Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020—a mass-disabling event that has put already disabled and chronically ill people at high-risk—much has changed surrounding how disabled people feel about Disability Pride Month. The month, though not nationally recognized, is celebrated each July. It was founded to commemorate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which has prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, access to government services, and more since it was passed in 1990. This week is its 32nd anniversary.
But this month is also a moment to encourage acceptance and to combat the narrative that it’s shameful to be disabled. While the focus has continually evolved, recently, more people have taken July as an opportunity to spread awareness about disabilities and engage non-disabled people in ways to be allies.
In 2022, there are many ways disabled people have chosen to celebrate and reflect. Some people in larger cities like New York have access to public events mandating pandemic precautions and may celebrate. Others have created webinars and events to hold space for discussion, like the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN). Advocates from groups like Body Politic, a collective that supports those with long COVID, honor disabled people by continuing to push for more comprehensive COVID policies. And earlier this month, Collective Action for Safe Spaces released the zine Communal Care against COVID, dedicated to building community safety.
Una Aya Osato is celebrating by touring their sex education show called Ask Me Anything. As a queer Asian disabled and chronically ill artist and organizer based in New York City, they offer a unique perspective to others who might be curious about sex and disability and need a lighthearted way in. The show is about teaching sex education during the pandemic and is “about the world and our bodies and what it’s like to be chronically ill and disabled throughout all this,” Osato explained. Osato is also part of Bed Collective, a group of long COVID survivors building community and collective care projects.
Some disabled people, however, have questioned who this month is even for at this point, sharing that it only feels useful to an extent. Ngozi, a disabled death doula from New York City and an organizer with The People’s Hub, is one of them. They treat this month like any other and continue with resistance and the everyday work of Disability Justice—centering intersectionality and the ways that many systems of oppression amplify and reinforce one another—prioritizing the most systemically harmed and at-risk people, like Black trans disabled people.
While Ngozi celebrates survival, they fear that using the month for education about what communities and individual people can do to help disabled people has clearly not done much if “people will acknowledge Disability Pride Month, and talk about bodily autonomy but plan protests and go and not wear masks.” As state officials have stopped enforcing mask mandates and other mitigation efforts across the country, many high-risk people have become sick or died, or have been forced inside to protect themselves.
In that vein, Merlin, a disabled organizer, shared a similar perspective.
“Getting the conversation going, combatting narratives about stigma and shame are important,” Merlin said. “But it’s really only so helpful if it doesn’t lead to things like better medical care, more access to housing, increased accessibility to public life.”
Because not all feel enthused or satisfied by events, or even providing education, many celebrations look like the usual mutual aid and holding space with other disabled people. During this time, building coalitions and groups where disabled people can engage and provide support to each other has been crucial. To that end, Merlin works with Sick of It, a coalition that amplifies the voices of incarcerated disabled people and provides education about the intersection of prison abolition and disabled liberation. They’ll be releasing a new zine before the end of the month, and are consistently sharing their pen pal program for disabled people outside of prison to create meaningful connections with and provide support for disabled incarcerated people.
“It’s easy to feel, especially as a disabled individual, like you are powerless against such huge webs of oppression, but it’s been so amazing and such an honor to get letters from folks inside,” Merlin said. “Letter writing is a critical part of prisoner support, but it’s also one of the more accessible ways of being involved in resistance work. A lot of activist spaces aren’t accessible and this is a way to get people involved even if they are house or bed bound.”
With governments across the country ignoring COVID-19 and dropping mask and vaccine mandates, it feels urgent now, from Ngozi’s perspective, that disabled people and their allies focus less on legislative interventions like the ADA or better disability funding from the government. It’s clear to many disabled people that politicians will not prioritize their needs. Instead, building community and collective care initiatives that provide support and mutual aid—and that push back against the societal barriers that make accessing care and services so difficult—feels more realistic. Organizers point to coalitions like Project LETS, an anti-carceral peer support network, and Body Politic, which are providing the resources that disabled people need and creating new care frameworks.
Still, some feel this moment in history makes Disability Pride Month all the more important because it’s an avenue to amplify messages that advocates work to spread year-round.
“Disability Justice asks us to question: ‘Am I creating spaces where the most people have access to it, and especially our most vulnerable community members?” Osato emphasized.
Organizers believe that Disability Pride Month is an opening to usher people into the movement, help them unpack internalized ableism and understand how it affects everyone, and build solidarity. Ngozi, Osato, and other disabled organizers who spoke with Prism all expressed the need to work toward a future where everyone understands how they can be part of Disability Justice.
“This month is just a moment where we hope maybe other people pay attention to us,” Osato said. “If there’s anything we can take away from these years, let it be that we are all so deeply connected, and we need each other, and to be looking out for each other.”