by Dr. Evette Simmons-Reed, Dr. LaShawna Fant, Dr. Carolyn Peters, Mr. Kane Brolin and Mr. Lee Martin, Sr.
From the Editor: There are lots of things to like about editing the Braille Monitor, but I think my favorite is when I get articles that cause people to sit up and think about issues they thought otherwise resolved. This article asks us to look at two words: equality and equity. Though I could’ve easily used both in sentences, when it came to really analyzing them, I went to my dictionary and then to some of the contemporary discussion about them.
This article is not envisioned by its authors as being the final statement on the words we should use but a suggestion that we strongly consider when each word best addresses what we want to say and those things for which we are willing to work. Here is what this fine list of authors has to say:
Social justice is a phrase that seemingly few Americans view with impartiality. To some, it is a rallying cry for empowerment; to others, a threatening symbol of sanctimonious wokeness. It seems that social justice has become loaded with so much political ammunition that it is often hard to imagine that the principle behind it could be beneficial to everybody. But social justice is really about allyship, and it can benefit people with all different kinds of lived experience.
Writing in Forbes, multi award-winning Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Leader Sheree Atcheson defines an ally as “any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive, and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole.”1 Everyone has the ability to become an ally. Everyone sometimes needs to have an ally. Beneath all the loaded connotations ascribed to it, social justice refers to the practice of allyship and coalition-building work. Its goal is to promote equality, equity, mutual respect, and the assurance of rights between and within communities and social groups. Fair wages, the #MeToo movements, the pointed criticism of policing tactics, and Black Lives Matter have all focused attention on various social justice issues in our society. Although this term previously applied mainly to how economic resources were allocated, more recently it has come to apply holistically to the treatment of different individuals and people groups, access to services and opportunities, and access to political representation.
Difficult dialogues regarding these social justice issues have been raging in our homes, workplaces, schools, and more recently, within our own organization. Specifically, calls that the blind be recognized as being made up of a complex kaleidoscope of cultural identities, rather than as a composite mass, have been at the forefront of many difficult discussions. Issues such as access, equity, participation, diversity, and human rights are basic social justice principles and are aligned with the principles we historically have fought for as the oldest and largest civil rights organization of blind people. Yet, at national and state conventions, in chapter meetings, in blogs, and on social media, it is evident that, just as in the rest of our country, we in the organized blind movement have been struggling to arrive at consensus, given the different perspectives expressed by Federationists who come from all sorts of backgrounds. Not surprisingly, we have been pondering some challenging differences of opinion when it comes to the approach we should take to all this:
Despite legislation inspired by the Disability Rights Movement, institutional policies and practices have long created unfair advantages for sighted people, perpetuating a substantial wealth gap between sighted and blind people. This can be described as institutional oppression: the systematic mistreatment and dehumanization of any person based solely on a social identity group to which they identify that is supported and enforced by society and its institutions. Whether consciously or not, people who make and enforce policy base their practice of institutional oppression on a belief that people in a given social identity group are inherently inferior. But this practice is sometimes not obvious on the surface. Typically, organizational diversity initiatives create an illusion of inclusion and fall far short of anything beyond compliance with the letter of the law. Uncorrected institutional oppression results in much of the same thing as before: The group that already had dominant power continues to benefit disproportionately at the expense of other groups that continue to be oppressed in spite of legislative safeguards that should have evened the playing field.
Keeping this in mind, there is one other huge question that demands an answer:
For eighty-one years the National Federation of the Blind has been empowering blind people to advocate for our needs in working toward abolishing barriers impeding our pursuit of the “American Dream.” Taking direction from various presidents who have led the National Federation of the Blind over these eight decades, we continuously expand the scope of our vision. Many blind Americans within and apart from the Federation have tasted the sweet nectar of progress resulting from the extraordinary fortitude demonstrated by our members. As an organization we provide a network of support for one another as we seek to raise our voices, increase our visibility, and share our views all over the world.
In the spirit of advancing our mission, we here discuss the nuances between the term’s equality and equity. We offer this article as food for thought and as an open invitation to keep these critical dialogues going.
Some may view equality and equity as just different rallying cries or buzzwords meaning essentially the same thing; but we caution that words matter. In his banquet speech at the 2020 NFB National Convention, President Riccobono wisely pointed out: “Language reflects belief, and we will not sell out our beliefs. We, the blind, follow our words with the action of living the lives we want.” So, let us start by adding definition to this discussion and then go on to examine how the choice of the term equality or equity aligns with the policies and practices aimed at improving outcomes for different blind Americans.
