrated housing. ADAP has been working on this issue for two decades.
I have also been involved in fighting for accessible, independent voting for people with disabilities. In 1992, I became the first person with a disability to serve as an election judge. In Washington, DC, in 2005, I recruited almost 70 people with disabilities to serve as poll workers.
I became very passionate about emergency preparedness for people with disabilities because when disaster strikes, our community is often forgotten. I took it a step further and became a CERT- Community Emergency Response Team - member, then, a CERT instructor, then, a CERT program manager. I've recruited over 30 people to become CERTs. I believe that people with disabilities must be an integral part of emergency and disaster preparedness.
I’m very passionate about the fact that disabled folks’ lives are worthy and valid. It’s why I am vehemently against physician assisted suicide and euthanasia of our people. I belong to, and sit on the Board of Directors of Not Dead Yet, a national disability organization against that practice. I’m not against people choosing to end their life if they want to. I’m against the creation of a system where nondisabled folks get suicide prevention, sometimes against their will, and disabled and sick people get offered doctor assisted suicide when we want to live.
In my 30 years as a disability rights activist, I have been arrested 120 times, been invited to the White House twice, and have met three sitting US Presidents - Clinton, G. W. Bush and Obama. An article that I wrote appears in Howard Zinn's "Voices of A People's History of the United States". I have been proud and honored to have been able to do and participate in many amazing things that people only dream of, which, for me is very humbling. I would never have been able to do any of it had I not joined the disability rights movement!
You're one of the organizers of One Million Gimp March. Tell me more about this March. What is it? What is your involvement in it, and how did you get involved?
The Million Gimp March is a national, disability advocacy event scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C., on
October 14, 2016
The March was inspired by a blog post I wrote where I put out a call to action for people with disabilities to take to the streets and fight nonviolently for employment rights. Friends with disabilities became very excited about this, so I formed the Million Gimp March and the Million Gimp Employment Rights Fund, which would sponsor the March and continue work after it.
The organizers of the March are people with various disabilities who have a radical pride for who we are, and like many in the disability community, have taken back Gimp, a name used to put us down, much like the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community has taken back the word Queer. To those who are offended by our name, we ask, what is more offensive, our name, or the fact that 84% of people with disabilities in our country are unemployed?
We have eight core organizers from around the country - 5 womyn and 3 men. Four of us are Black and people of color. Five of us belong to the LGBTQ community. All but one of us have mobility disabilities; six of us use wheelchairs full time. I have multiple disabilities.
Three of us have worked. One of us works. Two of us volunteer in our communities and one of us (me) is actively looking for work.
The unemployment rate among disabled people is very high. What specific changes need to happen in order for disabled people to have better employment opportunities?
The three biggest obstacles to employment for people with disabilities are discrimination, disincentives to work that are perpetuated by the government via rules, laws and policies, and lack of reliable, accessible public transportation.
For example, when people with disabilities find work, they lose Medicaid, which is a critical benefit for those who receive attendant services (help with bathing, eating transferring and other tasks to maintain independence). We are demanding, via petition, that this practice stop.
Discrimination still happens often and companies find creative ways to do it. Also, laws that are supposed to protect against discrimination are ineffective, at best. Laws that are supposed to protect against discrimination must be strengthened and enforced.
People with disabilities need reliable transportation to get to work. Many of us depend of paratransit, which, in many areas, has woefully inadequate service. Paratransit companies, which are usually run by the city's public transit agency, are notorious for arriving late to their passengers' destinations, not picking them up from home or leaving them stranded at their destinations.
Other, mostly rural areas have no public transportation. Public transit must be extended to these areas and companies that operate paratransit must improve their practices.
How can we create more and better accessibility for disabled persons?
Enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act would be a great start! 26 years after its passage, there is widespread physical and programmatic inaccessibility. Folks with disabilities either have to file complaints, which can take years to resolve, or protest, which still might not lead to a resolution. The process of filing complaints must be streamlined and the Department of Justice must take an active and consistent hand in getting complaints resolved.
"Societal and individual attitudes about disability must change. Negative attitudes towards us are one of the key reasons why people don't make their businesses accessible.."
For business owners who, due to hardship, can't make their place accessible, there must be more education about programs that may be able to help them become accessible.
Companies and agencies must also educate themselves about programmatic access, which can be anything from scheduling an appointment in a downstairs office to assisting someone to fill out a form.
Finally, societal and individual attitudes about disability must change. Negative attitudes towards us are one of the key reasons why people don't make their businesses accessible, and the ineffective enforcement of the law aids them in this. Ableism is alive and well and the cause of much injustice done to our community!
Where did you grow up and what was that experience like? Where do you live now?
I grew up on the far South side of Chicago in a neighborhood that had just experienced "White Flight" - all but one of the White families fled to the suburbs when Black families began moving in.
There were several small apartment complexes on our block and my family owned the one that we lived in. Two of our tenants, a middle-aged womyn, Ms. Aurelius and her mother, were the only Whites in the entire neighborhood who stuck around. They seemed nice, though we didn't see much of them. After some years, after her mother died, Ms. Aurelius did indeed, move to the suburbs, saying that she no longer had need of a three bedroom apartment.
On the face of things, my life was great. My block was quiet, tree-lined and rather idyllic. My family was very, very well-to-do, so we wanted for nothing. We did all kinds of cool things. Beneath that, life wasn't good. I endured physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of my parents. My parents resented me because of my disabilities and because my birth was unexpected. My twin sister was expected, wanted and was born healthy. My mother didn't know that she was carrying twins, so when I was born four hours later, underweight and sickly, she wasn't happy!
Despite my disabilities, I was mainstreamed from preschool through high school. I didn't spend one second in special education, for which I am eternally grateful. I loved school and was, and still am, a bookworm. I wasn’t the only disabled kid in my neighborhood, but I was the only one who went to a typical school.
As a teenager, I got the wanderlust and a sense of adventure and after college, began traveling all over the place, often with nothing but the clothes on my back and a couple of dollars in my pocket. By the time I was 21, I'd already lived in Michigan, Canada and North Carolina. I lived in Colorado from 1987 to 1993, when I moved to Philadelphia. I’ve since lived in California, Washington, DC and Rochester, NY. In 2011, I moved back to Denver.
One question that I want to start asking my interviewees is around self-care. Doing activism and social justice work is extremely important and essential to create meaningful change, but it can also be exhausting. What do you do to take care of yourself? What self-care practices do you engage in?
My problem is that I don’t know how to do self-care, so I get burned out. We disability rights activists are often shamed for wanting to take some time away because we’re fighting for basic and critical rights that most folks take for granted. We know that we’re fighting for those who can’t, so for some activists, the thought of an activist taking a break indicates their privilege and lack of caring.
I know that the above is untrue; however, I rarely give myself permission to step away. I am getting better about this because my physical and mental health have become affected. Sometimes I take breaks from social media. Lately, I’ve stepped back from being active in certain activities. Activism can take your life if you’re not careful; I’ve heard of it happening. I’m selfish enough that I would rather live for a cause than die for it!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Gosh, if I shared more, you wouldn’t want to get my book when it comes out!