Neil Marcus, a prominent poet, artist and activist for disability culture, told the New River Free Press in 2006, “Accessibility means you feel okay about being in a place.” Fighting against segregation has been one of Marcus’ greatest challenges. Every day, he must question whether he is welcome in public despite incidents that keep him from simply feeling okay at school, work, restaurants — even, until the recent renovations, in the Big House. Since he was eight, Marcus has been disabled with general dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that causes, among other things, twisting body movements and abnormal postures.

I met Marcus on Tuesday at a disability culture workshop. Shamefully, I admit that I initially questioned his intelligence and ability to communicate because he was so “severely” abnormal. Naturally, I equated disability with a lesser intelligence than my own. But Neil quickly taught me otherwise. His unique movement patterns are not bizarre — they are elegant. His words are always accompanied by a warm smile. And he does not, for a second, want your pity. After a few hours with Marcus, I realized that I was in the presence of someone who could be a great civil rights icon like Dr. King or Rosa Parks, only Marcus’ struggle focuses on something different.

On April 5, 1977, disabled people led a protest at the San Francisco offices of the Health, Education and Welfare Department after Secretary Joseph Califano refused to sign regulations for Section 504, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by providing equal access to education. It was one of the longest sit-ins in U.S. history, lasting 25 days. One group that made this courageous act possible was the Black Panthers, who protested and helped provide food for others in the protest.

The Black Panthers are better known for their unforgiving black civil rights activism. But here, they fought for equality for another oppressed group — the disabled. They were fighting together for access and to feel okay in social space. This is the struggle of minorities, women and gays. This is what I, as a black man, must consider daily: whether or not I have equal access in social space.

I never realized it was a function of my privilege to be physically able to walk up the steps of Angell Hall, just as whites often do not realize that it is a function of their privilege to rarely have to consider their race’s effect on social legitimacy or to be a part of a student population proportional to that of the nation. As white civil rights activist Tim Wise put it, “White privilege is being able to be a gun enthusiast and not make people immediately scared of you. … White privilege is being able to claim your experience as a POW has anything at all to do with your fitness for president, while being black and experiencing racism is, as Sarah Palin puts it, a ‘light’ burden. … White privilege is, in short, the problem.”

What lessons can be learned from Marcus and the disability movement? First, we should all recognize our own privilege and how it oppresses others. My own privilege enabled me to associate disabilities with incompetence, as white privilege enables some to associate blacks with lesser intelligence and violence. The looks on some students’ faces when I open my mouth and I speak “standard English” never fail to amuse me.

Second, coalitions are vital to establishing civil equality. This means that blacks should be on the front lines combating homophobia, men should be self-identified feminists and Palin should befriend minorities from Detroit. Whites should learn to better identify racial injustices and find ways to openly discuss and combat these issues.

Third, movements are more effective when a variety of people are involved. You don’t have to be Tim Wise at a podium or Huey Newton toting a machine gun to fight for civil rights. Attending race forums, having civil rights conversations and calling your representative to tell them that a six percent African-American student population is just not enough are all instrumental steps for change.

Only 30 minutes after meeting Neil, I helped him eat a turkey sandwich from Panera Bread, as he is unable to feed himself. It was not an act of kindness on my part — it was one of sharing. While his hunger was temporarily satisfied, I learned lifelong lessons from him about my own shortcomings and blindness because of my privilege. Whereas many describe Marcus’ disability as debilitating, Marucs will smile and tell you that he enjoys the fluidity and unpredictability of his movements. Our common ground is in our mutual struggle. We both want access, to feel comfortable in social space, to be better understood, to have more equal opportunity and to feel okay to be in a place.

Matthew Hunter can be reached at majjam@umich.edu.

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