Activist Mia Ives-Rublee On Being A Leader In The Movement For Disability Rights

Mia Ives-Rublee | Image: Kisha Bari

This article is part of an exciting series we launched in 2018 called Today’s Wonder Women – designed to celebrate the inspiring, impactful, empowering and extraordinary things ordinary women are doing every day. Over the coming months we will be sharing interviews, essays, articles and guest posts about women who are creating change. If you have a story to share and want to add your voice to the Today’s Wonder Women conversation, get in touch by emailing  

January 21, 2017 saw people mobilize across the United States, and elsewhere around the world, in record-breaking numbers for the inaugural Women’s March. What started as an idea among activists and those angry about the election of Donald Trump turned into one of the biggest modern women’s movements we have seen, evidence of the growing movement around intersectionality and feminism.

While many groups and organizations immediately came on board to be part of the march, one activist in particular decided to lead the way on making sure the disabled community was represented. Mia Ives-Rublee founded and coordinated the Women’s March Disability Caucus. She helped coordinate accessibility services for over 41,000 Disabled people and ensured that Women’s March was fully inclusive. For her work on the Women’s March on Washington, Mia was named by Glamour Magazine as one of 2017’s Women of the Year Award.

If you aren’t familiar with the rest of her work and her journey, here’s your opportunity to get familiar. Mia is a disabled transracial adoptee who has dedicated her life’s work to civil rights activism. She began her journey as an adapted athlete, competing internationally in track, road racing, fencing, and crossfit. She obtained her Masters in Social Work and began working with Disabled people to help them find work and independence in their communities. She has worked as a research assistant at UNC Chapel Hill Department of Emergency Medicine and lectured across the country on issues related to social justice and enabling everyone to participate fully in all aspects of society.

We spoke with this badass activist and leader about her personal story and why fighting for disability rights is important to her.

Mia Ives-Rublee with the Women’s March founders on stage

Tell us about growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, as a transracial adoptee, and how that impacted your identity from a young age?

Growing up in North Carolina as a transracial adoptee felt very isolating. There were no Asian American’s in my neighborhood and very few in my schools. The ones that were Asian American were primarily in ESL classes. My parents weren’t friends with any Asian Americans, so I had no one who looked like me that I could look up to or get guidance from. There was a time when I was very hesitant to even interact with other Asian Americans because the one time I made any real effort I got bullied. I tried to attend this Korean language school at a local Korean church. However, since I didn’t know any Korean, I was put in to a class mostly made up of white adults. Some kids asked me why I was in the “white people’s class” and generally looked down at me for not being already fluent in Korean. So, I left the school and didn’t make any real efforts to looking into my Korean identity until college. In college, I met a really cool person in acting class. She was the first one who helped me reclaim my identity through humor. 

How did a trip to the 1996 Paralympics change your outlook on being a person born with disabilities? 

First, I want to say I identify as a disabled person (i.e. identity first language). I came to this identity really through sports and my athletic career was really kicked off by the 1996 Paralympic games in Atlanta. I had an uncle who was on the US Paralympic soccer team. He got our whole family tickets to his games and the opening ceremony. I remember being literally shocked when we arrived in Atlanta to see all these disabled adults who were just there to celebrate and compete in the games. It was the first time I got to see disability in a positive connotation. So often, as a disabled person who may have complicated medical issues, you get told you can’t do things. Athletics allowed me to push those boundaries that all the adults had set for me. The lighting of the Paralympic torch that year was a lighting of my soul. It lit a fire in me that has yet to go out. It pushes me to continue to push against the limitations people originally set and look for ways to continue to seek new goals. 

Why did you decide to pursue adaptive athletics, and what were some of the events you competed in?

I am the type of person who just wants to try new things and I am very competitive by nature. My parents say that my first English words were “I do it myself,” which seems very characteristic of who I am. When my parents said I could try wheelchair track, I went head first into it. I loved having a chance to see what my body could do. 

I am an endorphin junkie. I love pushing myself so hard that I push through an energy wall. I love the satisfaction of finishing something and seeing progress. Sports taught me how to set goals and I loved continuously breaking them. It was no longer a matter of whether I could do something. It was more a matter of when I could do it. 

In terms of what types of athletics I’ve participated in, the list is quite extensive. I competed in wheelchair track and road racing, field, swimming, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair fencing, and adaptive crossfit. I’ve done international competitions in wheelchair track, fencing, and crossfit. 

After graduating college and getting more involved in coaching and teaching, you started to become more immersed in activism and politics. Why was this an important step in your journey?

I actually was involved in some activism in college. College was an amazing experience for me because I got to immerse myself in so many activities. Part of that included social active theater. We would perform skits for audiences and then talk about the social issues they addressed. I also was involved in student leadership, helping remove a racist mascot and talk about accessibility issues on campus. I also participated in my first march, which was on labor rights for migrant workers. 

