Not Going Away: Chen Guangcheng is a New Voice Driving Disability Rights

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Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng came into The Takeaway studio this week for what turned out to be a historic conversation in my estimation. Since when has the subject of disability rights been even remotely relevant to the wider global political discussion of human rights?

Certainly there has been discussion of how disability rights are a natural progression in some parade toward freedom and justice in America. We arrived at dealing with the rights of the disabled, it seemed, right on schedule as part of the evolution of inclusion, diversity and civil rights in general.

This was largely the tone of the very tame discussion and debate that led to the passage nearly 22 years ago of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disability was a nice next step to take, it seemed, after the end to legal racial segregation and the embrace of full political rights for women, but the exclusion of people with disability has never been, by itself, a driver of the human rights agenda. No riots or marches on Washington DC, no landmark supreme court cases or emancipation proclamations ushered in the disability rights movement in the United States. 

Pressure to include people with disabilities has never successfully challenged a mainstream institution on a national or global scale until Chen climbed that wall, made it to the U.S. Embassy and precipitated the international incident we all watched unfold last spring. No one but Chen Guangcheng’s advocacy for his disabled clients has managed to confront and infuriate Chinese authorities at both the national and provincial level.

With Chen in the middle between the two most powerful nations on earth, the world watched as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton negotiated over this blind, self-taught lawyer who would not back down. The rock band the Who might have written: “this self-taught-lawyer-blind-kid sure plays a mean superpower pinball!” 

What became clear to me immediately in watching Chen’s cool, unbreakable will was that the debate on disability rights has the capacity to force institutions to make good on values they say they espouse but continually delay and ignore. It is this infinite postponement of justice and redress that is at the center of the denial of human rights to broad populations around the world. Call it the soft repression of always being able to wait until tomorrow to deliver justice.

Certainly the headlines in the human rights struggle traditionally and rightly go to those victims tortured and abused, detained and killed under orders of authorities. The voices of these victims cry out with deep moral outrage, but Chen has shown us another subtler path we must also tread in the struggle for social justice. Governments that are brutal and violent must fall and sometimes they do, but for the millions of people denied justice under legitimate governments by authorities who maintain an iron hand over the powerless with legal theatre and trickery, these victims depend on the advocates who can unmask the charade.

Chen has demonstrated that aggressively working within the system creates its own tangible revolution. The lesson is to remember that the raised profile of people with disabilities who live among us and have legitimate grievances against their oppressors helps to liberate and empower everyone in a society yearning to be free. As Chen said today, the status of people with disabilities is a mirror held up to the face of society.

Mirror mirror on the wall… how are we doing? That’s the revolution. Listen to our conversation on The Takeaway and see if you don’t agree.