Keith: Welcome to Disability Empowerment Now Season 2. I'm your host, Keith Murfee-DeConcini. Today I'm talking with Tom Olin, who is a photographer who has been documenting the disability rights movement since the mid-eighties. Tom, welcome to the show.
Tom: Well, thank you. I am definitely pleased to be here with you.
Keith: Thank you. So tell me what got you into photography in the first place?
Tom: Actually, it came to me late. I was in my thirties when I really got into it. I was like anyone else, I had a, you might remember, one 10 cameras or little teeny cameras and that's actually the only camera I had before that.
So I was not really into photography, but I was very much into the movements of you know, was out there, not so much a Disability Movement. Even though I grew up with dyslexia I was in the slow learners class. That was, well back then they, as kids, we used to call it a dummies class, you know.
So I, you know, I got a little bit of that kind of segregation as well as discrimination, you know, in my background but it wasn't until I was in my thirties, I went, I couldn't go to college or anything, but I went to a community college down in California in the Bay Area, and I thought media was, you know, a thing to go to and I was into disability at that time and some of the more active organizations and I said, okay, yeah, okay, I'll do some photos, I will do it for our newsletters and whatever, you know, and I was also, I was pretty healthy at that time and I was an attendant also out of Berkeley Seal and also out of the original disability services at the University of Berkeley where everything came out of, where Ed Roberts went to and where the Berkeley Seal be, it became the Berkeley Seal after I moved off of campus. So I was in good company in the sense of being around Disability.
I was probably one of the very few people that were taking constant pictures of things that were actually actionable, you know, actionable looking at people gathering doing little access demonstrations. And so that's how I kind of, and after, you know, you just kept on doing it and more people wanted my photos and I was giving them away.
I never, you know, after a while it became, you know, magazines wanted them and so, you know, they would, they would pay me. Oh, great. I was really lucky though. I lived with another activist, Diane Coleman, who went on and is still working with an organization that she started, not dead yet.
So she was an attorney and back then that was a lot of money. She was in a department of corporations in California. So I could actually do my photography and also do some other little jobs for tenant services. I worked in a school system as an aid and stuff like that, but I was always able to be there at the right time to do the photography.
Keith: So you mentioned that you, at the time you started you were into disability at that time. Can you explain what you meant by being into disability?
Tom: Yeah, I did a little stint as an orderly. Now they call 'em something else in a rehab hospital and so I got to be very involved with disability all around me and I gotta do it with young people at that time.
So being an orderly, that's a person that is with a person in a rehab, probably more than any other person, staff, person, doctor, otherwise, you know. So there was a lot of discussion and, you know, between all of us, where they were coming from, whatever they were going, how it was happening, you know, and I got real close to a couple, one of them actually was the person I was just talking about, Diane Coleman.
This was a rehab hospital in Michigan, Grand Rapid, Mary Friedman and so I kept on with my friends who were disabled and all that and then finally, you know, in the eighties, early eighties I moved to California, where you know, if you're an attendant and you're surrounded by people with disabilities also.
There were local organizations, California Association for the Physically Handicapped, that was a title back then and so just as being immersed Diane uses a wheelchair. So I, you know, I kind of always had an accessible van around, that was, you know, I mean it just, she was also very involved in independent living centers, West Side Independent Living Center.
When I moved from the Berkeley area and moved down to the LA area were the likes of, I mean, your friends were people like Carol Gill, which I call her mother of disability culture, Paul Longmore. You just had a whole, Barbara Waxman, Anne Finger. These are like authors and early activists.
So, I was immersed in the kind of people, you know, my friends were all disabled, you know, I hardly had any friends who weren’t.
Keith: So take us back to the very beginning. What was the first demonstration or activist protest that really launched you dedicating your professional life to documenting the Disability Rights Movement through photography?
Tom: Yeah, I had taken a class at the Apple Valley Community College in the Bay Area and I studied photography.
