S01 E08: Disability Rights Are Civil Rights

Pod for the Cause host Ashley Allison welcomes Vilissa Thompson, creator of #DisabilityTooWhite and founder of RampYourVoice, to discuss how disability rights are civil rights — and how we should all hold each other accountable for disability discrimination, both within the movement and our lives. Thompson makes the case for why we should all speak up about the intersection of racism and disability rights.

Pod Squad

Emely Recinos Student | Intern NYU | The Leadership Conference
Maria Town President and CEO American Association of People with Disabilities
Mia Ives-Rublee Founder and Coordinator Disability Caucus for the Women’s March on Washington

Interview Guest

Vilissa Thompson Creator | Founder #DisabilityTooWhite | RampYourVoice

Our Host

voting rights, human rights, civil rights Ashley Allison Executive Vice President of Campaigns and Programs The Leadership Conference

Contact the Team

For all inquiries related to Pod For The Cause, please contact Brittany Johnson at [email protected] and Kenny Yi at [email protected].

Episode Transcript

[Music 00:00 – 00:09]


Ashley: Welcome to Pod for the Cause – the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights challenges of our day. I’m your host, Ashley Allison, coming to you from Washington, D.C. Like we start off every show, everybody say hello to the Pod Squad, where we discuss pop culture and social justice topics while incorporating our issues into the conversation.

Today I have three amazing guests: Emely Recinos, rising senior at NYU, majoring in international relations and minoring in peace and conflict studies, but also an intern at the Leadership Conference; Maria Town, President and CEO of American Association of People with Disabilities; and Mia Ives-Rublee, founder and coordinator of the Disability Caucus for the Women’s March on Washington. Today we’re talking about accessibility, people with disabilities, and the intersection of disability and civil rights. Welcome to the show ladies.

Maria: Thank you!

Emely: Thank you.

Mia: Thanks.

Ashley: We started off with Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” and so I just have to be truthful. Today I’m actually joined by two guests remotely because actually the place where we record is not accessible, and so ladies I’d actually like to apologize for not being able to have you in-studio, and the truth is, we’re a civil rights organization, people work for justice, we need to do better and make sure that we’re using places and we’re welcoming everyone to places that they can fully live in their full dignity because that’s what we are all about. Thank you for still joining us. We really appreciate it. Talking about being able to live in your full dignity, the man in the White House, Trump, called out four women of color in Congress, talking about “go back where you came from.” Mia, I’m gonna come to you. Thoughts, reactions, were you surprised?

Mia: No, of course I’m not surprised. Growing up as an Asian American, growing up as an immigrant myself, I heard it all the time. If it made any criticism or anything like that, I would be told, “Why don’t you go back to your country?” and the funny thing is, is that I didn’t choose to come to this country. I was brought here because I was adopted. It doesn’t even matter how many generations your family has been here, if you came here by choice or by circumstances, by force – you still get that comment, and it’s totally related to your race. You don’t hear a bunch of white people who are immigrants being told that all the time. It’s usually people of color.

Ashley: Yeah. Maria, what do you think about this?

Maria: The Squad – they’re Americans, and whether they immigrated here or were born here, it doesn’t make a difference. It does matter. The other thing that the president is adding to all of his critiques of these powerhouse women is that they’re negative, and they’re critical, and part of what I think it actually means to be an American is to believe in something better, and to believe that we can actually get there. Part of that belief, part of actualizing it, is actually being critical because you care about this country and the people in it.

Ashley: Yeah. Emely, thoughts?

Emely: As the daughter of Salvadorian immigrants who actually came to this country during the time of El Salvador’s civil war, these types of comments just enrage me because I know what my parents went through to come to this country, and it wasn’t a choice for them. It was a matter of, I need to go because it’s not safe here, and so I think that, unfortunately, people like our president do not understand that this is the reality for many people – violence is a reality, and that’s why people are coming here. We should be welcoming them and giving them all the opportunities that we have.

