Jeff Rosen's Remarks White House National African American History Month Program
Thank you for the kind introduction. The National Council on Disability (NCD) is an independent federal agency which provides advice and recommendations to the President, the Administration and Congress on policy issues which impact people with disabilities. We appreciate the White House and Claudia undertaking this first of its kind event and also thank Council Co-Vice Chair Kamilah Martin-Proctor for her excellent support of this event. NCD has addressed in its body of work the experience of culturally diverse people with disabilities which I will talk about in a moment. But first, please allow me to speak about how black power changed my life as a person with a disability.
I am a third generation deaf person. That means my parents & grandparents were deaf. In my deaf community of family and friends, I was fully in the world, loved and cherished for exactly who I am. But outside my deaf community, on the playground, in schools, and work, I experienced negative attitudes, low expectations, oppression and violence against me because of my disability. I became ashamed that I was deaf and became an angry youth for being made that way. My refuge was the local library where one day I stumbled onto the African American authors section. The first book I picked up was Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. I know now there are issues with that book with respect to women and homosexuality, but when I read his writings about black liberation from an oppressive white society I jumped up and said Yeah! That’s right! I read Malcolm X and learned about black self determination which later proved useful in the Gallaudet Deaf President Now protest and at the same time taking a page from Martin Luther King’s principles of nonviolence to keep the focus on the message rather than the act of protesting. Zora Neale Hurston taught me how to feel as a differently bodied person, that it was not my issue but the strangeness of society’s perceptions. I read these books in the sanctuary of my bedroom which had a huge poster of…guess who? Larry Brown Jr, #43 for Washington. His face was the first and last thing I saw each day. Mr. Brown, you have very soulful eyes. And he wore a hearing aid just like me. I learned that several other African American heroes had a disability, for example Malcolm X had a stutter, Octavia Butler, science fiction author, had dyslexia. So what happens at the intersection of cultural diversity and disability? Why weren’t there more awareness of African Americans with disabilities?
NCD has learned from convening several times culturally diverse people that disability is largely un-served or under-served in their communities. The very same Larry Brown Jr. was a former Council member of NCD, chairing its Initiative on Minorities with Disabilities, which reported on the double discrimination and double disadvantage that they experience. In “Lift Every Voice” NCD reported that the best way to empower people from diverse cultures to take full advantage of federal laws, programs, and services is to provide them with easy-to-understand, culturally appropriate information about what their rights are under various federal statutes and how best to exercise those rights when a violation occurs. Awareness is the key. We must build on events like this one. NCD’s report said that we must develop and implement a large-scale outreach and training program raising awareness among people with disabilities from diverse backgrounds about their heritage, culture, identity and rights. We must target young adults in the training and education about the disability movement so they have better opportunities in life, which means thinking about using technology and social media that they use every day. Stakeholders in NCD’s culturally diverse forums also identified the concern about the erosion of disability and civil rights and the need to work collaboratively across human rights groups to restore these rights. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to invalidate a key part of the Voting Rights Act impacts people with disabilities as well, NCD is working with Congress, the Administration and civil rights groups to restore and enhance accessible voting for all. Let me close with a quote from our friend Wade Henderson, Executive Director of LCCR, delivered at NCD’s civil rights forum titled “Same Struggle, Different Difference,” “Disability rights issues are civil rights issues, and civil and human rights pertain to us all. If we work together in this modern civil rights movement, we will continue advances in ways that we can look back with pride."
Remarks presented February 27, 2014 at the White House National African American History Month Program.