And so I ended up with a camera. When I was in LA we were already, you know, in the active organizations but then we had a conference, like a lot of people you know, organizational, have a yearly conference and this was a conference of the California Association of the Physically Handicap.
And they had brought in a couple persons that had just started an organization called Adapt. And back then that was American Disabled for Accessible Transit, I think, or Public Transit. It changes, you know, it changes the name over time. So, Wade Blank and Mike Berger were at the conference and, and the person I was living with, Diane and I, I went to it and oh my, you know, oh my God, they're talking about disability rights, you know, this and being active and doing things.
And they were like, Oh my God. You know, and you're coming to LA in a few months, you know? So when they did come, I took my camera in a roll of 24, a roll of 24, shots, you know, and there was only one row. I mean, after that it was kind of a little different, going to action but that first time I went down and in that role I still use that role.
I mean, there was probably. I mean, people were put into paddy wagons. Probably one of the most famous photos from that time was a picture of Bob Kafka with his hands handcuffed. His hands behind the wheelchair handcuffed in a paddy wagon, you know? That became a symbol, you know, just those, the handcuffs with the wheelchair and the you know, a lot of people just, it resounded.
You know, during that time period, we didn't have very many strong images of people fighting for their rights and I just happened to get into that role. I don't think so, I was not the greatest photographer. You know, I just, I always tell myself that I was always right there where I was supposed to be and taking the right shot, you know?
That's how it started. I've slowed down during the pandemic . I'm to stand still, definitely. But, that's where it all started. LA 1985.
Keith: LA 1985. So how I became aware of your photography was in my last semester at the City University of New York, in their school of professional studies getting my master's degree in Disability Studies.
I had to create an e-portfolio and on the last page where I did the recap, I found the infamous photo, black and white photo that you took of the capitol crawl of the little girl making her way up the steps of the Capitol Crawl and I looked up who took that photo, and that's how I became aware of your work.
The original reason why I reached out to you, what feels like years ago, is because I wanted to thank you and also let you know that I used your copyrighted work sort of illegally but for academic purposes, and that's what prompted me to seek you out. So even though you don't think you are the best photographer, I beg to differ because that one shot. Oh dear. I mean that that, that one shot took me back to that. It made me feel like I was actually there next to the young girl who was climbing her way up the top of the steps. And usually you get that experience in a movie or a documentary. With a photo it's very rare, but whatever dynamic or technique you used to really imbue that photo with as much personality as much culture, as much history.
It carried over through time to where a young graduate student found by chance, and he was immediately, and he had to look it up, find the person who took it. Thank God you are still alive but yeah, so with that one photo that really motivated me to reach out to you and thank you personally for not only doing your job, but also for following your passion.
Because I've checked your website and it is a passion for you so tell us more about getting further into that passion and how that all came to be.
Tom: Well, you know, like I said, I mean let me go back a little bit with that picture. It's a very interesting picture. And the thing is that if you're immersed in the culture, then it's very easy to see.
And I got to see our culture in very many different ways. I got to see it in the world of California's way of Independent Living Movement and I got to see it also in the eyes of Denver in the Disability Rights Movement which are and they kind of switched back and forth, you know, and one can be the other at times and they support each other.
But I gotta see it and it's really hard to understand it unless you are right into it. You know, we're right at the university level where Ed and I knew Ed, you know, and why they were so pissed off, you know? And then also in Denver the rights were coming out of the people that were fighting where the people were coming out of the fucking institution.
You know, there was a difference. There was a big difference right there, but they, combined to become, you know, a larger movement together and so it, you know, having that and seeing who was next to you, you know, there was people that I would be rolling down the street with that a year before had been incarcerated in a institution and just like the picture that you saw, that has actually, that little girl actually is my niece
And I remember when my mother, I remember when my mother called and said Oh, you have a new niece or your cousin just had a child and then she hesitated and she said, and Oh, she has Cerebral Palsy. My first thing was, Oh,boy yes! I was so glad and she could not understand why I was so happy.
