24 June, 2021

The Humanitarian Collective

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Interview With Disability Justice Activist Isabel Mavrides-Calderón

Please see the video below on our Youtube channel to view a discussion of structural ableism, and how it impacts the safety, security, and livelihoods of disabled people.

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Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

Alex: Hi everyone, so today we have a special guest with us to discuss ableism which permeates throughout our society today. So this is Isabel Mavrides-Calderón, she’s probably one of the most outspoken anti-ableism advocates that I know and most recently she was a semi-finalist at the 47th Annual Harvard Speech Tournament, so congratulations on that, and I’ll let you introduce yourself!

Isabel: Hi I’m Isabelle, I’m a disability justice activist, I do speech which I really love, and I love the connection between speech and disability advocacy.

Alex: Awesome, so we we both go to the same school, we both do debate, I just want to ask you first what you think the era of doing speech and debate and just debate as an activity in all the different events that there are within Lincoln Douglas, and Policy, and the other speech events… what have you noticed when it comes to online debate and how that hopefully has changed some people’s perspectives on accessibility in the activity?

Isabel: Yeah, so disabled speech competitors have been begging for an online option to tournaments, myself included, way before this pandemic even happened because tournaments are just really inaccessible… a lot of schools don’t have elevators, if you’re having health issues it can be hard to go to a tournament physically, and it’s also clear that competing face to face with someone can be really inaccessible for some people who have conditions like anxiety disorders, so not even just physical disabilities even though my issue is a physical disability. So I think that for years we’ve been told that it’s not possible because it’s public speaking and public speaking has to be done in person, but right now we see that it is totally possible and it’s highly frustrating that they only did it when able-bodied people needed it, and not just when disabled people did, but I hope that in the future it just wakes up the NSDA (National Speech and Debate Association) so that we have online options.

Alex: Absolutely. I also just want to point out your petition that you started to the NSDA to make zoom, and online participation for those who can’t be in person in the future when the pandemic’s over to participate in debate. Do you mind telling us a little bit about what that petition seeks to achieve?

Isabel: Yeah, so I was for once finally able to compete every weekend which I really enjoyed, so I had like a moment of fear that I didn’t want to lose that, which is what kind of inspired me to start to petition because I knew that as soon as the pandemic was over tons of disabled voices would be gone from the circuit, not only disabled voices, but also people who are in different socioeconomic statuses who have smaller teams that can’t necessarily fly to these bigger tournaments that normally are at such a disadvantage. We’re finally able to attend these tournaments so I think that it really opened my eyes to just how helpful this online thing has been and there really is no reason why we can’t just, even if other people are in person, send in a video or zoom in some students um to do speech tournaments even after the pandemic is over.

Alex: On this idea of the pandemic moving forward, I just wanted to talk about a New York Times article that I came across by Elliot Kukla who is a rabbi in the San Francisco Bay Area, and one of the things he talks about in his article was the priority list for who would receive the first doses of the vaccine, so at the top you’d have disabled folk, and then you’d have the elderly, and those were generally the two main populations who were seen as priority along with health care workers, and despite this priority that the government has issued, disabled people have beared the brunt of the vaccine distribution process and have gotten virtually no vaccines nationwide… he writes in this article “while disabled people are a prioritized group in most current vaccine distributions we often end up at the back of the line even though we’re three times more likely to have chronic conditions that put us at higher risk of dying of COVID-19.” So what do you think is the root of the problem, and why are disabled people being ignored?

Isabel: Well I think one of the issues is that there’s only 12 diseases recognized by the CDC as making you high risk and this completely ignores rare diseases because diseases are categorized based on how many deaths there are but there’s rare diseases that obviously there’s not going to be that many deaths, because there’s not that many cases, because there’s not that many people that have it, so that just ignores a huge population and even the CDC admitted that those 12 diseases weren’t the full amount of diseases that are considered to be high risk so I think that the way that this was done just was just really irresponsible that they only prioritized those small diseases and I also think that through this whole pandemic we have seen a complete disregard for disabled lives so I think most the disabled community isn’t even surprised that this is happening because even things like ventilators were weren’t provided to disabled folk. They were put at the end of the list for being saved, at the end of priority list, so it’s not even a surprise in my view.

Alex: Yeah, certainly the neglection of the government is just so apparent, probably not apparent enough actually to most people because I think it’s clear to most that, you know, ableism is an issue that isn’t talked about as much as other issues in regards to identity. I think articles like this are really important. I also wanted to talk in terms of schooling just in general I mean aside from having extracurricular activities that you can participate in, education as a whole has also been kind of taken into a new light so do you also mind just telling us a little bit about what you hope for the future in terms of education and accessibility when it comes to, you know, different schools doing hybrid methods or completely in-person or some online, so if you just speak a little bit about that?

Isabel: Yeah I think sick and disabled kids have, before this pandemic had to repetitively leave school, having a worse quality education, and a lot of this has to do with attendance policies… schools are saying that it’s not possible to zoom in a kid, saying that it’s too much, and that we don’t have the technology for it, we don’t have the money for it, and now finally during this pandemic we have done it when everyone needs, it which once again it shows that we really just prioritize things when able-bodied people need it too, so I think it shows that it’s possible and I think that if in the past we would have done this with sick disabled students we wouldn’t have had such a struggle to get good quality education now when the pandemic happened because we would have already perfected it, because we would have done it for years, so I really hope that this shows schools that it is very much possible and that disabled students can have a normal education and go to normal schools and not miss as much school because of technology that we have and we can use.

Alex: Yeah and I think even just the notion of like normal school is so disgraceful, and I also think it’s like particularly disappointing that we needed a global pandemic to happen for us to realize that there were these disparities and I think like to a large extent we haven’t even fully realized that yet but I think it’s a really great starting place. Then just the last thing I wanted to talk about politically was the events at the capitol on January 6th and I think tammy duckworth’s name has grown in some popularity once Joe Biden’s VP search began, but she is one of the only disabled senators that we have right now, i’m not sure if there have been any in the past, but at the moment I think she is kind ofthe one disabled senator we do have, and so I’m just wondering what your thoughts were on, you know, the emergency action that needed to be taken and how that might relate to other emergency situations that don’t involve a coup, but routine safety precautions that we need to take around the country to keep disabled people safe.

Isabel: Yeah I think once again it goes back to the lack of prioritizing disabled lives and thinking of them as an afterthought. So there was no emergency plan in place for Senator Duckworth, or for disabled people in the Capitol, and this isn’t unique to the Capitol, the same thing happens in schools and workplaces, practically everywhere disabled students are repeatedly leftbehind in buildings because they don’t know how to save them and they don’t put the energy to save them. I think it really comes back to our perception in society and this stigma we have that disabled lives aren’t as worth living as able-bodied lives, so they’re not as worth saving, and I think that the fact that this would even happen in a Capitol, to people who are very important to our country, shows just the lack of regard… Senator Duckworth even said that she was afraid for her life because she couldn’t find a wheelchair accessible place. That should never be happening not just for someone as important as her but for anyone, our lives should be seen as equal.

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Hello! My name is Alex Nagin and I'm 17 years old. I enjoy travel, eating, politics, and making new friends. I like Mango and Pad Thai. I live by the quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,”. (-JFK)