Understanding Disability Pride Month

two adaptive athletes shaking hands after a tennis match

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Disability Pride Month has been celebrated in July since 1990, and the number of cities participating in Disability Pride events continue to grow.
  • While the experience of disabilities may differ, a sense of community can help people with disabilities to cope, especially given the ongoing systemic barriers, stigma, etc.
  • Disability justice movements continue to advocate for intersectional approaches to meeting the needs of people with disabilities, which are connected to race, class, gender, etc.

July is Disability Pride Month, but that can mean various things to different people. The disabled community is diverse, so individuals with disabilities may vary in their thoughts and feelings regarding Disability Pride Month.

Especially given the negative impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities, they may be more in need of the kind of community that can be facilitated by celebrations of a shared identity of marginalization.

Given how vastly experiences of disabilities differ from one person to the next, or even from one day to the next for a single individual, it is important for accessibility to be at the forefront of any Disability Pride planning.

What is Disability Pride?

AmeriDisability describes Disability Pride as "accepting and honoring each person's uniqueness and seeing it as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity" and connects it to the larger movement for disability justice.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed on July 26, 1990, to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. Following this legislation, Boston held the first Disability Pride Day event in July 1990. Since then, Disability Pride events have been celebrated in the month of July in cities including Los Angeles; New York CitySan AntonioMadison, WisconsinBrighton, U.K.; and Charleston, South Carolina. The list of participating cities continues to grow.

Laken Brooks, a 26-year old graduate student at the University of Florida, writer, and digital storyteller says, “Disability Pride is an event that celebrates people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Now, some people may balk at that second word, Pride. But Disability Pride isn’t about appropriating LGBTQ+ Pride. In fact, the disabled and the LGBTQ+ communities have long been intertwined and have long survived under similar systems of oppression. Disability Pride, much like LGBTQ+ Pride, is all about celebrating and reclaiming our visibility in public because people with disabilities have historically been pushed out of public spaces.”

The fight for disability representation and equal rights is not new, as Brooks describes how generations have pushed for this, long before Disability Pride became a formalized event. "Oftentimes, these activists have also been part of the LGBTQ+ community. Icons including Barbara Jordan, Bobbie Lea Bennett, and Marsha P. Johnson were both LGBTQ+ and disabled, and their Pride included both of these facets of their identity," she says.

Brooks says, "As a disabled and queer person, I celebrate Disability Pride to honor the disability rights advocates who came before me. Every public accommodation, every accessibility tool came because some disabled people fought to have their needs met. But also, Disability Pride reminds me that it's radical for disabled people to just be, to find moments of joy and solidarity and kinship, in a world that still remains unwelcoming to many people with disabilities, especially BIPOC folks. Disability Pride reminds me that there's so much more to being disabled than a tragic backstory."

While many disabled people have had their struggles erased and overlooked in history, Brooks highlights how they have also had their inventions, their victories, and their moments of joy overlooked. “As people celebrate Disability Pride, they prove that disabled people haven‘t just been surviving in the face of oppression—they’ve been thriving. As we celebrate Disability Pride, we honor the progress that the disability community has made thus far so that we can have these public events, so that we can be in public as ourselves. But we also express hope in building a future that’s even better for the disabled people who will come after us,” she says.

Why is Disability Pride Needed?

According to the National Council on Independent Living, disability pride is necessary to combat the ableism that is rampant in this country, which can include stigma against people with disabilities and barriers to access.

Accessibility consultant Navi Dhanota, PhD, MA, says, "Health science programs are typical for BIPOC women, given how often they are found in helping professions. There is often a pattern of intersectional dynamics that contribute to them landing in my office for intake so part of my role is to assess their disability-related impacts and then translate those functional limitations into academic accommodations."

Navi Dhanota, PhD, MA

When we talk about mental health, research has shown that racialization impacts the ability to access mental health support.

