A Little Fire for the Engine of Change: The Driving Power of Love and Outrage

I’m not exactly sure when I began to view emotion as an obstacle to my advocacy.  When did it become the case that I viewed myself as a less effective advocate if I was “too emotional?”  When did a potential ally, or fellow advocate become someone that I couldn’t work with because he or she “felt too strongly” about an issue? I’m not sure when, but I think that I understand why.  Most of the important issues on which I advocate, from personal care and healthcare, to employment and consumer strength, have rational, policy-based solutions.

Some emotions, most notably, pity, fear, bitterness, or revulsion, really get in the way of these solutions.  Pity or revulsion can devalue the very individuals whose needs are most at stake, while fear and bitterness can alienate potential allies before ever extending a hand.

And yet, passion is the strongest human motivator.  In my hurry to dismiss destructive emotion, I’m beginning to believe that I have been too quick to dismiss the important role of constructive emotion in bringing change.  Laws can change individual behaviors, but it is hearts that change the world.

So here is my emotional prescription: I invite advocates for inclusion to embrace the twin emotions of love and outrage.

This combination, and the idea of productive outrage, might be counterintuitive to some, but bear with me.  Let’s start with love.

Love is an incredible driver of proactive inclusion.

Years ago, as my sister was searching for an apartment in Brooklyn, I was living in Cincinnati Ohio, with little ability to afford plane tickets.  Though not eventually successful, my sister searched tirelessly for an accessible apartment that she could afford.  I did not yet live nearby, and it was unlikely that I was can be a regular visitor, but it was important to her that I could get into her house, if the opportunity arose.

Similarly, upon moving into their new home, my brother and sister-in-law immediately undertook, at significant expense, to build a ramp.  This, even though when we had lived a mere 20 blocks apart, our busy lives had allowed for a visit perhaps once every six months.  Again, it was important to them that I could get into their home, whether or not there were immediate plans for me to visit.

Most recently, my cousin bought a home in Key West Florida, and before she had shared the news of the purchase publicly, she called me delighted to share that the home was accessible and that I could visit whenever I wanted.  Given both of our financial situations, we expect that this visit is a long way off, but still I was in her mind when she purchased her home.

The common theme here is not particularly complicated.  My siblings and my cousin love me.  They want the opportunity for me to be a part of their lives to be built in, not addressed only when there is an occasion.

This type of love drives a lot of the allies of the disability movement.  Parents who want access and dignity for their children, and children who want to be able to share their world with their parents.  Be it these, or siblings, or spouses, or dear friends, it seems to me that almost every time that I meet an inclusion advocate who is not themselves a person with a disability, their advocacy is born of some connection of love to a person with a disability.

Instead of running away from that connection, I propose to grow it.

The Judeo-Christian Bible commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Endless reams of paper, or bits and bytes in today’s age, have been spilled on the meaning of this injunction, and I don’t propose to unpack it today, especially since my thesis is not a religious one.  Rather I propose to paraphrase it.  I propose to suggest that we extend some measure of the love that we would extend to the friends and family described above to our community of neighbors.

This is a hard prescription.  I am essentially asking for each person to embrace a love for a hypothetical person that you haven’t met, and to make your places and programs inclusive because you love them and want them participating in society, even though you don’t yet know who they are.

Certainly, it’s difficult, which is why I presume that the ancient moral code enjoins it.  It’s unnecessary to order those things which people do naturally.  At first, it might even seem nonsensical.  And yet, it’s not really so much of a stretch in this instance.

We, in the disability world, acknowledge that disability is a club that anyone can join at any time, and that everyone, should they be privileged to live long enough, will join.  Today, we talk about the hypothetical stranger.  Tomorrow, it may be your aging parent, or a beloved sibling or spouse with sudden illness or injury, or your newborn, beloved and beautiful, while diagnosed with something making her different.

I guarantee you that love will drive you then, but maybe, just maybe, we can try to get there first, embracing some empathy before it becomes personal.  And maybe, then we can begin to embrace people before they ask.

From this context of love, I think it becomes easier to understand what I mean by outrage.  If you love someone, and the door is figuratively or literally slammed in their face, whether by physical sensory or intellectual access, or simply a lack of opportunity, it is not a stretch to think that you would be outraged.  Certainly, you would be outraged if they were subject to violence, or brutality.

And yet, every day the persistent exclusion of people with disabilities is met with resignation, sadness and regret.  Even I can only summon outrage when a person with a disability is murdered by a parent or caregiver, as happened so recently to London McCabe, or strangled by police, as in the recent case of Robert Ethan Saylor.  It is much more common to react with grief than outrage

I’ll be releasing another piece on this specific idea within the next few days, fully extolling the virtues of outrage, but for now I’d like to focus on outrage is the flipside of love.  It is hard to be outraged at the exclusion of the faceless other, but easy to be outraged at the exclusion of one whom we love.

The bridge, then, is to try to empathize with the excluded other, to love them, or at least realize how easily they could be one of our loved ones.  I question the people who claim to fight for justice simply because of an intellectual conviction that it is the right thing.  I think that the best lawyers for social justice recognize that the people for whom they advocate are simply themselves, if life had gone a little differently.  “There, but for the grace of God, goes me.”

This empathetic outrage, as I will argue for more fully in the next piece, is critical to a true push for change.  Not for counterproductive bitterness, or for blame for the artifacts of exclusion which are so often left over from an earlier time, but for urgency.

The things about which we are sad, we hope to someday change.  The things about which we are outraged, we will not rest until we find a way to change.  With so much work to be done, we need love, with its accompanying outrage, to fuel the engine of practical change.