Ain't I An Activist?: On Stevie Wonder and the Violence of Inaccessibility

Updated March 05, 2016 3:42pm PST

"“Why isn't this being called activism?” 

Late last week, Leroy Moore, founder of Krip Hop and co-founder of Sins Invalid, black disabled poet and activist, who is also a connoisseur of all things black and disabled in music, tagged me in a Facebook post about Stevie Wonder's words at the Grammys to ask me that exact question. 

This sparked my curiosity about how it was being talked about. I soon found Huffington Post's headline: “Stevie Wonder Had the Most Touching Moment at the 2016 Grammy's.”

While it has yet to be determined how social change generated will manifest in this year and the coming, 2016 already seems to be the year of fearless social commentary. We have Beyoncé's incredible/incredibly black and female empowerment anthem “Formation”—in video form and live at the Superbowl—which critiques police murder of Mario Woods and other black victims as well as national and largely white ignorance and negligence surrounding Hurricane Katrina and violence in New Orleans, and aligns itself with the radical work of the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter. And we have Kendrick Lamar's Grammy's performance, which also calls attention to the mass incarceration of black people, police brutality, and white supremacist fear of African roots. And we are having discussions about the contrasting of the two performances, and questions as to how black women are held to harsher standards than black men 

I'm here for all of it. And I was especially here for Stevie Wonder's commentary as he announced "Song of the Year" at the Grammy's. Wonder began by teasing the audience about whether or not they could read Braille as he opened the envelope, and then paused before announcing the winner:

“I just want to say, before announcing the winner, that we need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.”

The audience roars their affirmation, and he gets a couple reverent pats on the arms, but what do they really think about this statement? And do they realize that it's radical? While Wonder is sing songing “You can't read Bra-aille Na Na Na-Na Na!”, a camera cut to the nominees in the audience shows an extremely confused looking Taylor Swift, who looks as though she is not sure whether or not she should laugh, and also like maybe her feelings are about to get hurt. So much for reflexivity and intersectional feminism!

This is a frequent response from nondisabled people when disabled people make jokes. (And sometimes from white people when black people make jokes). Similarly, Moore said this to me when we discussed it over coffee and crepes: “Wonder's statement elicited nervous laughs. There is this discomfort with disability. Like it is an untouchable topic.”

While most marginalized people are resented and reviled for making political commentary about our positions in society, or for poking fun at the unchecked privileges of dominant groups, disabled people, in all of our identity intersections, tend to be additionally patronized for speaking up for our rights. Is this to make the topic more approachable? Or rather, to make us more approachable? Is it because disabled people are viewed as eternal children?

This is not to say that nondisabled people don't take disability empowerment as a threat, because the United States eugenics movement, and the mass sterilizations, institutionalizations, incarcerations, and police murders of disabled people have proven that we are scary to them too. But I find it interesting that performances and statements by the likes of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are called powerful and unapologetic, but Stevie Wonder's statements and actions are called touching and downright adorable.

Augusto Boal critiqued theatre which ended at catharsis for the audience. It was the aim of Theatre of the Oppressed to carry the audience beyond the moment of weeping, internal movement and release, into action and social change. In fact, to compel the audience to carry themselves. What is it about Stevie Wonder's words that reads to nondisabled and white audiences as a friendly suggestion, rather than a call to action? 

Is it because white audiences, reading Stevie Wonder has a peace loving, gentle blind man, are less likely to feel threatened by his politics as a black man? Stevie Wonder has never been a politically neutral person. He has spoken out against war and societal violence, and pulled out of performing in Israel when his fans called attention to the occupation of Palestine, which he further related to his involvement in opposing South African apartheid. Moore writes:

"As we all know, well at least Stevie Wonder's hard core fans, that Wonder is more than a musician from his days of fighting against apartheid of South Africa to donating his own money to make sure technology is accessible to people with disabilities to being the key activist/musician to push for a Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and even today as an UN Ambassador of people with disabilities."

How is it not perceived that Stevie Wonder, like other high profile black performers, is saying, when he speaks out against injustice, #blacklivesmatter, and in fact, #blackdisabledlivesmatter?

There is something about our intersecting identities that makes society want to neutralize one or the other.

Multiplicity is just too scary. Especially a multiplicity of need, want, demand, desire. SNL, in their sketch, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” aptly pokes fun at the intersecting ignorance of people with multiple privileges about people with multiple marginalized identities. On Beyoncé and Kerry Washington both being black:

White Man in Office #1: “How can they be black? I thought they were women!?”

White Man in Office #2: “I THINK THEY'RE BOTH."

White Man in Office #1: “How can they be black? I thought they were women!?”

White Man in Office #2: “I THINK THEY'RE BOTH.”

Slayed me! But partially because it is incredible how recent this kind of not-so-complex societal comprehension of intersectionality feels. Perhaps in the world of some black people, some disabled people, and many many white nondisabled people, being black and disabled is not yet possible.