According to the dictionary by Merriam-Webster, equality is the “quality or state of being equal, where equal is defined as having the same measurement in quality, nature, or status.” Equality aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality aims to promote fairness and justice. But, as we have learned from the outcomes of the civil rights movement, it is achieved only when everyone starts from the same place or needs the same things. Equality presumes sameness and takes for granted that we all have the same experiences and privileges.
This same dictionary defines equity as “something that is equitable,” where equitable is defined as, “dealing fairly and equally with all concerned.” Equity, from a social justice perspective, involves trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives.
A deeper dive into what these terms imply makes it plain that the kind of justice and the types of success that any society seeks to attain depends on whether the first principle that society employs has its roots in equality or in equity.
Equality basically means providing everyone with the same amount of resources regardless of whether everyone needs them. In other words, each person receives an equal share of money, food, health benefits, employment resources, and social services despite what they already started with or lacked from the beginning. Equity, though, is a subtler notion that is harder to attain in practice. Equity is when resources are shared based on what each person needs in order to adequately level the playing field for all who contribute to a society and all who have need of something from that society. Different people—and, by extension, different subgroupings of people within a larger social framework like the United States—have different levels of need for support and assistance. In recognition of this, the equity model creates systems with a mandate to support individuals and groupings of individuals based on their specific needs. The goal of equity is to help achieve fairness in treatment, leading to better outcomes for all even if all don’t get there in exactly the same ways or by receiving exactly the same things in the same proportion. If done properly, equality can be an outcome of an effective and just process; but it is the principle of equity that creates and drives that process.
So, can equality and equity live in the same room? Which of these two is more valid? Which is more important? In our work to advance the opportunity and security of blind Americans, are we striving to make things equal or to make them equitable? Are we arguing that one of these noble-sounding concepts is superior and the other inferior? Should we keep just one of these concepts and throw out the other?
We argue that even though they have two entirely different meanings, equity and equality are not competitive ideas, but on the contrary they are complementary. They work hand in hand. One cannot be achieved without the other. Understanding what equity means and how to apply it actually brings us one step closer to achieving equality as the final outcome. Put another way, in order for the world to reach a place in which everything is fair, just, and equal, we need to start with a goal of equity: distributing resources based on who needs them most and who can draw the most long-term benefit from a specific type of approach. We propose that if we are to reach equality as an outcome, we have to tackle the causes of inequity first. Without equity, inequality will persist, and those who are most vulnerable will remain or become even more vulnerable, while those who already enjoy inherent advantage will just keep gaining more advantage.
There is still another definition of equity: lesser used in civil rights literature, but a definition that is very important to those who spend their professional lives in stewardship of economic resources. In the business world, equity refers to ownership. When Investopedia looks at equity, it refers to "shareholders' equity ... [representing] the amount of money that would be returned to a company’s shareholders if all of the assets were liquidated and all of the company's debt [were] paid off .... It also represents the pro-rata ownership of a company's shares."
You certainly could argue that most of us in the blind community, except for those in the Business Enterprise Program, have struggled to imagine that we could ever own anything substantial. In this country, it could be argued that most of us who are blind have passed through seasons of life when the most consistent income we received came from Supplemental Security Income or SSDI. A lot of us are employed only part-time outside the home or are underemployed in workshops. These outcomes are persistent across the blind community irrespective of the degree of visual impairment, education, or ability that any particular blind adult started with. But we are underestimating ourselves when we say we have no equity. As free citizens of a constitutional republic, with the right to express ourselves, vote, and choose whether to buy or not to buy something, we need to think and act as though we have an ownership stake—an equity stake—in the community, state, and country we live in. We need to ensure that society recognizes we have this ownership stake, because we do have it. Advocating for equity does not just refer to pleading with someone who occupies a seat of power to even the playing field for us and hoping they do it. We who are blind must not wait around for someone else to do this for us. Transforming equity from a dream into a real, impactful process and workable procedure means voting, but it also means showing up at school board and town council meetings. It means getting involved in community organizations that go beyond just the organized blind movement. It means expressing our voice not only on Election Day, but it includes actively getting involved as voting districts are redrawn in the wake of the census every ten years. This is critical for the blind in general; it is especially critical for blind men and women who are African-American. Of course, it is important too for blind men and women who are Latinx or who are members of an East Asian or Pacific Island ethnic community or who are members of a Middle Eastern/North African or Native American ethnic community or who self-identify as multiple disabled or LGBTQ+.