Ashley: Not to mention this is a country of immigrants. Let’s just be real. This country belongs to the indigenous people of this land, and they ain’t white. And then this country was built by slaves, and they wasn’t white. And then this country was flooded with immigrants through the Statue of Liberty, through Ellis Island. It’s a country of immigrants, and to say “go back where you came from,” there’s one group of people that actually are originally from here. I used to hear that all the time, “Go back to Africa” or whatever, and I used to say, “Gladly.” Send me back because I’d like to go back to the Motherland. Actually, speaking of Africa, The Lion King

[Singing The Lion King opening] 

Alright, couple of things. Beyoncé, Nala – I haven’t seen it. Anyone seen it yet? 

Maria: No.

Mia: No. I wish I had.

Ashley: I just wanna talk about the soundtrack. Everybody when you’re growing – I started singing “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” but my girl B, she put a whole separate soundtrack out for The Lion King just because she can. Have you all heard any of the music, “Spirited,” or the video? She got Blue Ivy all up in it. What do you think? 

Mia: I think it’s beautiful.

Maria: Last week was hard, and “Spirit” and the extended cut “Spirit” and “Bigger” got me through last week.

Ashley: Yes.

Maria: I just think it’s amazing, and then the whole album – I think it’s “Mood Forever” or “Forever Mood” – is also great. Anyway, y’all should give it a listen.

Ashley: Yeah, I have it on repeat right now, and then I’m the type of girl, when I see a video and they’re dancing, I have to learn the choreography. I’ve been in my apartment doing the little moves that they do in the different multicolored clothes. Yeah, and then also Beyoncé made big news because royalty meets royalty. Did y’all see those photos or hear about the photos? Oh my goodness. Mia, what do you think about Markle and Beyoncé?

Mia: I think, discounting all the political shenanigans and the racial tensions that continue to rise in this country, seeing representation at the highest levels, doing their thing – it’s wonderful to see. 

Ashley: Yeah. What about you all, Maria, Emely?

Maria: First, both of them looked amazing. You’re looking at the pictures because Beyoncé is hugging an actual princess, but you’re also just like, “Wow” – 

Ashley: But she’s queen.

Maria: Exactly. Queen Bey meets a princess. One of the comments I saw online a bunch was like, “Oh my gosh, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have a bigger entourage/security detail than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.” I thought that was interesting. I just moved back to DC from Houston, and there were times when people would be like, “Why haven’t y’all consulted Beyoncé on some city issues?” She just has such power, and I think with “Spirit” and the whole album, knows how to use it in a way that is true to her, and that everybody was honored in that moment. It was amazing.

Emely: Also because Meghan has been, I feel like, such an instrumental part of maybe changing the conversation about race in Britain, and maybe expanding that conversation. I think it’s beautiful to see both these incredible women together like this.

Ashley: Yeah. Okay, so the Russians. The Russians got us again. There’s this app that recently came out about – this is the problem sometimes with people. I don’t know why you wanna see yourself older. Just be present in the moment, but we all needed to see ourselves, and now the Russians have all of our faces. The app basically, you put a picture up and then it can make you look extremely young, which I will say, the accuracy of that photo was more spot-on than the racist way they put my face together. They made me look – I know what I’m gonna look like when I’m older ‘cause my grandma’s skin didn’t crack ‘cause black don’t crack, and they made me look like the bottom of a elephant foot, basically. It was the worst picture I’ve ever seen, so I didn’t post it on social media, but it was all a ploy by the Russians to get our faces. Did any of y’all do it?

Emely: No.

Maria: No. 

Ashley: Well, you’re smarter than me. The Russians don’t have you that way. 

Mia: No, I think that understanding how much tech has on our identity, whether it’s facial recognition, et cetera – even in the United States, not speaking about Russia and the things that they deploy in terms of security – but even the United States and how right now Amazon has contracts with police agencies, and with ICE, and CBP, and that they’re deploying that against people of color and people with disabilities. There was a comment out there, don’t talk about the federal government using it to spy on people with disabilities who received SSI and SSDI to prove that they weren’t disabled. I’m actually more worried about what Amazon and Facebook are doing than this whole Russia thing. That’s bad in itself, but what can the federal government do using Facebook, using Amazon, using these contracts to really attack people of color and disabled people of color?