While it's easily highlighted that the vast majority of police killings are of black people and people of color, no matter the races of police involved, it is not as often highlighted the links between race and disability in police brutality. Unless youkeep up with Sins Invalid, or choose to make connections between multiple stories, like one must. When we say Justice for Mario Woods, for Natasha McKenna, for Sandra Bland (who's abuse and murder were made to look like a suicide and backed up due to her mental health history), we must say yes, #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, and we must also be less afraid to name disability as a reality of experience and oppression and as a reason people are targeted for violence. 

Too often, “crazy” is thrown out as a derogatory word, as if there are no real people impacted daily by this ignorance and dismissiveness. The list of disabled people killed in the past few years by police is long, and includes (mostly) Black people, Latino people, Native people, and white people. Mario Woods, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, Kristiana Coignard, Natasha McKenna, Paul Castaway, Quintonio LeGrier, Lavall Hall, Kelly Thomas, and Freddie Gray are only a few.

In addition to mental illness, people with mobility related disabilities and sensory disabilities are targeted for police harassment and violence. Why don't people want to make these connections? What is it about disability that people are so resistant to understand as an oppression worthy of righteous anger, passion, and activism around, rather than just a quiet and humble pity party? Aren't we passionate too? Certainly, Stevie Wonder, is nothing if not passionate, and righteous.

There is the excuse of privilege equaling ignorance, that if something doesn't affect me, I don't know about it. Unfortunately, even some folks who are disabled and advocate for disability rights, and nondisabled folks who work as allies for various disability rights causes, are ignorant to many of the important parallels affecting different kinds of disabled people. Solidarity is necessary. Disability culture is a culture. Disabled people are a people. We have a history and we have shared experiences. It must be recognized that “disability justice” is not just a nice, cute idea that would bring comfort and charity to a string of non-connected individuals with disabilities.

Disability justice is a movement that is vital to our survival and it is a framework that any person attempting to think aboutdisability as on individual, emotional level, must also check themselves and get grounded/get expansive in. I was kept from identifying with my own people due to internalized ableism for a long time. And yet, they were all around me. Three of the most important people I could think of as a kid were Stephen Hawking, Stevie Wonder, and Queen Francis, who danced with me in Def Dance Jam Workshop (with whom I performed in a tribute show to Stevie Wonder called Stevie Wonderful in 2002). All disabled people. All powerful and influential. And with more in common with each other, and me, than I yet knew.

When Stevie Wonder says, “We need to make every single thing accessible to every person with a disability,” that is activism, and that's the opposite of individualist—it's solidarity. Nondisabled people wish to view disability as a random scourge on our society that deforms, cripples, dys-functions and makes less certain people tragically, who then either waste away isolated, in the care of their family who are noble saints, or the state, or who triumph over their inadvertent adversity to become multiple medal winning athletes or who find a cure for the very malady they suffer from. I hate to say this, but while we may, as individuals, be sad sometimes, our disabled lives are not sad. It is not sad, or touching, to be disabled, in and of itself.

It is not a tearjerker, when a disabled person makes a political demand.

To say that the world must be accessible is not an emotional plea (although emotions don't have nothing to do with it), or a helpful suggestion, it is a demand, and Stevie Wonder was willing to delay Ed Sheeran's award receiving to make it (even though he and his daughter like that song). If you are not disabled, perhaps you do not understand that inaccessibility is a form of violence, like many other aspects of societal oppression disabled people experience.

People play with words like “exclusive”, like we feel left out of a game during elementary school recess (which I did, folks, for sure), but when things are inaccessible to disabled people, you are telling us that our lives don't matter. When we are unable to access the places we eat, live, attend school, work, shop, organize, create, rest, grow, we absorb that our humiliation and daily struggle is of no consequence.

When cops shoot or strangle or tase a black disabled person to death, and then those mourning them can only name one aspect of their identity, or vehemently deny their disability because of societal misunderstandings and stigma around disability, we absorb that black disabled lives are expendable, and too much.

Accessibility is a vast and multifaceted issue, which includes but goes beyond ramps and Braille. It includes healing and nonviolent support for people with psychiatric disabilities. It includes options for disabled people other than institutions, hospitals, prisons, and the grave.

The fact that the internet using world, tethered together in growth and strife and global capitalism knows so much about so much, and gives so little fucks about creating infrastructure that is accessible and sustainable and acknowledges the necessary existence and survival of people with disabilities is an actual calamity.

I sit with Stevie. And that's no small thing.

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Lyric Seal aka Neve Be(ast) is a mixed black, queer, multigender, disabled, porn performing, performance art wreaking femme anarchist with a vengeance. They are a staff writer at HARLOT covering all topics which can vaguely be related to performing arts, love, sex/work, disability justice, policy, and the lush insides of their mind. Neve also has a column in maximumrocknroll called "Totally Lame." They are a contributor to Everyday Feminism and various literary magazines. You can book them to dance, talk, teach, and make you feel good about yourself.