— Navi Dhanota, PhD, MA

In this work, Dhanota uses the lens of access without necessarily using the language of “disability,” given how BIPOC students may be new to thinking of their needs in that way, but challenging such stigma is crucial to ensure that a level playing field can be provided for them to participate in their studies equitably. She says, “When we talk about mental health, research has shown that racialization impacts the ability to access mental health support, so we need to really complicate these definitions of disability to accurately and efficiently provide services to BIPOC students.”

A 2018 study published in Rehabilitation Psychology found that disability pride partially mediated the relationship between stigma and self-esteem. By this, individuals with disabilities may benefit from the rejection-identification model (RIM), whereby the negative impacts of stigma, such as decreased self-esteem can be mitigated when they choose to connect with each other, rather than attempt to fit in with the dominant culture. In this way, disability pride can be a vital opportunity to challenge stigma, especially when marginalization extends beyond disabilities.

Seeking Disability Justice

Sabrina Sarro, LMSW, says, “Disability and mental health cannot be separated; the two are conjoined. Disability looks differently for everyone who experiences it; we cannot always see disability so individuals experience both visible and sometimes invisible chronic illnesses.”

Disability is just one facet of oppression. Sarro says, "Folx with disabilities are ignored, erased; their needs are invalidated. The world was not designed for disabled folx and thus, it is extraordinarily hard for disabled folx to receive access to secure housing situations, job environments, etc."

Sarro explains, "Disabled folx continue to be seen as unworthy/unwanted, especially dark-skinned Black disabled folx. We cannot talk about equality or uprooting the ways in which ableism is intimately connected to white supremacy without talking about how disabled folx are affected." 

Taneasha White, a 27-year old Black queer writer and activist with chronic pain, based in Richmond, VA, says, "I think that there is an importance in Disability Pride due to the consistent shame around the topic of disability in the first place. Choosing to be forthright about having a disability is considered "brave" because there is a very tangible fear of being treated either differently interpersonally, or blocked professionally."

In terms of disability-related challenges, White highlights how self-stigmatization and internalized ableism can be one of the hardest parts to overcome. ”I have found myself downplaying my pain, or feeling frustrated because of ‘shoulds,’ or pushing myself farther than I should in an attempt to not be difficult or not catch anyone’s attention—especially because I don't ‘look’ like someone with a disability,” she says.

To contextualize this further, White says, “Naturally, this doesn't come out of thin air—it’s a combination of historical discrimination (eugenics, etc.), media interpretations of illness, medical racism, and medical malpractice. Even now, it has taken me 10 years of my life and countless doctors’ visits to even get anyone to take me seriously about the pain I experience every day. Undoubtedly, this is coupled with the fact that I’m also a fat, Black woman, and I know that I’m one of many that live within these intersections in addition to chronic pain or illness.”

It is why White explains that she has had to learn that asking for what she needs is OK, as she is not required to be uncomfortable so others can be comfortable, as pain is not a part of life that she is required to deal with if it can be avoided.

Sabrina Sarro, LMSW

We cannot talk about equality or uprooting the ways in which ableism is intimately connected to white supremacy without talking about how disabled folx are affected.

— Sabrina Sarro, LMSW

“This is connected to Blackness and Black womxnhood, as we are often expected to carry everyone and everything and just be okay. I believe that Disability Pride is important, especially if there is an emphasis on the ways that folks within marginalized identities and intersections deal with these complications at an exponential rate,” she says.   

With the growing commodification of justice movements, Sins Invalid provides an insightful framework for disability justice, that understands:

  • All bodies are unique and essential.
  • All bodies have strengths and needs that must be met.
  • We are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them.
  • All bodies are confined by ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation state, religion, and more, and we cannot separate them.

What This Means For You

Disability Pride continues to evolve, thanks to the hard work of disabled activists who have fought for representation and equity. Whether familiar with the disability justice movement or new to thinking about what it means, a great deal of work remains to ensure that the needs of the disability community are met equitably.

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.