An Open Letter To The Disability Organization RespectAbility On Racism And Apologies

09/25/2016 10:26 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2016

An incident has been making waves in the disability activism community this week. On Tuesday, the CEO of the disability organization RespectAbility made the following statement on her Facebook page:

Image Description: Facebook post of Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: “If Hillary wins it will because of white voters who care about
Image Description: Facebook post of Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: “If Hillary wins it will because of white voters who care about people with disabilities. BTW, this is NOT a partisan thing. The same is true of Republican Sen. Richard Burr in NC who is running as the pro-PwDs candidate there.. THE POWER OF VOTERS WITH DISABILITIES WILL DETERMINE THE OUTCOME OF THE 2016 ELECTION! Remember that George H.W. Bush signed the ADA!” Link to Politico article entitled “Exclusive: George H.W. Bush to vote for Hillary”

Disability activists quickly shared their outrage at the idea that “white voters who care about people with disabilities” will somehow be the only factor and deciding demographic in the upcoming election, as this statement is not only extremely racially insensitive, but it also has ableist undertones in its focus on “people who care about people with disabilities” (as opposed to people with disabilities themselves). When challenged on this statement in the comments, Ms. Mizrahi claimed that other groups such as African American voters “were already voting for Hillary for other reasons.”

The disability community does play a significant role in the upcoming election. More than 34 million disabled people are eligible to vote in the upcoming election, and 15.7 million disabled Americans voted in the 2012 election. While this demographic certainly includes a significant amount of older, white disabled people, disability is actually extremely prevalent in communities of color. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, 22.2 percent of Black Americans identified as disabled, higher than any other race (in comparison, 17.4 percent of white Americans identified as disabled).

Effective Get Out the Vote (GOTV) strategy should emphasize that every vote counts, and it should specifically encourage people in marginalized communities ― especially people with multiple marginalizations ― to see the value in their vote and their participation in the political process. Marginalized populations are also more likely to be blocked from exercising their right to vote due to barriers in the political process, such as restrictive voter ID laws that have been proven to reduce voter turnout of Black Americans and accessibility issues at the polls that may complicate or bar disabled Americans from casting their ballots. Unfortunately, despite outrage and education online from disability activists, especially disabled people of color, Ms. Mizrahi doubled down on her statement the next day while being interviewed by CNN, again emphasizing the votes of white Americans.

I join with other disability activists to condemn these statements. While I respect the hard-working staff and fellows of RespectAbility, I condemn their leadership’s problematic statements and the inference that the votes of white citizens will carry more weight than the votes of people of color in this or any election.

On Friday, Ms. Mizrahi released a “formal” apology for her statements. The entire statement consisted of seven words:

Image description: “Public Apology. Friday, 23 September 2016 16:31. ‘I made mistakes. I am very sorry.” - RespectAbility Pre
Image description: “Public Apology. Friday, 23 September 2016 16:31. ‘I made mistakes. I am very sorry.” - RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi.”

Ms. Mizrahi has also reached out to me and to other disability activists to ask to talk to us in private about having caused us offense. I want to recognize this, but at the same time I want to acknowledge the extremely problematic aspects of these actions.

First, trying to take a public conversation on this incident to private, one-on-one conversations is a move to regain control and power over a situation. This conversation started in the public sphere, and many disability activists clearly expressed why her statements are problematic. Despite this, Ms. Mizrahi has asked, or “challenged,” her critics to teach her why her statements are problematic and racially insensitive, which would require other activists to devote their time, energy and resources to helping her improve herself and her organization.

It is not the job of other activists, especially disabled people of color who have pointed out her racially insensitive statements in the past and who have tried to educate her, to hold her hand and teach her about why these recent statements are racist. As the head of a disability organization that wields significant influence especially in the mainstream media during this election cycle, these lessons should already have been learned and understood. However, as Ms. Mizrahi has asked me and other activists to teach why her statements are problematic and her apology is insufficient, I offer the following advice to Ms. Mizrahi and the leadership of RespectAbility:

Your “official apology” was not only insufficient in its seven words, but it comes across as inauthentic, remorseless and even sarcastic. You could begin to make amends with those you have hurt in the disability community by drafting an apology that includes the following:

1. Acknowledge and voice your mistake. You cannot begin to show understanding or remorse for your actions without acknowledging your actions, in your own words, and evaluating why they were so offensive. Without explicitly voicing this, your apology is insufficient.

2. Show genuine remorse. Your statement caused hurt to a number of people, especially people of color who deal daily with oppression and racism that have been built into our society. Without an attempt to understand what this means to them (although as white people, we can never truly understand how they feel) and to empathize, your apology does not come across as genuine.

3. Put forward an actionable plan to fix your mistakes and to learn. Again, it is not the job of those you have offended to teach you why your statements are problematic and hurtful. You should not demand the time and resources of others, especially grassroots activists who work tirelessly with only their own limited resources, to teach you how to respect the value of others. As the head of an organization, you need to figure out how to devote your own staff and resources to correcting your mistakes and making sure that you are racially sensitive in the future.

4. Until you address these mistakes and begin to make genuine amends with the disability community, especially disabled people of color, stop promoting yourself as a representative of our community in the media. Racism has no place in the disability community, and devaluing the votes of disabled people of color sets back our cause.

Acknowledge and call out your own mistakes, put a real effort into learning and improving, and recognize and promote the empowerment of disabled people of color. Show us that you can genuinely learn from this experience and do better.

#DisabilitySolidarity

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