A Thank You Note to the Disability Rights Movement

By: Emily Beitiks

As a non-disabled person, I am often asked by other able-bodied folks what motivates my disability justice work. I explain my story: that my mother has been disabled since before I was born, that the experiences I had growing up made me realize the importance of eliminating barriers for people with disabilities, both physical and cultural. But often, I still get a response that makes my skin crawl with deep awareness of my able-bodied privileges: "That’s so good of you to help the disabled people!" I have long tried to develop a snappy response that articulates how completely off the mark this is. I am not a do-gooder, I'm selfish! However, I've previously struggled to come up concrete examples that make my case.

On November 15, I had my first child, a son named Carver. Like everyone says, it has been the most amazing experience of my life to date. After having now survived 9 months of pregnancy and the first three months with my newborn, I realize that motherhood has given me numerous illustrative examples of how the work of disability scholars and activists has benefits for us all, to which I for one would like to express my gratitude. Below is my thank you note. I encourage others to write their own!

Dear disability rights movement,

I apologize that this thank you note is so belated. You've been helping me out for a long time now - curb cuts when I travel with luggage, elevators at the end of a long day - but recently, I have really reaped the benefits of your efforts in ways that deserve acknowledgement.

Thank you so much for the accommodations you've fought hard for and won. While pregnant at San Francisco State University, my protruding belly made it hard to fit into the smaller bathroom stalls, but fortunately, there were accessible ones in every building. I took advantage of the disabled seating at the front of the bus. And in those final weeks of pregnancy, I could not have been more appreciative of elevators! Thank you!!!

I’d also like to thank you for teaching me that bodies can best function in many different ways and that I should throw "normal" out the door. During my first days home with my son, it seemed that I had permanently surrendered one of my arms to cradling my newborn, and the hourly task of breastfeeding required the use of my second arm as well. Like the folks I’ve met over the years without the use of their arms, I quickly embraced using other parts of my body in place of arms. That burp cloth that was just out of reach could be pulled closer with toes. An email-checking addiction could be appeased with a nose on the iPad in place of fingers.

When I returned to work, I found that I needed to be more public about my body’s different needs. I often had to use a breast pump machine without privacy, once in the middle of a restaurant during a lunch meeting, another time in a busy hallway. Without my background in disability studies, I might not have had the guts to be so public about my leaking appendages, but thanks to you, I quickly learned to stop caring about the oddness of it all and instead prioritize the needs of my body.

And if that wasn’t enough already, I have one more thing for which to give thanks: thank you for helping me realize that interdependence is a beautiful thing. While pregnant, I required help getting out of bed to go to the bathroom multiple times a night. I thought that this was what it meant to depend on my husband, but nothing compared to the hours of labor where he attended to my every need (which primarily consisted of holding my barf bag through each contraction) and the days of recovery that followed. Sometimes indepedence is just too exhausting to pursue, and my understanding of a disability rights perspective helped me quickly admit this to myself with immediate benefits.

I realize that there are undeniable differences between these experiences. Namely, pregnancy is a temporary condition, making it much easier to embrace my heightened needs knowing that they would soon pass. Additionally, pregnancy and childbirth are praised in our society so I did not face the stigma that disabled people encounter. My dependence on my husband would never be named a “burden,” and though public breastfeeding might be slightly awkward, I was never likely to hear someone say, “If I was like you, I’d never leave the house!” Together, we have more work to do, challenging what society values and why, but in the meanwhile, thank you, thank you, thank you for the gains I can already enjoy today.

Wishing you the best,

Baby Carver reads Paul Longmore's book, "Why I Burned My Book" (photoshopped)