Sermon resources: D: MLK

Fighting for Freedom: Dr. King and the Disability Movement Today
by Access Living on Monday, January 21, 2013 at 11:33am ·

Dear Access Living friends and allies,

As the nation honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., today, we at Access Living take to heart many ways in which he continues to inspire the disability movement, especially at Centers for Independent Living.

First and foremost, Dr. King asserted his right to define his own humanity. For people with disabilities, this lesson is vital because we are a group too often limited and dehumanized by the definitions that are imposed upon us. In particular, we are hobbled by definitions with a medical bias---that we are ill, that we are limited, that we are not capable of running our own lives. These definitions are dangerous because they reside deep in our social consciousness and are held by even the most well intended persons. We at Access Living, in the spirit of Dr. King, assert that we people with disabilities are our own best definers of our humanity and what it means for us to be free.

Second, Dr. King demonstrated that not all laws or social rules are fair or just, and that when injustice exists, we must take action. Thousands upon thousands of disability activists have taken this lesson to heart in fighting for disability civil rights laws and regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, and the granddaddy, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Whether we have negotiated, protested, gotten arrested, or just sued, we have done what it takes to make change and will continue to do so. Thousands more have also built programs and organizations dedicated to increasing our freedom to live in our communities---such as Centers for Independent Living, run by and for people with disabilities.

Third, Dr. King understood that an important reason that people took risks to fight for justice was because the whole community would support each other, and allies would help: solidarity and fellowship. The communal and personal risks that people with disabilities have taken have been made easier by solidarity from fellow people with disabilities who understand our personal shared history. This has been true when thousands fight for a civil rights law, or when one person with a disability wants to escape a nursing facility and is helped by fellow people with disabilities.

Fourth, Dr. King's campaigns involved many of our disability activists and inspired the direction of some of our most important campaigns. Wade Blank, a founder of ADAPT, marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery as a young man, which forever changed his life. In the late 1970s, the activists which would become ADAPT took on a national campaign to put wheelchair lifts on buses, so that people with disabilities would not be trapped for lack of transit. Here in Chicago, ADAPT led a fierce campaign for bus lifts which culminated in a lawsuit by Access Living against the Chicago Transit Authority. That lawsuit resulted in a decision on Dr. King's birthday in 1990 that all CTA buses would have lifts.

Last, Dr. King's last speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," has special meaning for us not only in its look at the oppression of the last few thousand years but also because it expresses the conviction that we will, in our struggle for justice, get where we want to go. People with disabilities have experienced cultural oppression for thousands of years, and yet each instance of discrimination now hurts as freshly as ever. We must keep up the fight. Moreover, the speech expresses that we must strengthen ourselves, and the institutions and programs we have built. Disability organizations, disability programs, disability-run advocacy and services, must be strong. We must be part of the effort to free our own people. If you would like to see the original speech, please look at

While Access Living fights for disability rights at the local, state and national levels, the majority of the people with disabilities who actually come to our office for services are black people with disabilities living in poverty. The next largest group is people with disabilities who are Latino/a living in poverty. Thus, Dr. King's struggle reminds us that we at Access Living MUST fight every single day not only for the rights of people with disabilities, but also people of color and people who are poor. Our community's voices must be at the forefront of social change that affects our lives.

As I write this, President Barack Obama is about to be publicly sworn in for a second time, a historic moment for the first black president of the United States. And standing beside him will be, among others, his wife Michelle Obama, whose father had multiple sclerosis. The disability experience affects us one and all, especially when society reduces our freedom. So we must continue to fight to free our people.

Access Living is closed for business today in honor of Dr. King. We will re-open as usual on Tuesday, January 22.

Amber Smock

Director of Advocacy, Access Living