What does disability have to do with the Martin Luther King Holiday?
It’s risky to draw out too many similarities between disability and race. It’s really easy to make these kinds of analogies glib and appropriative. It’s also tempting, and not in a good way, to try and make everything about the Civil Rights Movement match up perfectly with the Disability Rights Movement. The whole thing can get pretty ridiculous and insulting very quickly.
The reason we may think of making the connection is pretty valid though. The everyday experience of both race and disability include social stigma and practical discrimination. In fact, there are reasonable arguments to be made that both race and disability are actually social constructs … that they are in fact all about prejudice, and very little about anything else. I think it’s also worth acknowledging that historically, both the Civil Rights and Disability Rights movements focused on laws and policies to bring about change. And both, to different extents, have seen the limits on how much you can change everyday life by changing laws. You have to do it, but it’s not enough by itself.
Finally, I would say that while the experience of disability is very different in many ways from the experience of race, it is nevertheless true that for many of us with disabilities, disability feels more like race, or other social identities, than it feels like illness or disease. That is still a surprise to some folks when they hear it, and it tends to be a key conceptual breakthrough for disabled people, too, when they have that realization.