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A new disability rights and justice group aims to unite activists across the South

The logo of New Disabled South, a new disability rights and disability justice group from former Stacey Abrams campaign advisor Dom Kelly.

By John Ruch

A new Georgia-based disability rights and justice group aims to unite advocates in 14 states in the South, a region notorious for inequities and discrimination.

New Disabled South (NDS) is a nonpartisan effort, though founder Dom Kelly is fresh from coordinating similar advocacy with unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and her voting-rights nonprofit Fair Fight Action.

Dom Kelly, founder of New Disabled South. (Photo by Kevin Lowery.)

“The vision is to achieve justice and liberation for disabled people,” says Kelly, a former professional musician who has cerebral palsy. “We don’t have, in the U.S., any regional disability rights or disability justice strategy at all,” he adds, even though “we in the South face the disproportionate impacts of a lot of issues,” such as healthcare access and employment discrimination.

NDS will kick off in the new year, Kelly said, by tracking and publicizing legislation that affects disabled people and launching a “Southern Disability Justice Coalition” to partner and align various organizations throughout the South. NDS also may engage in “direct actions” like protests, he said.

Mary Fashik of Brunswick is among the activists excited about the effort. She runs an advocacy movement called Upgrade Accessibility and hosts a podcast called “The Politics of Disability.”

“I really think New Disabled South is going to hopefully change the trajectory of the disabled population here in the South,” said Fashik, who has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair. “And open doors that we don’t necessarily get opened for us – and make those doors accessible while we’re at it.”

Among the challenges of organizing the disabled community is its diversity. Some people are born with disabilities; others acquire them. Some people considered disabled by the law do not identify that way, such as members of the Deaf community, which has a distinct culture and language. There is political and cultural debate on the terms of self-identification, with a trend toward “identity-first” language, such as “disabled people,” but many still preferring “person-first,” such as “people with disabilities.” (In this column, I follow the identity-first preference of NDS, Kelly and Fashik.)

Nonetheless, successful organizing has happened for decades at the federal, state and local levels, to which NDS aims to add the regional approach. NDS’s program unites an age-old fight for disability rights with the newer approach to disability justice. “Rights” means civil rights, like those protected in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and its 2008 amendment. “Justice” means a social justice approach of embracing people often shut out of traditional organizations and how disability rights intersect with those of other marginalized groups. “I’m a queer, disabled woman of color, so I have all of these things that are used against me,” says Fashik by way of illustration.

The civil rights struggles for all such groups have been notoriously long in the Southern states where NDS aims to work: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. Georgia nonetheless stands out in some ways, including for significant legal battles where disabled people won rights against state abuses.

The state lost the landmark 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case Olmstead v. L.C., which ruled that mental illnesses are a form of ADA-protected disability and that unnecessary institutionalization of mental health patients is illegal discrimination. (Lois Curtis, the plaintiff in that case, died earlier this month.) Another influential opinion was the 2006 case United States v. Georgia, which opened states to some lawsuits alleging discrimination under the ADA. The plaintiff in that case, Tony Goodman, was a paraplegic state prisoner who alleged that he was placed in a cell too small for his wheelchair to turn around and that staff denied him assistance for such basic human functions as bathing and using the toilet. Right now, some of the several lawsuits challenging Senate Bill 202, Georgia’s 2021 voting reform law, include claims that it discriminates against disabled voters by restricting early-voting or mail-in options and other factors.

Georgia’s disabled population is estimated at around 1.4 million, or 13.5 percent of the total, according to the latest “Annual Disability Statistics Compendium” from the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. And according to statistics in the compendium, that population faces large disparities in such life basics as income and employment.

The employment rate in 2020 for disabled people ages 18 to 64 and living in communities was 36 percent – less than half that of the nondisabled population at 73.4 percent. Annual median earnings for disabled workers were $8,000 lower than that of nondisabled workers. The poverty rate for disabled adults was more than twice that of nondisabled counterparts – 28.2 percent compared to 13.8 percent. Nearly a third of disabled adults living in communities were financially burdened by housing costs, compared to 21.8 percent of nondisabled adults.

Those are the sorts of numbers Kelly hopes NDS can start shifting in a state he came to by the unusual path of rock and roll. He was born in New York state as a triplet, all with cerebral palsy, one of whom died at age 6. He uses leg braces and sometimes a wheelchair.