So, what is an example of how we can apply the principle of equity to the good in our everyday struggle? As we decide what to ask for and where to set our boundaries of acceptance as blind Americans, perhaps we should all ponder the difference between inclusion and access. In a brilliantly written piece published in the March 2020 edition of the Braille Monitor, Peter Slatin unpacks this. In part, he says: "Exclusion and inclusion are passive states assigned to those designated to be either kept out or brought in. The active agent is not the newly welcomed but instead the welcoming committee, which sets the terms of inclusion and will assign and enable a bouncer should one be deemed necessary. Even when those terms are beneficial, the person newly included will retain that sense of being an outsider who has been invited to a party and only allowed to join by the grace of the host. Is it nice to finally be allowed in? Of course—but we have been here all along. ... It is not inclusion that I want—it’s access. And access is something I can actively seek to create or acquire. I may need assistance doing so. I may need to change laws and minds, not necessarily in that order. I may need to fight. In the end though, I will be part of designing what access looks like and how it works."3
The importance of gaining full equity and belonging, as opposed to just accepting inclusion whenever sighted powerbrokers and gatekeepers permit it, is true for not just the technology we use but for every aspect of the society we operate in. According to John A. Powell, director of the othering and belonging institute, at UC Berkeley, states that “belonging is based on the recognition of our full humanity without having to become something different or pretend that we’re all the same”. We are constantly renegotiating who we are as human beings (January 14, 2020). From a social justice perspective, we must go further than asking to be included and hoping those with the power are nice enough to accommodate. We must commit to be a part of the ownership, design, and implementation process. It means not just asking our legislators for help every February at NFB Washington Seminar. Sooner or later, some of us in the organized blind movement who live with other intersecting characteristics need to get elected so we can change unjust laws and oversee the implementation of what we need from the insider’s position.
In what areas do inequity and inequality show up most? There are evident inequalities globally in race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, education, economic status, and so much more. It is inequity—the lack of an ownership stake—that lies at the core of so much inequality and human suffering in this country and around the globe. Understanding the implications of inequity and tackling it head-on will be important to achieving overall equality as an outcome. We shouldn’t be aiming to treat people as if there were no differences among us or aiming to distribute resources equally to everybody. It is highly recommended that our movement recognize that it is only by means of equitable processes that we will have the means to get to the outcome of equality.
To this end, we argue that the Federation should alter the NFB Pledge so that the word equity is used instead of equality:
As pointed out in a concise article published in the October 2017 edition of the Braille Monitor,4 the statement we recite that is currently known as the NFB Pledge has been in use for nearly five decades. What’s more, it was composed and distributed at the behest of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, the longest-serving leader who has graced the organized blind movement. While the mission of the Federation must remain intact and the rich legacy of our past must never be forgotten, changing times in the society at large calls for a change in the strategies and tactics used to achieve our mission. In July of 2021, the Monitor’s long-time editor Gary Wunder penned these words: “When we pledge ourselves to go build the Federation, it is not organizational momentum or preservation of some legacy that we are talking about. It is talking about having a mechanism to bring about effective change, a structure that lets blind people talk among ourselves, venture to risk new ideas leading to opportunities, and knowing that we have the support of one another as we attempt the traditional or untraditional.” We ask that you strongly consider our suggestion, that you view it through a forward-looking lens, and that you comment on our proposal with the same spirit of fellowship and positive goodwill that has led us to present it in these pages.
1. Taken from “Allyship - The Key To Unlocking The Power Of Diversity.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/shereeatcheson/2018/11/30/allyship-the-key-to-unlocking-the-power-of-diversity/
2. Antonin Scalia, The Disease As Cure. “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race,” 1979 Washington University Law Quarterly 147 (1979). Reprinted by University of Chicago Law School, Journal Unbound Journal Articles Faculty Scholarship. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/journal_articles/
3. For more on this subtopic, check out the article entitled The Trouble With Inclusion: https://nfb.org//images/nfb/publications/bm/bm20/bm2003/bm200313.htm
4. “Origins Of The NFB Pledge” https://nfb.org/sites/default/files/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm17/bm1709/bm170914.htm