Emely: When I heard about that, that the federal government was going to be spying on people with disabilities to see if you actually had a disability, and determining whether you actually needed SSI or not – I was extremely disappointed because I feel like, unfortunately, if you don’t seem like you have a severe disability, people might assume you don’t need assistance, you don’t need this. Who’s to tell me what I need and don’t need? You don’t know. You don’t have my disability.

Ashley: Yeah, I know, Maria, you do a lotta work advocating for the disability community. How prevalent is something like this on a day-to-day basis, people wanting to challenge how folks identify with their disability?

Maria: I think it’s very prevalent. The fright around disability benefit abuse is much greater than actual instances of benefit fraud, and what I don’t think people understand is the experience of becoming eligible for something like SSI – Supplemental Security Income – is not a good one. It’s very belittling. It is laborious. If you ever want to experience a bureaucracy in full force, go apply for SSI. That is not something people wanna subject themselves to. 

Whenever people talk to me about fraud, it’s just like, “What don’t you understand?” As somebody who was on SSI for a very long time, the money that I received helped me get access to different therapies, it helped me get access to a hospital bed when I had surgery, but it also helped my family survive because the issues weren’t just with me as a person with a disability, but my single mom who was putting herself through nursing school while raising three children with disabilities.

One of the things that I wanna see happen is that people who receive benefits can be open about their experiences without fear of either government or community retribution ‘cause if you’re somebody who has grown up poor, and had to get that free lunch, or that government cheese, sometimes there’s a lotta shame around that, and there shouldn’t be. You’re doing what you need to survive, and we shouldn’t have people be fearful of what they post online because they’re afraid that those benefits will be taken away.

The other thing you said, Ashley – you’re right that technology could be used to produce so much good, but I’ll be real. I’m a little – I shouldn’t say this. I’m a lot jaded because so much technology that’s created on a daily basis is just created in an inaccessible way. Not only are we trying to take down barriers in the physical environment, but one of the things that came out recently was that none of the Democratic presidential hopefuls had websites who were accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. It’s like, come on folks, it’s 2019. One in every four adults have a disability, and a new report just came out showing what a significant voting bloc people with disabilities are – report from Rutgers – and yet, your websites aren’t even accessible. Do better.

Ashley: It’s like, do you even wanna engage with me? Today I have Emely Recinos, the rising senior at NYU and intern at the Leadership Conference, Maria Town, President and CEO of AAPD, American Association of People with Disabilities, and Mia Ives-Rublee, founder and coordinator of the Disability Caucus and the Women’s March on Washington. 

I wanna talk about something else. Recently, the House passed increasing the minimum wage to 15, but an issue also that is real to the disability community is the sub-minimum wage, and that’s when people with disability basically do the same work as other people, but get paid less. Why do you feel like – and it’s not an issue that is talked about a lot – but why do you feel like people don’t know about this or don’t fight for it, and don’t try and increase it? Why don’t we go to you first, Emely.

Emely: I just think that, unfortunately, disability issues are not often brought up in the media. They never receive attention or the attention that they deserve, and I think that’s why most people don’t know that the disability community is facing these issues, and that this is going on. Also because there is such a stigmatization of having disability, I think this also prevents people from talking about these issues, and basically seeing that these are legitimate concerns.

Ashley: Yeah! Mia, what do you think about this? Why don’t you think it’s more prominent?

Mia: I think a lotta people have this misconception that disabled people can’t work. They feel like any type of activity or workplace an individual gets is a gift to them. We saw it in a post from Goodwill, who said that these aren’t jobs that these individuals are doing. Menial tasks – you’re stuffing envelopes for hours, you’re accounting, mail – you’re doing these very menial, very repetitive jobs, often, and a lotta people see them as just not full humans, and not requiring the same respect the people without disabilities get. They see it as a charity. 

That mindset allows people to feel like it’s okay if we’re not paying them full time. It’s okay because we have to pay these other people who have to train them, or these individuals aren’t doing as much work as these other individuals without disabilities, and I just wanna call BS on that. I worked for a division of Vocational Rehabilitation for six years, working with individuals with disabilities, helping them find employment, and I’ve seen what happens when you integrate people into workplaces, and how valued they feel, and how much they contribute to that workplace, so I call BS on it. 