She was a fighter, that little girl was in action. She would take that megaphone and chant, she'd get people to chant. This is pretty young. She was arrested in Montreal, Canada and up there, their newspapers were very tabloid.
So she got half of a page of a picture,and the12 year old was arrested . Wow. You know, so there's a lot of little history of that little girl going up those steps but it's, you know, fighting for rights that you can, that you have felt, you know, fighting, something that, you know, that if you had taken the wrong step, you could be institutionalized.
Any of us at any time, can be institutionalized still. You know, somehow if you were having a really bad day and you might not look normal and they had a police, someone, you know, neighbor called and said, hey, they're not doing very well. It might be a danger to themselves.
You might end up in custody and if things weren't going the right way, they might play the guardianship on you and then that's it, you know? So, you know, we're still fighting that fight. So I can't go away from that. That passion is something that will never go away.
Keith: So you mentioned that little girl is your niece. If you can remember taking that photo and taking that photo of a family member who was remarkably young at the time for an activist.
I'm wondering what was going through your head as you were setting up that shot because if you look up the capital crawl and its history, it is one of the main pictures that people use all of the time. So going back to you setting up that shot and the added benefit, that is not really the right word but I can’t think of the right word, of having who you're taking the photo of being a family member, what was going through your head?
Tom: Well, unfortunately that's a really simple answer because I go into an automatic phase in my mind. People can't talk to me.
I go into this space where I don't know what I'm thinking. There's so much that goes around. I've had other journalists, photojournalists, you know, follow me or whatever at times, and they tell me that I'm able to figure out where I should be and I graduate to that and I do it in a way that isn't intrusive.
You know, one of the things about being a photographer and if you've seen photo journalists, some of them are just like, they'll push everyone away, to get the right shot. You know, I had this thing where everyone's there for a reason, you know, and I'm not gonna get in their way. So I found a way to be a part of that. So, you know, a way of getting that image without anyone really noticing it and understanding. Because of how I lived, you know, especially with people with disabilities, you know, including myself and my history, there's a way of seeing things.
I see. Now, I also, I think one of the things that I do, consciously do is that I feel the need to try to include everybody. That means races and gender, anything, you know, there's a thing that a lot of times what I'll do is very inclusive of our community.
That is probably the only, if I have anything that's conscious, that would be the thing that I'm conscious of. Other than that, everything goes automatically and I think I learned that from, probably from the person who taught me photography. I'm not sure. I don't know. I have no idea. I go into automatic, so that's where I say, I can't even tell you what I see or what I do, you know, in that part.
Keith: So who taught you photography? Because that person literally without knowing, probably launched your professional career.
Tom: Yeah. When I took a class, the instructor who was a very good photographer, one of the best photographers in the Bay Area, and I didn't know at the time until I finally looked him up, but, at that time, he took a liking of me and I remember once we were on a field trip and he said, you know, don't take any pictures.
Just follow me, you know, and I followed him and I got to see how he saw things and it was really something that I think it just came about that I got to see another person. I got to be out of my body and see how things looked through another lens. Through that, then I got to see things through another lens, other people's lenses.
It really affected the way I wasn't trying to make a photo. I let things, you know, see how that was developing in front of me. That was a very important part and it was very important for a lot of young photographers that did follow me at times, to be, and I told them to do the same.
You know, just don't look like I'm not trying for anything. Look, just look at how I'm doing something, you know, and how I'm, where I'm going and all of that and that was it. It worked for me and, you know, it helped other people too in that way.
Keith: So what can you tell me about your niece at the Capitol Crawl? Is she still with us or, Um, yeah.
Tom: Oh, yes, her name is Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins. She's a part of a book called, they just put it out about her, about that trip up those stairs, little stairs. I can't remember the name of it.
No, I don't have it. It's like To The Top, To The Top of the Stairs. It's a kids book and so she still goes about talks a lot in schools and things like that for kids, you know, because that's when she did her thing and you know, she's on the circuit, you know, and so she uses, you know, she uses a chair, you know, she's still with us, except that she's almost turning 40 now, years go by.
