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July 26, 2013

The Personal is Political: Eleanor’s Story

In honor of the 23rd Anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, SAGE is pleased to share Eleanor Smith's story. Eleanor is the founder of Concrete Change, a disability rights organization in Decatur, GA. This is an excerpt of a speech she gave at SAGE’s LGBT Elder Institute, held in Atlanta, on January 24, 2013. Visit SAGE Story to listen to her full presentation.

Eleanor Smith
(image from Measure up the North

At my one of my first disability rights actions, in Washington DC about 30 years ago, as I was marching along in my wheelchair with a few hundred  others, a fellow marcher pulled up beside me in his power wheelchair and said, “Are you one of those old time dykes?”  I laughed and answered affirmatively. He could probably tell by the flannel shirt.  Later I got to know Eric better, and I learned from him that he was a female to male trans person. What a lot of guts he was showing back then in the 1980s to be a severely mobility-impaired person who also changed his gender. Back then Eric and I were young people with disabilities. Now we’re old people with disabilities. Today I’m going to talk about the intersection of aging and disability and the wisdom of older gays and people with disabilities working more closely together.


I have noticed how old people and their organizations and younger disabled people and their organizations often work quite separately from each other, and are unaware of each others’ work.  This is the case even though many of the same issues affect both groups.

We have been taught over the years to realize that all oppressions operate in similar ways. Ageism and ableism are even more closely intertwined that most oppressions. For instance, both older people and disabled people are often devalued because our bodies or minds deviate from the norm by being—or perceived as being—weaker and less functional.   And the physical attributes of both old people and people with disabilities of all ages are considered by many to be ugly, or grotesque. So we all need to be liberated to see old or disabled bodies as beautiful in their own way.

A second similarity is that both old people and disabled people, as a group, cannot be exploited by the more extreme forms of capitalism to make a high profit through unfair labor practices such as speeded up work, grueling physical work or inhumanely long hours.  (I acknowledge that many disabled people and old people do work at paying jobs, and many more would if given an opportunity.  Nevertheless, many lack the capacity to work in the manner required to produce a profit. For some, just maintaining themselves physically can take nearly all the time and energy they have.)  In fact, far from generating a profit, a great many people who are disabled or old or both cost the system money.  They are therefore at risk of being cast aside.  So we all need to be liberated to believe that people are worthy of love and support apart from their economic value.

Ableism and ageism are forces that keep old people and disabled people from working together.    Because of strong negative social messages such as those discussed above, it is not surprising that old people and young disabled people are not immune from prejudice against each other. Younger disabled people will hold ageist views inculcated by the culture unless they work to notice and challenge their ageism.  Likewise, old people will hold ableist views inculcated by the culture unless they work to see and dislodge their ableism.

Old people and younger disabled people and our allies will profit greatly from forming alliances, working together more on the issues we share:  We will double our strength.  I can think of at least six major issues we share.

  • The need for abundant and accessible public transportation.   
  • Support for the option to live in the community rather than being forced into institutions for lack of publically supported assistance at home. 
  • Sufficient economic support to live a decent life even if we are not able to work at paid jobs.
  • All new houses built with a basic, affordable level of disability access so that people of any age who develop disabilities are not cut off from the huge part of social life and civic participation that takes place in the homes of friends and neighbors, and so that we can remain in our own home if disability occurs.
  • Access to information if one is hearing impaired or visually impaired, for example, interpreters for hearing impaired people and Web access for people who are blind.
  • And access to life itself as opposed to being encouraged to die or be killed before our time.

Eleanor Smith recommends three organizations useful for older people and younger disabled people interested in working together on mutual issues:

  • ADAPT, whose mission is to create policies that rebalance the institutional bias that allocates a high percent of public funds to nursing homes and only a small percent to assist people to remain in their own home if they prefer to do so.
  • Concrete Change, whose mission is to change current home construction practices that crate steps at all entrances and narrow interior doors, so that virtually all new homes will offer at least one step-free entrance and adequately wide interior doors.
  • Not Dead Yet, whose mission is to protect disabled and older people from assisted suicide, lethal medical neglect, involuntary withdrawal of life-sustaining medical care, encouragement to die and ‘compassionate’ murder.   

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