Reflecting on ADA 30 While Reckoning with COVID-19 and Racism

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Content note: includes mentions of COVID-19 and police brutality toward Black people

2020 brought us the COVID-19 pandemic and shed a stark light on the pandemic of racism. The impact of both these pandemics continues to grow and serve as reminders of centuries of slavery, oppression, violence, and discrimination. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In response, conversations at all levels about equity, diversity, and inclusion are addressing the challenges, barriers, and practices that deny civil rights protections put into place decades ago. But these conversations are still occurring separately in many ways, primarily with a focus on 1) anti-racism, diversity, and equity or 2) accessibility, inclusion, and equity. While having these conversations is extremely important and necessary, it also leaves me questioning what happens when you have someone like me who belongs to more than one marginalized group.

As a biracial black transman with multiple disabilities who has been able to serve as a human service professional and advocate for over 15 years, I have had the privilege to take part in conversations across many different platforms, tables, and organizations seeking to promote change. This especially became the case over the past 5 years with the rise in different local organizations and companies seeking to improve their diversity and inclusion programming and practices. I found myself receiving many invitations to be a part of these conversations in a guest speaker format for various Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion committees.

In the beginning, when accepting these invitations, I discovered that even as committee members shared with me how they are working to create a welcoming and affirming space, I had to navigate accessibility issues connected to physical layout, communication methods, and cognitive and sensory barriers. I also often had to navigate being the only person of color and the only person with a disability, fighting stigmas and stereotypes while answering questions on my race or disability. I was then praised about how resilient I was, told to keep pushing forward, and thanked graciously for providing a much-needed perspective. These experiences made me feel isolated and like a box on a checklist. I noticed an adverse impact on my self-image and mental health after guest speaking, so I started asking questions whenever I was approached to help determine whether I was a checkbox invite.

A shift in these conversations and advocacy opportunities happened as the two pandemics began to come to a head. First, the conversations around accessibility, inclusion, and equity rose in response to COVID-19 stay at home orders and panic around how to provide accessible distance learning, services and programs, and access to care and resources for individuals with disabilities of all ages. Second, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, conversations, protests, and calls for action connected to diversity, anti-racism, and equity filled the air. Two pandemics were colliding.

Many people like me have been navigating both pandemics as one because of our intersecting identities. Navigating life as a multi-marginalized person during these times in a society full of ableism and racism among other forms of discrimination has provided a lens into why intersectionality must play a role in these conversations and plans all for change.

The Center for Intersectional Justice explains that one key aspect of recognizing intersectionality is “fighting discrimination within discrimination, tackling inequalities within inequalities, and protecting minorities within minorities.” If conversations about equity are not considering the intersecting identities of those involved in the planning and decision making individually and as a collective, then the question comes into play of whether equity can exist. The same holds true for conversations about accessibility and inclusion.

As these conversations continue to evolve, expanding our understanding of how ableism and racism play a role is a valuable asset. It all reminds me to reflect, to advocate, to seek growth and change into a world that will be equitable, accessible, and inclusive for all people. I envision a world that considers each part within the wholeness of an individual at all points of the lifespan. A world in which anti-racism and anti-ableism are a natural part of training, education, professionalism, and everyday interactions. We’ve come a long way in the past 30 years since the passage of the ADA and in discussions of COVID-19 and racism, but we still have a lot more work to do as we continue to fight and advocate for change, justice, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and more.

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Kris McElroy is a writer, artist, advocate, human services professional, and life coach. Born and raised in Maryland, he is a biracial black transgender man with multiple disabilities who enjoys cooking, adaptive sports, traveling, creating, and spending time with his wife and family. He received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Maryland and a Master of Science in Multidisciplinary Human Services from Capella University.