And I'm really lucky that a lot of young people that I know from ages back are still with us, are still doing work, you know, for us, with us. They have not turned away, you know, that's one of the things unfortunately, we had our fight, you know, we did the fight for the ADA. I remember when you couldn’t get into classes in colleges, you know, and that's what, you know, what happened with Ed Roberts, you know, that's what happened to Berkeley. You know, things became accessible. Things became so accessible that people weren't pissed off, like Ed Roberts or other people, you know, back then, we had a lot of young people that were very pissed off, and that's where the demonstration, a lot of demonstrations, people would fight for it.
Nowadays, it's a little harder to get people to fight. ADAPT is still going out and doing demonstrations. Probably one of the very few groups that are, you know, still actively going ahead with nonviolent civil disobedience. You know, they've been doing it almost every year.
It's kind of maybe a year off during the pandemic but even then, regional ADAPT groups have still been on the line fighting and getting arrested but a lot of young people have gone, not back, not for our community, but you know, and I don't blame anyone, you know, to be financially stable and having enough money to make sure that they have attendance and everything like that, you know.
But we're also at the time period right now, we don't have a lot of young leaders as well as people that are positioned within our community organizations that are disability led.
Keith: So, I'm sure you did but did you ever meet Judson Hart?
Tom: Yeah, yeah. We definitely, I actually, you know, he I mean I'm living right now on my tour bus and one of the things that he used to do, what he did with the ADA, is he toured and he went to every state, twice. Every state.
I have kinda reimagined that and actually just before he died, he really wanted to be on the tour. I should have realized that that's what he wanted to do, but his wife did not want him to come on yet. We were friends. We lived in the same city also, so I got to, you know, have a lot of time with him and his wife and he had a lot of kids that he adopted, and so they were, you know, they're great friends of mine and still are.
I still talk to his widow, you know, a few times a year. There was also, I love it. There were a couple times I lived in the same town where he died, when he died too but he also almost died a couple times and every time he would call me and say, Okay, I think this is it.
And I would come over to my camera, you know, Okay and get the, what we thought was gonna be the final photos, you know and it became a joke because every time I did that, then he would be okay. You know? And the last time, I think I was out, I think I might have been outta town when he died, I can't remember now.
He was definitely a person of his values, he never wavered in them and in truth, he had enough money not to have to waiver, you know? If he was in a part of the government that he could say, this is the way I wanna do it, and if you don't fire me, you know, and we have a lot of people that are in the government, people with disabilities that would not do that.
He definitely was a good guy and he understood our fight down to the level of getting people out of institutions, getting people out of Psych Institutions. He was very much in the fight and the Psychiatric Movement. You know, he was right down. He, and there were two people that really played a very large part in the ADA and one of them, the other one besides Justin, was Evan Jr. He was the e-commissioner. He had the ear of the president, you know, they would have dinner at times and things like that and he could push.
He was another one that, you know, if you didn't like it this way, you know, I'm gonna push this, our government this way, and if you don't like it you could fire me because he had money too. Both of them at the end of their lives wanted to get arrested. They always were on the other side of the law.
I mean, on the other side of ADAPT and they kind of want in, you know, they were spiritually, they were with them, you know, but they never went to jail and at the end, both Evan and Justin would come to the action and say, Okay, where can we go to get arrested?
You know, they wanted to get arrested but unfortunately no one would get arrested.
Keith: That's funny. So getting back to you, looking over your career, which is very extensive. Did you ever do a ballpark number of how many demonstrations or protests that you managed to capture?
Tom: No, I really don't. I really don't. And it was not all physical disabilities. It was psych survivors, action, you know, at the time with Judy Chamberlain and David Oaks, Ron Bassman and Rosenthal and Joe Rogers, you know, then you had the DD movement.
