21 01 2008

The Wisdom of Martin Luther King and Disability Equality

Sunday, January 20, 2008


It would be difficult to over-estimate the importance of Dr. King’s influence on disability rights and advocacy.  His dream of equality was contagious, and his words and deeds resonated with persons with disabilities and their families, giving hope and direction to their efforts to secure their Constitutionally guaranteed right to live, learn, work, play and participate all equal members in society.  We can honor his memory by remembering his wisdom, today and everyday.  Here are a few quotes, words of Dr. King that I believe are as important today as they were when he spoke them and as important for disability advocates to remember as those who still strive to achieve the racial equality of his dream.

Two quotes from Dr. King, that to me, seem of particular significance to disability equality:

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  (I Have a Dream)

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” (Acceptance of the Nobel Prize)

But perhaps most relevant to our current efforts, Dr. King boldly posed the question at a speech in St. Louis “Are we really making any progress?”  In his speech at the Freedom Rally, Dr. King recognized the dangers of answering this question with extreme optimism or extreme pessimism—because both lead to inaction.  The optimist fails to act because the need does not seem great enough; the pessimist because such action seems futile.  The disability rights movement has made enormous progress, particularly in the last 30 years, and we should celebrate these successes.  But we must also recognize the barriers that continue to separate families of children with disabilities from their communities, the enormous gap between rights “on the books” and rights “on the street,” and the attitudes and perceptions that continue to foster and drive discrimination against those in our society who are most vulnerable to invidious treatment.  Finally, we must look to the future—envision a better world, have the “audacity” to believe we can achieve it, and continue the hard work of making it happen.




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