Earlier this week, I posted an article on this blog called “The Invisible Blind Man” that described the miserable accessibility experience my blind friend and I had at the Women in Secularism conference in Washington, DC. After posting the story, I generally received praise for the article but one blind friend of mine called me a “crazy blind militant” on Twitter. I’ve also heard the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and others who speak out aggressively about accessibility called militant. I wonder if the people who so carelessly toss around this term have any idea why it actually means.
I’m a subscriber to the minority model of critical disability theory. I use the language of the civil rights movement to describe issues faced by people with disabilities. Recently, people have accused me of being a militant and have asked why I can’t be more compassionate like Martin Luther King. I can only ask these people if they have read history at all. King supported all of the lawsuits led by Thurgood Marshall in the fifties and all of the legislation passed by the US Congress in the sixties. Martin led marches in which his followers were beaten, arrested, set upon by dogs and attacked with firehoses.
Nonetheless, Martin Luther King was not a militant. He accepted peaceful civil disobedience following the ideas and strategy of the great Indian non-violent revolutionary, Mahatma Gandhi. He used no militant tactics but was profoundly more radical in approach than any group advocating for people with disabilities.
People use the term “militant” to refer to NFB lawsuits against companies with inaccessible web sites. I disagree with the NFB legal strategy for a variety of reasons (I don’t think we can make much progress approaching a single web site at a time and find that NFB does as much to shake down web publishers as it does to promote actual progress) but I will remind my readers that Rosa Parks was victorious do to a lawsuit and not the compassion of the Birmingham bus service. Sometimes, one needs to use a civil procedure, not a militant act by any stretch of the imagination, to affect change.
So, if a lawsuit isn’t a militant action what is?
There were militants in the civil rights movement. Look only to the Black Panther Party or the Weather Underground. These groups shared the same values as the peaceful protesters but used violence to achieve their goals. I lived in Berkeley, California during the late sixties and early seventies. There, we walked passed banks that had been bombed by actual militants and, as a ten year old boy, I felt real fear that we could be blown up.
When I hear other blind people suggest that NFB legal actions and my own writings are too extreme, I only point them to the integration of the University of Alabama. There, a week earlier, then Alabama governor George Wallace stood on the university steps and famously satiated, “Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” A week later, the United States National Guard arrived on the campus and, with military force, forced the integration of the university. Martin Luther King supported the action by The Guard as it was a legal action to enforce a law that was already on the books. I ask my blind friends, why shouldn’t we expect similar actions by our government to enforce our laws against discriminating against our population?
I’m not suggesting that the National Guard show up at Amazon’s door to use military force to require accessibility but I want to point out that even the most extreme tactics used to enforce accessibility (lawsuits, legislation, the occasional sign waving outside a building) is all civil action and has nothing to do with militancy. Among other things, I am a pacifist and would never endorse violent action to affect change. I believe in the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King – solid, direct action without even a threat of violence. I am not a militant – the guys who blew up the Boston Marathon, now, there are some militants and I deplore them and their actions.
So, when blind people start blowing up buildings or even using hacktivism to take down an inaccessible web site, call them militants; in the meantime, enjoy the benefits that come from non-violent, non-militant civil procedure and find a new adjective more suitable for this movement you dumb assholes who ignore history and the actual definitions of the terms you toss around. .