I was there at the very beginning of the self-advocate movement, you know, and that was fantastic. You know, I remember Bob William being there and Nancy Ward, you know, I mean, you know, I did not just do one set of disabilities as such, you know, and doing that here, I was all over the place.
It was really good. I lived all over the place and I got to live, you know, with fantastic people, you know. I got, one of my favorite jobs was being the babysitter for Wade Blank, you know, and I could always be anywhere I wanted to, you know. Although right now I'm stuck in Texas, I'll be moving hopefully to a very actionable, Independent Living Center that does a lot right now. So I said, oh, if I'm, you know, I'm talking to them every day, you know, so I'm going to go there.
I'll be doing, you know, interacting with that part of the country and with disability again, you know, up there. I leave myself open, you know, good photographers should. Especially if you're covering a movement that is still happening, you know?
Keith: Yes. What are some things that you have learned on the road as it is, in documenting the Disability Rights Movement?
Tom: Well, you know, it has it, like all movements, it moves on and turns into many different forms and sometimes people don't catch it, you know, they say, oh, that's gone. You know, this is where the right movement is no more, you know, I love that one. They can't tell me what's happening now, will, you know, so, it's just really justice. Well, you know, that's not a movement, that's more of a framework, you know and I think disability justice is something that it's a really great part because it really focuses on the community where things should be. We have, I've seen where it was the community and then it became national and then it got too national in a sense that we forgot about the community a lot.
And I think that's what's happening right now. We have to really get back. Our disability organizations have not changed and in this changing environment we really have to change. I've seen where we have 300,000 people die in congregate settings in our community. Didn't really say anything.
It was more like it reminded me of something that might have happened and occupied Germany, not occupied when people were dying, you know, in concentration camps and no one said anything in that country. It reminded me, you know, we didn't say anything. Here all these people are dying.
We are not saying anything and our government was definitely, you know, I really felt how our society really, if we're not making money for us and for our corporations, you know, then we are at the bottom. You know, and so 300,000, no, that's nothing. I mean, it took Hitler years and years to kill 250,000 disabled.
You know, It only took us but two and a half years and they didn't ask us, the government, our government didn't ask us, oh, can we mitigate this? You know, that was not a priority. They did not ask us, you know, So we still have a lot to go. We have a long road and you know, you can see our healthcare is not one of the best in the world at all.
Keith: I absolutely agree with everything you just said. I did a paper on the Black Stalk and the Eugenics Movement which I believe you referred to earlier. I always referred to that chamber period in American history as the prelude to inspiring Germany to do what they did in the Holocaust. Edwin Black wrote a remarakble and hallowing book that I'm looking at right now called War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. Sound familiar? Unfortunately. So you mentioned before that a lot of people who are not involved in the movement think that the movement is over. So what are some
things, some facts that are not known by the vast majority. People that tell you, oh the Disability Rights Movement is over. If you were talking to them right now and they were listening to this podcast for whatever reason, they stumbled on it. Let's say, what would you want them to know about the Disability Rights Movement, and the fact that it is still going on.
Tom: Well, it has to go on. The facts are that when it comes down to those who need us to do that need our advocacy the most in our own community. 80% of those are incarcerated and I say incarcerated, meaning group homes, nursing homes, prisons, jails, and under guardianship, 80% and I'm probably even more, are people with disabilities, you know and I mean, you look at our organizations, they're not doing a thing, when it comes to those that are incarcerated, you know?
Yes, Independent Living Centers, the good ones are doing transitioning work, getting people out, I mean, we're guardianship. I mean, God, it still, that is such an outdated form. We have people in our own movement that, you know, when it comes to guardianship, we have really good people that on the side of the attorneys, I will say, I've never met anyone that needed the guardianship.
And then we have people in Seals that will say, I've never met anyone that can't change positions outside of an institution and so that means that there's a whole lot of people that don't understand what is happening and you know, the thing is with people that are incarcerated, they're incarcerated because there are not community resources out there.
