By Carrie Basas
Editor’s note: Guest blogger Carrie Basas returns to write about disability justice in employment and why we need more people with disabilities in the workforce, especially in leadership positions. Carrie and I talked about this idea last month during Disability Employment Awareness month and I’m happy we can feature it now.
Almost six months ago, I decided to leave government employment to lead a disability rights organization in Colorado. I didn’t want to leave Seattle, but I was growing weary of explaining why disability justice mattered to me. It was fine with my work team, but if I had to interact with people outside my house or Zoom room, I was exhausted. Leading a disability rights organization seemed like the solution to bathing in ableism, even if it meant moving to a city which I still find to be an ugly shade of purple. (I’m working on liking Colorado more, so feel free to convince me to get over my hating.)
In many ways, this move has lessened my anger and angst. As I’ve joked with a few people who have asked me why I went from running an agency focused on alternative dispute resolution to one focused on lawyering up, I had plenty of material to work with after seven years of being friendly and conciliatory. I was ready to sue people. Never underestimate the value of being able to threaten more than a side-eye.
Part of my fantasy of leading a disability rights legal aid organization was that I’d be surrounded by other disabled leaders nationally who were running similar organizations in their states. Eager for mentorship, I hopped on a listserv of executive directors within the disability rights network and mentioned that I’d like to connect with other disabled executive directors. Two people replied, one of whom I had already met. I knew of another disabled leader in the network and then discovered two more. Total headcount, including me: 6 out of 57. As far as I knew, we were all White, too.
A couple of weeks ago, at a national conference of the network, I scanned the room looking for others with apparent disabilities. I noted only one other person. During a Q&A about a DEI presentation, a few directors mentioned that they focused on hiring disabled people for intake or advocate positions within their organizations. I pointed out that it was one thing to hire disabled folks into our lowest-level positions, but that we needed to be concerned about the underemployment of disabled people and build true leadership pathways. Probably not making any new friends for lunch, I emphasized that I was disappointed and surprised to be in a room with so few visibly disabled leaders. I acknowledged that I could not determine who had disabilities based on just observation alone. However, if we look at other civil rights organizations, we assume that they will be led by the people most impacted, not allies or family members. In response, someone mentioned that they just wanted to be a person, not judged based on what they looked like or a perceived disability.
It’s incredibly difficult to come out about disability when it continues to be so stigmatized, even within larger “DEI” efforts. As a professor, I had countless conversations with students about whether they should reveal their disabilities to others in a field that prized being superhuman and unflappable. I respect people’s privacy needs. No one has a right to go through someone’s medicine cabinet, medical records, or journal. However, if we continue to feel shame and discomfort as leaders of disability-focused organizations, how will anything change? If the very things that we are supposed to fight against every day– ableism, silencing, marginalization, and dehumanization– reside in our daily behaviors towards ourselves, then we are harming others, too. How can we fight against disability employment discrimination, for example, when we can’t be out ourselves as bosses with the most power in our organizations?
Please don’t take my sadness for anger. I’m disappointed that this position didn’t come with a vast network of cranky crips (cripples)— a term I’ll continue to reclaim. I’m grateful for the work of allies, too, because they have offered mentorship when I simply can’t find people who have similar lived experiences.
My disappointment veers closer to anger when I reflect on the fact that nondisabled folks leading disability rights organizations is “normal” and acceptable. Nondisabled people are often considered most expert in disability rights and justice– everywhere from academia to government, nonprofit to medicine. Why aren’t people up in arms when nondisabled leaders speak for disability communities, yet women would take to the streets– I’d hope– if they were not leading women-identifying organizations? The answer is rooted in a charitable approach to disability that plays on this idea that nondisabled people must speak for and act on behalf of disabled people because they can’t represent themselves. This framework reinforces that it’s the right thing to do by ‘’helping’’ disabled people– knowing what’s best for them, bringing the expertise as someone outside of the experience, and fighting the good fight. Essentially, disabled people are often viewed as incapable, even child-like. That viewpoint reinforces the unemployment of people with disabilities, making it more difficult for employers to find disabled folks to hire– especially in leadership roles.
When I was in the final round of interviews for my current position, I told the recruiter that all I hoped was that they’d hire a disabled person. It didn’t have to be me, but it had to be someone from my community. That’s what I most wanted for this kind of organization because they hadn’t experienced it and it was time. That’s also what I want for organizations not focused on disability– that the crips take over a bunch of leadership roles and make them unapologetically accessible and inclusive. Zoos need us to lead their children’s programming. Intellectual property law firms don’t know what they are missing. I bet most of my medical appointments would be better if my physician was also an anxious disabled woman with a cane, mysterious autoimmune disorders, and a prescription for ADHD medication.
There are more disabled leaders out there than anyone knows. We need each other. I don’t want to force anyone to disclose their disabilities, but I’m here waiting for you. Sure, I’d love to go through a day just being Carrie, but I don’t have the choice. I’m the totality of my experiences, including the differences that others react to on the surface. I would like to be the disabled mentor that I never had. I can’t represent all disability experiences but I know how powerful it is to be seen.
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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.