Mia Ives-Rublee via her GoFundMe page

After obtaining my Master’s in Social Work, I began working in my community to help disabled individuals obtain employment. I had always been pretty socially conscious. But I didn’t truly put together how policies affected people’s everyday lives until I worked with clients who continuously came back for services because the policies that were in place made them more vulnerable. After six years, I decided I could no longer sit in an office and watch the revolving door of clients. That was when I tried research out. I learned quickly that academic research was not what I was interested in. The research we were doing took too much time and I often wondered how much of it was used to actually improve people’s lives.  

I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do when Trump was elected in to office. The day after the election, I made a promise to myself that I would get more politically active. It was this promise that led me to the work I do today.

In January 2017, the day after the Trump inauguration, you lead a coalition of activists as part of the Women’s March Disability Caucus. Why did you decide to form this caucus?

After Trump was elected, I saw some posts online about a Women’s March happening in DC. I had just made a promise to myself that I would get more politically and socially active in my community. Originally, I just planned to get involved on the state level. I contacted some people that were helping organize a contingent from NC to go to DC, but didn’t hear from anyone. At that time, thousands of people were attempting to do the same thing. I understood that the organizers were bombarded by emails and social media direct messages and remained patient as I continued to try to contact them.

As I waited, I began noticing Facebook messages on the national event page asking if the event would be accessible. I totally understood why people were concerned based on my own experiences at marches. When I noticed the messages weren’t being replied to, I came up with an idea: What if I organized a group of disabled individuals who were interested in attending and was able to show Women’s March organizers that they needed to include disabled people in the policies and event planning? That was how the Women’s March Disability Caucus was born. 

One of the things we love about your work is how you are wanting more progressives to step up their advocacy for those with disabilities, especially with the threat of the conservative government potentially rolling back rights and healthcare access. What message are you sharing with progressive groups and individuals?

The message I am sharing with progressive groups and individuals is that they need to recognize disability as a large identity group that intersects with every single other identity. When you add disability to any other identity, you tend to have someone who is extremely marginalized. Society was not designed for individuals like me and my community and we tend to be the first to be affected by poorly written or discriminatory policies. As Rebecca Cokley (Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress) says, “Disabled people are the canaries in the coal mine.”

Disabled people are often forgotten or left out of the conversation. When we are remembered, it is only so that we can be used for a specific political need. We are often not seen as able entities who have our own power, strength, and abilities. We are talked at and talked for. We often are not allowed to have thoughts and feelings of our own. 

Progressive groups and individuals need to do more listening and uplift our work. They need to stop siloing us out of their groups by tokenizing us, ignoring our issues, and making events inaccessible. We are, quite literally, an untapped group that could provide great skill to the progressive movement. Our community helped save healthcare. Imagine what we could do given more chances.

We’ve seen a number of disability rights activists protesting on capitol hill against cuts to healthcare funding. Why do you believe it is important for more people with disabilities to get involved in activism? 

Disabled people are involved in activism in their own manner of speaking. However, we need to be given more chances to lead in organizations that aren’t specifically targeted around healthcare. As I said before, disability intersects every identity. We are affected by poor education policies, police brutality, poverty and homelessness, sexual harassment/assault, xenophobic policies, etc. We need opportunities to work in these areas because we are often hit the hardest. 

Accessibility is often a big issue in every day aspects of life, from public transport, to schools to conferences. How do you foresee change happening to make more public spaces ADA-compliant in the US? 

I think that there needs to be a two-fold approach to making public spaces more ADA-compliant. First, I would like to see more funds going towards helping small businesses their brick and mortar locations and websites/apps more accessible. I would like these funds to especially assist businesses in poorer communities and businesses run by people of color. Second, I would like to see the government play a more active role in pushing businesses to comply with the ADA. Rather than waiting for complaints to be filed, I would like to see county governments assist the Federal government in identifying inaccessible locations. These locations would be graded and the offenders would be told they needed to comply immediately. If the place remained inaccessible, the place would be sued and required to comply. Disabled people would still have the ability to file a complaint independently and sue a place that wasn’t under compliance without this process. 

For those who aren’t aware of what the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) does, can you explain in some practical ways? How has it helped more disabled people participate more fully in public spheres? 

I am part of the ADA generation. A group of individuals who grew up largely after the ADA was signed (i.e. after 1990). For disabled people everywhere, the ADA provided legislation that made it illegal to discriminate against disabled people in public accommodations, employment, state and local government services, and telecommunications. It recognized that disabled people should be granted the same rights as non-disabled people.

As part of the ADA generation, it had been instilled in me from a very young age that I deserved the same chances as my peers. This allowed me to focus on my education and gave a framework for my parents to advocate for my rights when school policies and administrative decisions infringed upon them. There was no question that I would try to seek employment after I graduated because of the ADA. While the ADA is in no way perfect, it did provide a framework that has allowed millions of disabled people to participate more fully in their communities. 

Many of the things that are required by the ADA are now seen as conveniences, which has helped make the world more accessible. Everything from curb cuts to elevators to telecommuting. All of these were designed to help disabled people and now non-disabled people can benefit from them. 