And so, you know, where do we go from here? The people that I think that are very much into other things, but I think that the movement isn't there, I call them the disability privileged. They'll talk about, you know, all the other privileges, but they are privileged if they don't understand that they have people that are, that don't have choices and rights.
They have choices and rights. There's a lot of us, you know, that have those choices and rights. There's a whole bunch of people that don't have rights. Under guardianship you don't even have, you have people that say, Oh, you can't be friends with him. You can't vote. Of course, and of course you can't have sex. You know, we still have people like that.
If we don't have a movement to do something about that, then we are, you know, we are doing the same things that we thought that other people were doing. We have become ableist in ways that we call other people ableist, you know. So If there is no movement, then I don't know if there's very much, we're gonna have the next, the next pandemic or whatever, you know, we're gonna have more people die, you know?
We're just hurting ourselves if we don't really examine who we are, where we're at now and where we're going and we've gotta do that, and we've gotta do that together. You know, it's so easy to be off onto our own little groups and whatever, and sometimes our own disabilities. And now that we found out that, you know, if we don't come together, that people die.
You know? So, that's the biggie.
Keith: So I wanted to go back to something you'd said earlier about, what people referred to as, or at least some referred to as the new movement or the Disability Rights Movement 2.0 or whatever. Disability justice and how you referred to that as not really a movement, but more of a framework.
And I wanted to know more about what you meant by that.
Tom: Well, it's, you know, you really have to go to the sources, and that means going to the community. There are groups that are some, one of my favorite groups, you know, in Disability Justice is a group called HEARD and there are a group of people that go into jails and prisons to look at or to get people who are deaf that have been there a while or just newly and make sure that they are the aid and if you've been a deaf person in prison for a long time, the technology, you don't even know what the technology is. And I love this group. They're doing things. The federal government, they're doing things without the independent living centers.
You know, they're just, they're doing it. There's a lot happening. There's a disconnect with the Independent Living Movement and the community movement or the Disability Justice group framework and what that means is just working with a community, working with a community to end some of the social justice there.
You have a lot of independent living centers that God, you know, they've been around for so long that they're into making sure that curbs are cut and, you know, they have us, or that Airlines are, you know, they'll put a lot of energy into that.
They'll put a lot of energy into access, you know and I think that's where we, in the beginning, we've lost, we lost that, you know, the choices and rights stuff was, that was supposed to be important and I think that's where the Disability justice have said no. You know, let's get to the justice part.
You know, let's you know, this is, you know we've gone a lot of ways and we've won a lot of things. And yes, we, you know, not everything is accessible, you know, but my God, we still have people that are in poverty, you know, and we gotta work with those people.
A lot of times I think independent living centers and other organizations even if they're disability led are, you know, are not getting back to where I think we kind of should look at.
You know I’ve always been a person that, I'm privileged, so if I'm privileged and that means I get to help anyone else, you know, and let them use me, you know? Shit, I've been doing that forever, you know, in my photography, you know? I love that you got to, you know, take my picture and use it, you know, to me that was, that's what it's all about. You know, when someone has something and another person can use it, you know, then definitely, you know, don't get pissed off
Keith: Yeah. I mean, I should mention following up on that and not to brag certainly but my e-portfolio did win an award in the program so that was nice to finish out my graduate degree with that. I also graduated at Lincoln Center where we had the ceremony and I had lived right across the street from Lincoln Center for the first five or six years of my life so that was a nice homecoming. But so yeah, getting back to what you said about helping others. I have always adopted this viewpoint. In fact, I was just talking to a friend the other day, helping her out and I'd said, look, what's the point of having connections if you can't use them to help others?
It's no point and so, yeah, I fully agree with you on that. Speaking more broadly, looking back at your career from ‘85, what are some main takeaways that have struck with you throughout your career?
Tom: Well for those who are listening on this Zoom in the background of me, I have a picture.
