Together We Rise – Labor Day Rally, September 4, 2017

an image of Russel Rawlings sitting at a blue table outside in a park with trees and grass around him
Russell Rawlings – Director of Advocacy Services, Resources for Independent Living.

Resources for Independent Living is proud to support National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Held each October, NDEAM aims to educate about disability employment issues and celebrate the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. Throughout the month, we’ll be engaging in a variety of activities to educate our community on disability employment issues and the role they play in fostering a disability-friendly work culture. Therefore, we are sharing the following.

[On Sept. 4, 2017 RIL’s Director of Advocacy Services, Russell Rawlings, gave a speech at a Labor Day Rally sponsored by SEIU 2015 and the Central Labor Council. Below is the original text of his speech. The actual speech was modified due to time.]

I’m Russell Rawlings, and I am not the mayor of Sacramento … thankfully. If I would have won, y’all wouldn’t have let me speak.

I am the Director of Advocacy Services at Resources for Independent Living. I’m a worker. That’s a recent condition that I’ve had for just over two months.

For all of my 40 years, I’ve had a significant physical disability — cerebral palsy — that has presented both physical and societal barriers to my current status as a member of the working class.

The first, and largest hurdle to work is the intersection of poverty and disability. It is imperative that we look to deconstruct disability — to understand that my physical impairments do not limit my ability to work, to speak and to fight for justice.

It is society has labeled me as disabled, and while I don’t discount the basic rights guaranteed to my status, it is important that we separate the “impairment” side of disability from the “social” side of disability. They exist in separate spaces.

Just by deciding to go to work, I became something other than “just disabled.” I’ve found a path to work, despite the impairments of my disability. I am now “working disabled,” which means that you and I have a lot to learn from one another.

One of the barriers that I face while working is the access to reasonable accommodations — any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to
participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions — a guarantee made in Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

At Resources for Independent Living, I’m extremely privileged. It’s sort of a “practice what you preach” situation for both of us — RIL promotes the independent living philosophy for people with disabilities, and now I’ve reached that final frontier: employment.

That said, I’m a member of a profoundly small class of privileged folks — to be honest, my privilege and years of “in the trenches” advocacy for myself and others are why I’m here. I can guarantee my hands have never been anywhere near bootstraps.

The access to the assistive technology that helped me write this speech — software that turns my words into text — and my employer’s commitment to upholding the law, ensuring my access to the software and the handful of other reasonable accommodations have enabled me to work.

Helen Keller, an anti-capitalist feminist radical with significant disabilities, once said, “The majority of mankind are working people.” As a beneficiary of her social labor and yours, I’m proud to be a member of that group.

And it is my sincere hope that all of you will join the fight to tear down barriers and build bridges to enable the rest of my brothers and sisters with disabilities to join us. We are, after all, the majority of the nonworking minority. Together, the working class and people with disabilities are — by very definition — the most diverse group of people in existence.

As we enjoy this well-earned holiday together — a holiday honoring the labor of workers — let us understand there is much work to do. For me, it includes the ongoing work to ensure my access to work. But there are so many additional barriers to overcome. We must develop universal, guaranteed access to healthcare, protections for our undocumented brothers and sisters, ensure access to education and work, and fight against racism and discrimination on every front. This is the struggle that we are all in together.

We must do more than resist — we must build. Together we rise! ¡Juntos venceremos!