An Open Letter to Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation, and America

Cathy Kudlick in front of a library, her glasses are fashionably striped. Director Catherine Kudlick

By Catherine Kudlick  

Dear Darren Walker, Ford Foundation, and America,

Imagine our complete astonishment and delight to learn of your growing awareness to disability, diversity, and inclusion! This is huge, for you, for us, for anyone eager to move the conversation forward. And announcing there’s something to be fixed is the first step to fixing it.

But then what? How do we all get there? And what are the real benefits for doing so?

You listed a few essential things like making your building and websites ADA-compliant and exploring policies for a more inclusive workplace. A great start!

But as with all prejudice, combating hardwired ableism requires diving deep and thinking big. Let me share three things that disability activists and our allies know which the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University uses to push the conversation into new realms:

First: Know that the best way to help people with disabilities is to find ways for disabled people to help you. Embracing the philosophy behind “Nothing about us without us!” as you have is a perfect launching pad. Embedded in this idea is creating a world where disabled people are understood to have unique expertise, not just about our conditions but about solving problems, dealing with the curve balls thrown our way. On a daily basis we deal with devices and environments not made for us, which means we’re used to thinking on the fly and outside the box. Some of us manage complex bureaucracies and teams of helpers to negotiate daily living. We’re also great at branding and self-promotion to help people meeting us for the first time feel more comfortable. After all, unusual bodies and minds lead to unusual ways for understanding and navigating the world, expertise that’s invaluable in countless situations large and small [See here and here for example].

Second: ask what it means to cure disability. Shocking as it may seem (and assuming that it’s even possible), not all people with disabilities want to be cured. If we put as many resources toward fixing hostile environments and attitudes as we do toward finding a Cure, our society would be in a better place for incorporating its full human potential. Don’t get me wrong: it doesn’t have to be either/or, I’m just looking for rough parity. Cures always assume that disability only takes away and destroys, when in fact there’s a vibrant disability culture that brings so much. Imagine a cure also providing better role models, thought-provoking cultural events, and engaging conversations around disability. A black and white photo of section 504 protesters, most of whom are in wheelchairs, holding signs in front of the capitol building. The protester in the front and center of the image has a sign reading, "We shall overcome". April 5, 1977 on the first day of the 504 Protests.

Photograph by Anthony Tusler.

 Third: learn our history. As you know from the struggles of civil rights for African-Americans and movements that are bringing LGBT people into the mainstream, understanding the past is powerful and useful. History helps explain why there’s outright discrimination against disabled people but that we’re just beginning to think of it that way. It explains why most see disability as a medical problem rather one equally rooted in limited ideas. After all, disability history teaches us how disability helped fuel inequality in discussions about slavery, immigration, and women’s suffrage, and why it was ok to humiliate disabled children by parading them as pathetic victims on television to raise money. But disability history also teaches us that nondisabled people benefit from the radicalism of disabled ones each and every day. That suitcase you took to your last conference rolled everywhere thanks to disabled people in wheelchairs who said “Enough!” It’s but one example of grassroots disability activism that led to passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), that opened up education for all, and that’s insisting we change everything from policy to portrayals of disabled people in the mainstream. Nina G takes a selfie of the audience from the stage, the crowd waves Stuttering comedian Nina G, our emcee, pauses during her opening remarks at Superfest to take a selfie.

Please know that there is a rich community of people and organizations, like my own, that will help as you endeavor to become more inclusive to disability. Visit the Bay Area, come meet with disability activists, or attend an event like Superfest: International Disability Film Festival that we co-host with Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, which turns 30 this year. There you’ll experience the great joy and engagement that happens in one of the rare places where disabled people and our allies come together to laugh, to cry, to bond on our own terms. Once such an experience is in your blood, there’s no turning back and no limit to what we can all do together.

In solidarity,

Catherine Kudlick 

Professor of History and Director,

Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability San Francisco State University

To read Darren Walker’s terrific letter, go here.