There's a picture that is my background and that background is Louis Curtis in the kitchen, Louis Curtis, if you all know, with Elaine and Lois, who went to the Supreme Court for the Olmstead case and they were in institutions and I, you know, here's a picture of Lois in her kitchen, drawing. She’s an artist and in her own kitchen, I mean, she's, I mean, but to me that's all homestead.
You know, that's getting people out of institutions into their own places. So there's you. In my, in my life. There's been instances like that, you know, that I've gotten to meet people that, you know, things have happened. Just this is topical, I guess. There's a movie on Netflix called Where Barbara Met Johnny.
No, yeah, no, When Barbara Met Allen and it just came out on Netflix and it's about, it's got a couple that I know real well. It's kind of funny watching people play them, you know, but they were very big in the Disability Rights movement in England.
I've loved that I've been able to not only, you know, have things that are happening here but things that have happened elsewhere, you know but, you know, just reminded me in Brazil, unfortunately a lot of people that are probably listening didn't know that at one time in our culture, in our movements, we had magazines, we had these fantastic magazines that got to, you got to read and look at photos.
Got to look at our cartoons, our art, and I mean, that's something that we don't have nowadays. It was kinda interesting. I bring up Brazil because their Disability Rights Movement understood what we were doing up here, but they, you know, there was no action as such until they saw the magazines with photos that people were actually, you know, being arrested or, you know, actually doing things.
Then they said, Oh my God, we can do that and that was you. They got into the action part, you know so it's, you know, I you know, there's so many little things that became big things. I mean, even one of my favorite event venues for my photos was where I grew up in a time in the educational world and if you are in elementary school, you in junior high, you've got this paper called the Weekly Reader, you know, and it had all the topical events and I gotta put my photos into that Weekly Reader and I knew that some of the photos were the first time that, any kid had ever seen a proud and an empowered person with a disability, you know, and that to me, that was, you know, I don't even remember what photos, but just to have that in there to show people that, you know, that we were something else and what they thought and how they grew up, you know, to be.
I remember showing a kid in LA you know, I told you earlier on that I was an educational aid, and I would go to these places in the valley, in LA and I would, when I would go to classes, I'd always take my photo book with me.
And so there's this one school that I was at, there was only one kid in a wheelchair in the whole school and so we had a one-on-one thing and I was subbing for this person and I got to show him this book. He opened up this book of my photos and here was a photo of a long line of people and chairs, you know, at it was from, from a way above, you know, so it was a long, you could see probably about 200 wheelchairs, you know, on a police line, you know, that it was Blockhead and police in one side and all these wheelchairs on the other side.
And he looked up at me, he said, I never knew there were that many people in chairs in the world, you know, because he's never seen people, you know, in chairs. I mean, he was isolated, you know and he turned the page and there was an article from the Time Magazine that called, it was an ADAPT Action in San Francisco and Time Magazine called, the ADAPT Group there, Wheelchair Warriors.
Here's this kid reading this, you know, article that said Wheelchair Warriors, you know, he's in a wheelchair and he just looked up and said, I can be a Warrior.
Jesus. You know, it's just, you know, all of us have a chance to do something and like you say, to make a connection, you know, And I've been lucky in my life to make connections where, you know, it really meant something to a lot of people.
But everyone can do that, you know?
Keith: Yes they can and they should, they definitely should. So, In wrapping up, I like to always pose the following questions. Because I assume all, I rather hope that this podcast reaches both people with disabilities and those who have yet to have disabilities.
And so I am wondering what are some action steps that you would give the next generation of advocates who maybe like me just discovered your photography during my final semester getting my degree. What would you say to empower them as they make their way forward into advocating for the Disability Rights Movement?
Tom: I have a friend who's a young trans activists, in the psychosocial world and we both, you know, the thing is, is he asks the same question, you know, and it's a question that, you know, and it doesn't really depend on where you're at and where you're from.
But I also say that anyone that comes outta college, and especially from the Disability Studies Arena, and I was there at the beginning of SDS, Society for Disability Studies, you know, that's how long I've been around.