Ashley: Thanks again to Emely, Maria, and Mia for joining us on the Pod Squad. Coming up, we have a very special guest, Vilissa Thompson, so don’t go anywhere.


[Music 15:15 – 15:36]


Ashley: Welcome back to Pod for the Cause. Today we are talking about accessibility, people with disabilities, and the intersections of disability and civil rights. We have a special guest with us today: Vilissa Thompson, creator of #disabilitytoowhite and founder of Ramp Your Voice. Welcome to the show, Vilissa. 

Vilissa: Hi.

Ashley: How you doing?

Vilissa: Nice to be on. Doing good.

Ashley: Yeah, yeah it’s hot out here in the summer weather, but we all surviving. Look, let’s just jump right into it: #disabilitytoowhite, you started it. Why do we need to know that disability is too white?

Vilissa: I started it three years ago as a reaction to an xoJane article about disability beauty, and it featured three perspectives of white disabled women. They had imagery of white disabled women in the article, and I stumbled upon the conversation happening about it, and that exclusionary factor, and the hashtag just came to mind during the conversation, and just took off over the next 24, 48 hours and went viral. Disabled people of color talking about the erasure of us when it comes to certain topics, and the harm of that, and then white people brought up how they’ve even witnessed that, and how troubling it is. 

Also, of course, when you talk about anything with race, disabled and non-disabled white folks got in their feelings and were upset about bringing up race in general. It had a polarizing effect of sorts when it comes to the conversation and revealing the truth that we always talk about privately, but making those public conversation. Even three years later, the hashtag is still being used when certain matters come up that are either exclusionary or a prime example of whiteness being pervasive when it comes to the disabled narrative or white leadership being problematic. I think it re-emphasized how people are feeling, and it was very catchy. It’s in your face, kinda go crazy.

Ashley: It is in your face.

Vilissa: It just took a life of its own, but I am very proud of the impact that it’s had on the community. It’s been featured within academia, it has been a part of panel discussions that I’ve been on and outside of my work, so it has really been a marker of hashtags by the community.

Ashley: I will say, when I first stumbled on it a couple years ago, I thought I said, of course it’s too white because most of the conversations that we still have in this country are rooted through the lens of whiteness, and so it was so timely and important to interject this into the conversation, but as you mentioned, sometimes that’s a hard thing for people who are white to hear. I’m wondering what backlash, if any, have you gotten in the disability community, and if folks have really come up – either a person with a disability or without a disability – if folks have been coming to your defense to say, no, this is an important conversation to have?

Vilissa: I think when you talk about race and forcing white people to recognize their privilege, and the either intentional or unintentional harm that they cause, there’s gonna be backlash from them because holding that mirror up is not something that they want to see themselves in. When the hashtag went viral, and when I did get the backlash, particularly being called the N word –

Ashley: Oh wow.

Vilissa: Online. Yeah, it was pretty intense when it went viral. People did come to my defense, but as a black woman, a black woman who’s vocal, we should never be surprised at the backlash that we receive when it comes to race. And that’s very upsetting and saddening to say, but it’s reality. When you’re black and vocal, and a woman or femme, that’s what happens. There has been greater support than hate for it. I think that those who do hate the hashtag or have a problem with it, that’s a personal problem because it’s probably getting them to see the role that they have played in the perpetuation of racism, either being complicit in it or being an active perpetuator. 

I think that people have a problem with the hashtag, and it’s something that they need to be held accountable for. I think the hashtag has allowed particularly white, disabled folks to really have something to call it when they see those issues come up, when they see racism in our community come up, and I think that’s very important because we do have a lotta racists within the disability community. A lot of our leadership are white, male, and disabled, and a good many of them are problematic. I think the hashtag really allowed the floodgates of sorts to really be opened to have these honest discussions about who is really a co-conspirator or accomplice in our community versus someone who’s a part of the good ol’ boys club, someone who wants to retain the status quo for their benefit, and for the benefit of those that look like them. 