Nearly 20 years ago, Kelly and his brothers formed an alternative rock band called A Fragile Tomorrow, with him as drummer and vocalist. The band gained the attention of such hit groups as the legendary Atlanta duo Indigo Girls, opening concerts for them and appearing on each others’ albums. Kelly calls them his “tour moms” for bringing the boys on the road. He moved to the South 14 years ago, at age 17, and has lived in Georgia since 2014. NDS is registered at his College Park home.

In 2020, Kelly began working at Fair Fight as a strategist on disabled voters’ rights. Last year, he quit the band – which continues without him – to join the Abrams campaign. There, he helped her write a detailed disability rights platform, worked on fundraising, and led an eight-person accessibility and engagement staff. The platform gave Abrams a leg up on such issues as Georgia employers being allowed to pay some disabled workers below minimum wage. According to a Georgia Recorder report, at a candidate forum in Decatur about disabled community issues, Abrams “staked out policy positions,” while incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp “sent a video update about Hurricane Ian.”

Much of NDS’s program naturally echoes the Abrams platform. “I feel like there’s a lot of momentum around the work Stacey was going to do if she became governor,” said Kelly, while emphasizing his organization is nonpartisan. Abrams is not involved in organizing the nonprofit and Kelly “as of right now, there are no plans” for her to work with it directly.

One big theme NDS shares with the Abrams platform is a focus on expanding Medicaid in Georgia and elsewhere. “Eight out of the 12 states in this country that have not expanded Medicaid are in the South,” he said. “There is money to do it, and it has not been a priority, and it is impacting folks in our community who do not have access to healthcare…. And then, in turn, disabled people live in poverty at more than twice the rate of nondisabled people in the country, and the states with the highest poverty rates are in the South.”

Mary Fashik, founder of Upgrade Accessibility.

Kelly is also not a fan of Kemp’s recently court-approved plan to institute a work requirement for Medicaid coverage. “I think a Medicaid work requirement is ableist,” said Kelly. “… It is not only cruel, it hurts disabled people who are in need of that healthcare who can’t work physically or can’t work 80 hours a month…[and] may not have the access to job opportunities.” He calls it a “travesty” against a basic principle of disability rights and disability justice, “which is, our ability to produce should not impact our value as human beings.”

Another major issue, says Kelly, is addressing the wait lists for people to receive home- and community-based services. Those lists are more than 7,000 names long in Georgia. More than 514,000 are waiting in the Southern states, Kelly said.

NDS also will work on its “three pillars” of tracking legislation, educating the public about them, and conducting research on disability issues, Kelly said.

A previous era’s disability rights organizing created the Centers for Independent Living (CIL) system, where disabled people, with government funding, lead groups to connect people to various services. Metro Atlanta’s CIL is the Tucker-based disABILITY LINK, where Executive Director Kim Gibson said she has yet to hear from NDS. She said CILs remain “underfunded” and that the National Council on Independent Living has an association of Southeastern CIL directors for collaboration.

“Disability justice is an ongoing issue for people with disabilities,” said Gibson. “… Over my years with working in the disability field, I have seen organizations and individuals come and go who were working on the cause. We welcome [NDS] with the spirit of Independent Living and people with disabilities being the expert in their own lives.”

For Fashik in Brunswick, NDS represents more leverage for her practical approach to activism, which started when she realized her motorized wheelchair would not fit into a supposedly accessible stall at a local grocery store, leading her to say, “Accessibility needs an upgrade.” She said NDS has the opportunity to be inclusive and groundbreaking.

“I just feel like this is going to be something that people have not experienced before, both within the disabled community and outside the disabled community as well,” she said. “And also, we’re going to upset some people – and that’s a good thing.”

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1 Comment

  1. Amy Hawkins November 30, 2022 12:12 am

    Yes I am a 56 yr old disabled woman who has been unhoused for 5 yrs now with my xhusband who can I speak with about filing suite against the city that discrimated against us I believe because of my married name we’d been in an accident I was on life duport two weeks he lost his spleen when leaving the hospital I bought a little Ford rangervth as t the clutch went volt a week later I had 4broken ribs and collapsed lung we broke down in a church parking lot and were there for three months the whole city let us down and I want justice we even had section 8 but they striped us from it they said we didn’t find a place soon enough and they took it from us months earlier how when we were working with our case manager at homeless org and he told me day before that I had gotten another month extention am not computer or mechanicly inclined and I need help and what is it gonna take for me or us to get some housing thank you but as well I needvan attorney who will take my case thank you amy hawkinsReport

    Reply

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