But anyhow, and one of the fights, and I said, I say it at times at conferences, you know, I said, it's one thing to do what you're doing, but we're at a point in our lives, it's not like other, other studies, you know?
We're still in a fight for ourselves, you know, we're still getting killed, we're still marginalized, We're, you know, and so that means that hey, you know, yes. You know, get along. You know, you got where you're at, you know, use it, but also give it back to the community where it needs it, you know and I'll usually say, if you can write and go to an independent living center and say, hey, can I write a grant for you? Or if it's not, if it’s like a HEARD program, hey, how can I help? You know, just go ahead, you know, say it, you know, just a phone call. You don't even have to know that person.
Just say, hey, you know, and sometimes, and especially in the academic world, there's things, there's people that you know that you've run into. You have connections, you have, sometimes you have, you know, connections that will help and I say use those connections and help. You know, there's so many different organizations that you can get into.
Definitely get into disability-led organizations for sure and, you know, those that are supported by peers. It’s a really important question because we're in a war right now. We just, like I said, we just lost 300,000 people with disabilities, you know, if you don't call that dying in a battle, you know, you know, I've lost it.
So it is important. It's really, really important that you give back. We're at a time where we have to not only go on with our own world and where we think we're gonna go, but also spend time. I like to say, you know, when you wake up weekly or daily, you know, as you wake up and say, what can I do to bring our community together?
Can I call someone? Can I collaborate with somebody? But this is important. It is really important because we are not winning. We are representation in our government, even through a government that is trying to do things for us. That's probably the biggest trouble for us.
There is no equity in what they're trying to do. We're not in there, we're not on the table. We're not, you know, we should be at the front of the table. If they're talking about disability, we should be there. We need to have, you know, educated people. We need to have live, lived, experienced people at those tables.
So yeah, wake up each morning, see what, and ask yourself what you can do for the movement and for our community.
Keith: And the other question to that, on the other side of the question to that one that you just answered is, what do you hope that the people who don't yet have disabilities take away from this interview that they've listened to? And to follow up on the, another side of that question, after you answer that, what do you hope that people with disabilities take away from listening to this interview?
Tom: Well, those without, you know, we always say that you're gonna be disabled at one time in your life.
You know, that's, but that doesn't help anything, even if you do say that cause if you don't have that experience, you don't have that experience, so you're not gonna think about it. So that's something that a lot of people say, but it doesn't work. It doesn't help at all and you know I don’t know.
I wish I could even come close to answering what a non-disabled person could take from it, you know? Keep on loving each other, that's about as much as I could say there. You know, but with our, with our friends in our cohorts of people with disabilities and all, you know, just look out for each other, you know, just those simple things, you know?
Otherwise, it gets too complicated I think. When people ask me for my pronoun, you know, I'll just say, Well, it's love.
Keith: Wow. That's a beautiful point to end on. Tom, thank you so much for not only your life's work in documenting our very critical movement, but also for your friendship. You know, when I used that photo of the capitol crawl in my e-portfolio, I didn't have any idea that I would be able to reach out to you, that I would do this podcast or that I would be interviewing someone who had literally been there right at a critical junction of the movement and has provided all of us in the community and outside of the community, such a vital service in documenting through photographs, the progression and evolution of the Disability Rights Movement where it started, where it has gone, and hopefully where it continues to go.
So once again, I'm honored to call you a friend, to call you a mentor, and thank you for getting behind the camera and doing what you do best.
Tom: Well, thank you, I appreciate just being with you and talking with you. That's been very good .
Keith: Thank you my friend. Stage safe. Stay healthy and I really hope that this is just the first episode we do together.
Tom: Sounds good.
Keith: You have been listening to Disability Empowerment Now. I would like to thank my guest today and you, the listener. More information about the podcast can be found on visit on disabilityempowermentnow.com. The podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts or on the official website. This episode of Disability Empowerment Now is copyrighted 2022.