For me, the hashtag was a much-needed conversation and propeller, to clean house, and to really force ourselves, particularly in this space, to figure out who is with us and who’s against us.

Ashley: That’s right.

Vilissa: In the disabled community.

Ashley: I say smoke ‘em out. Let ‘em know.

Vilissa: We have a racism problem. Very stark one.

Ashley: You are pretty busy. You have the #disabilitytoowhite, and you also are the founder of Ramp Your Voice. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what that effort is about, and how and if they can get involved in it?

Vilissa: I actually created Ramp Your Voice – it’ll be six years on July 19th – as a way to allow myself to have a space, as a black, disabled woman who’s also a social worker. Before I created Ramp Your Voice in 2013, I was blogging as a social worker about the disabled experience, since no one was really doing that, essentially, at that time, and no one really is still in some ways, and I wanted to be able to merge the identities in a more fluid way. Ramp Your Voice was my way of talking about the issues that mattered to me in a very unrestricted environment, touching on issues such as sexuality, race, politics, education – those are the things that matter to me and has allowed me to be seen as a voice who can tackle different topics effortlessly, and intertwine the intersectionality piece of that. 

At that time, there weren’t many black, disabled women that seen me talk about disability. Me and [inaudible] came on the scene around that same time – 2013, 2014 – so we grew up together as peers, filling in a gap that we all saw with our voices and my perspective that’s unique to me.

Ashley: I wanna talk about intersectionality because Kimberle Crenshaw – the fabulous, brilliant, Kimberle Crenshaw – really inserted that word into the conversation to talk about black women, so it is so refreshing. It’s a word that the movement uses a lot. It’s been appropriated by all people, which, whatever – to each his own – but it really was started about the intersectionality of black woman, so I love the fact that you’re a black woman being able to use it. For you, what does intersectionality mean in regards to the work that you’re doing?

Vilissa: I always say that the way I navigate the world, I cannot tell if the one thing hate or discriminatory towards me because of my gender, my race, and my disability because sometimes they all can be affecting me at the same time, and I don’t have time to really try to figure out which one is the root cause of an unpleasant or offensive experience. I think that an issue that I have within both black spaces and disability spaces is that people want you to fragment yourself. If you wanna talk about the issue, then I’m like, “I’m just as black as I am a woman, and I’m a woman just as I am disabled.” If I’m going to be in your space, you need to see all of me instead of seeing the part of me that is similar to you. 

For me, intersectionality gives me the ability to speak about my truth unapologetically and to have it respected within the spaces that I am a part of, within the communities I am a part of, and to not allow people to segment me, and only look at the parts that make them feel warm and fuzzy, and overlook the parts that they may not know how to address, or they don’t want to address.

Ashley: You live in South Carolina, and there’s a couple people coming through South Carolina recently because something in coming up in 2020, like a primary and an election. I’m interested for you as a voter with different issues that are important to you, based on just the work that you do, but also just as an individual – what do you feel like the candidates, particularly on the Democratic side that are battling it out right now – need to be thinking about to get your vote? 

Vilissa: Right now I’m not picking anybody ‘cause I feel like there’s too many people to pick.

Ashley: Me too, girl, me too.

Vilissa: I am paying keen attention to the candidates who are talking about issues specific to women of color, and also I am very looking forward to those same candidates to bring disability into that matter because both issues are a part of the political scene and need to be integrated into every social issue because disability is within every social issue, and to integrate it and not just fragment it at times. 

I think there is one particular candidate as of right now who is making a step to really engage black women. I saw the effort at the recent Netroots – I wasn’t there at Netroots, but I know of the black women and femmes that were at this meeting with Elizabeth Warren – that was the candidate – and really was very impressed by the reactions that some of those women that I respect had through her engagement with them at that meeting. Elizabeth is, in some ways, leading the pack in talking about issues that pertain to black women and women of color. I wish that others would take her lead. Again, I’m not endorsing anybody, but I am paying keen attention.

Ashley: Yeah.

