Impact Feature Issue on Political Activism and Voter Participation by Persons with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities

Civil Rights, Civil Protest, Civil Disobedience: Using Direct Action to Change Society


Mary F. Hayden is Senior Research Associate with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and an advisor to the national group Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered.

Discrimination based on the presence of a disabling condition is the most common problem encountered by individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities in their daily lives. The self-advocacy movement was started to enable people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities to stop discrimination. In working to stop discrimination, many have become involved in politics.

Participating in politics is a right of every American. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights protects an individual’s right to speak freely about their views, to meet as a group, to go to the government to make a complaint on how they are being treated, and to ask the government to make other people treat a person right. Many people think the First Amendment only means that people can vote, participate in someone’s campaign, write editorials, and talk and write to their state legislatures or talk to members of Congress. These are good examples of participating in the political process. However, there are other ways to participate in politics and exercise one’s rights, as well. Two of them are civil protest and civil disobedience. Some self-advocates call these activities direct action.

Intolerance and discrimination in the United States have led to the birth of many social justice movements such as the American Indian Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the feminist movement. For many people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, the self-advocacy and disability rights movements are social justice or civil rights movements that enable them to advocate on their own behalf for greater freedom, for control over their lives, and for lives that are similar to those of other citizens. Direct action is one way that all these social justice and civil rights movements have put pressure on society to change.

Direct action is a tradition that has a long history in this country. It includes the Boston Tea Party, up through the lunch counter sit-ins during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and on to recent demonstrations by people with disabilities protesting inaccessible city buses. Direct action can include a wide range of activities. It can include holding a protest rally outside the state capitol while the state legislature is in session. Self-advocates have conducted protests that disrupted public hearings that were stacked toward supporting institutionalization. Some self-advocates have participated in national protests to close institutions and provide community services that support people to remain in the community or move to the community. Others have been known to chain themselves to the White House gates to make a point.

Although direct action is not for everyone, if an individual or a self-advocacy group decides to engage in direct action, they need to remember that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights gives them the right to protest. An individual or group might decide to protest in a way that doesn’t break any laws, like participating in a rally or march for which organizers have gotten city permits. Or they may decide to protest in a way that does break some laws and might result in getting arrested. Blocking traffic or entrances to buildings without permission, or holding a sit-in at a government office, are the kinds of protest that might result in a person getting arrested.

Direct action makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Many non-disabled people may not want to see people with disabilities protesting. Others believe that direct action is not the “polite” thing to do. That is all right. They have a right to their opinion. Just like people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities have the right to stand up and fight for their rights in the way that they see fit.