Vilissa: Elizabeth is someone who has gotten my attention because of the effort that she is making. There is plenty of time between now and [inaudible] the primary, and then the general elections next November, so anything could happen, but I think we do need to hold these candidates – regardless of who they are – accountable of the issues that brings to the table. Not just talking points, but actually bringing feasible policy. That’s what I’m looking for at this point – someone who has policies. 

I don’t want you to just talk about eliminating student debt. I want you to have a feasible plan out there. I don’t want you to just talk about the mortality rate of black women, femmes, when it comes to childbirth. I want you to have a plan on how you’re going to increase healthcare for us. I want you to have a plan. And when it comes to disability, I want you to have a plan on ending the sub-minimum wage, which allows disabled people to be paid below –

Ashley: Below, yeah. Much.

Vilissa: Federal –

Ashley: It’s like two dollars and 12 cents or something crazy like that. 

Vilissa: Yes. Ending the 14(c) certificates that allows that. I want you to have a plan on that issue because that’s an employment issue that gets swept under the rug because it’s a disability issue. I really want candidates to integrate disabilities policy within their framework, and also target within those same frameworks, disability issues that matter to us, that we are looking for you to discuss. The candidates, they have a lotta work to address the issues that matter to me within the identities that I have.

Ashley: Alright, we’re coming up on our last question, and I’ve been doing this little thing, so I’m gonna ask you to say one word – I’m gonna ask you a question, and then I want you to give me a one-word response. When you think about what the disability community needs to do in this moment that we are in in our country, what is one word you would say as a charge to them?

Vilissa: Callout.

Ashley: Callout, okay. Callout. We need to call a lotta people out, but that’s for another show. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I have Vilissa, the creator of #disabilitytoowhite and the founder of Ramp Your Voice. Coming up, I’ll hit you with some real talk during our hot takes segment, where I get a few things off my chest in three minutes or less.


[Music 27:51 – 28:19]


Ashley: Welcome back to Pod for the Cause, where we’ve been talking about accessibility, people with disabilities, and the intersection of disability and civil rights, and between our Pod Squad and Vilissa Thompson, I have a few things to say. When I started my college years, my father started to lose his vision. We didn’t really know what was happening. We didn’t know why he was losing his vision, but it just started to deteriorate, and over the course of about five years, he went from having 20/20 vision to literally, when I came home one Christmas, and I sat at the kitchen table, he looked in my direction and said, “Who is that?” which meant he couldn’t see me at all. 

That was a mourning process because his life was going to be changed forever, but at the same time, he also got a great opportunity to learn new skills because there were so many resources available, things that I had no clue about, and quite honestly, things I should’ve known about because I used to be a high school special education teacher. You would think some of the resources that were available for my father would’ve also been available for my students, but the difference between my father and my students was that my father was a retired physician, and so he had access to health insurance that put him in what we call blind school casually, and taught him how to acclimate, and walk around, and figure out how to maneuver without sight. It taught him about JAWS, which is a software that helps you read things on the computer. 

But my students were in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and they were poor. We didn’t have – other than their individual education plan, which often required for more resources – our school just never had the budget to have them for the students. People, no matter where they come from, no matter what their racial background is, no matter what their gender is, and whether they are able-bodied or disabled, should not have to determine what their quality of life will be or what their opportunities will be based on the paycheck. We know, in this country, that’s pretty much what it comes down to, is how much money you have to give yourself an opportunity. 

Today I want you to all think about when you’re walking down the street, and you take things like walking for granted, or when you look at a picture of your friend, and you take sight for granted, or when you hear your favorite song, maybe the one we drop at the end of this podcast, you take your hearing for granted. I want you to think about the blessings and the privileges that you have, and then I also want you to think about the responsibility and the accountability you have to make sure everyone has access to be able to come into our podcast studio, to make sure they can go to work, to make sure they can go to school because that’s the America that Pod for the Cause, and that’s the America that I wanna live in.


[Music 31:11 – 31:26]


Ashley: Thank you for listening to Pod for the Cause, the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org, and to connect with me, hit me up on Twitter, @podforthecause. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five star review. Until then, for Pod for the Cause, I’m Ashley Allison, and remember, a cause is nothing without the people.