Mia Ives-Rublee and fellow activists for the United State of Women X Land of Distraction campaign

You recently wrote a powerful op-ed about the need to include more disability voices in the fight for medicare for all. Can you tell us what is lacking in this conversation when it comes to disability representation?

For the longest time, healthcare was a topic ascribed to the disability community because we are the most prolific users of its services. However, we were always seen as customers and never experts. We are often tokenized by progressive groups. Told to sit or stand in front of audiences to talk about our needs but never given space at the policy tables. This has led to a continuation of policies that don’t truly address our needs. After the healthcare fight in the summer of 2017, non-disabled people realized that the public was hungry for universal healthcare coverage. While Medicare for All had been bandied about, few ever thought it would ever make any progress until recently. Now senators and representatives are feeling the pressure to write up more substantiated bills.

In 2017, most of the new healthcare bills ignored covering services that could greatly benefit disabled people, including covering community LTSS, decreasing the numerous arbitrary regulatory hoops, and getting rid of formularies. In 2018, through the work of numerous disability advocates and activists, Delauro became the first to create a bill that would cover community LTSS. Jayapal followed suit, creating a single payer bill that would include community LTSS. Sanders was the last to fall in line on the progressive side. However, there are other issues that need to be looked at and policy makers need to continue to talk to disabled people and people with chronic illnesses to discuss how healthcare could be improved. As the largest users of healthcare, we should have a say on how the healthcare system is rebuilt so that it covers all people. 

Mia Ives-Rublee for the United State of Women X Land of Distraction campaign

Can you talk to us about disabled women having access to reproductive justice and healthcare? How are they generally overlooked in the greater repro rights conversation? 

I actually have an article that will come out soon on this topic. Disabled women are often left out of the conversations around reproductive justice. We face hurdles around receiving care because of inaccessibility and stigma. Many reproductive health clinics remain inaccessible and few doctors are trained to interact appropriately and treat disabled women. I have interviewed and talked to many women who have horror stories about interacting with reproductive health clinics. For me, I have rarely gone to clinics because of inaccessibility and I am not alone. Inaccessibility has led to a higher rate of mortality for disabled women due to being diagnosed with cancer later than non-disabled women. 

Not only do we face inaccessibility. We face a lot of stigma. Non-disabled people often believe that disabled women are asexual, incapable of bringing a baby to term, and incapable of caring for a baby. This has led to disabled women, especially disabled black and brown women, to be forcibly sterilized. It has also led to people calling child protective services on them. 

Yet disabled women are just like non-disabled women. We are sexual beings. Some of us are able to and want to have children of their own. The lack of clear training and policies that help make this happen continuously leaves disabled women marginalized. 

Lastly, there is an assumption that disabled women will either all be pro-choice or anti-abortion. However, we span the gamut on beliefs and shouldn’t be tokenized to progress one opinion or another. Abortion is a tough topic because it has been used as a tool to erase disabled people, especially as genetic testing has advanced. However, many disabled people believe in bodily autonomy and thus support women’s right to choose.

Have you made a trip back to Korea to visit the orphanage where you were before you were adopted by your American family? 

Yes, I made a trip in the beginning 2018.

How do you hope to see more conversations around race and disability being part of the adoption issue in the US and beyond?

Adoption is a tough topic for me and I have spent a lot of time thinking about the history and geopolitics of it all. But one thing I want to emphasize is that we need to reexamine the way adoption is done in the US and abroad. Adoption is a complicated subject filled with issues around commodification of lives and colonization of cultures. It is not just as simple as giving a child a better life. If we don’t fully analyze structures of power, historical oppression, and trauma, we will continue to muddy the waters and retraumatize children. 

For those who feel like they are invisible or unheard, what advice would you give them to feel more empowered and that they matter?

It’s hard when you feel invisible or unheard. A lot of times you may feel trapped and have no way of getting out of the situation. But know that many women have felt this at one point or another. My suggestion is to start setting goals for yourself on what you envision in your life. It can be anything from cleaning up to getting your college diploma. Once you know what you want, look for others in your similar situation. There are so many amazing and powerful women. Once you find someone, my suggestion is just to talk to them. Many are willing to provide advice. Every amazing woman who is at the top of their game can name a person who helped them along. Establishing a mentor relationship can often help you learn and get to your goals. Also, sometimes you have to break into establishments of power on your own. It’s often best to do this with someone who has your back and that you trust. Create a seat at the table and let your thoughts and interests be known. 

Finally, what makes you a powerful woman?

I believe that all women are generally powerful. A woman can be powerful in so many ways, from the smallest thing, like getting up in the morning when the world feels like its ganging up on them, to the greatest acts of moral courage. But what makes someone extraordinary? I truly admire women who are knocked down, yet continuously get back up again to fight for what they believe in. I admire a woman who is willing to help other women get ahead and I admire women who make sure they get the credit they deserve. I have worked towards these goals all my life and I hope that it reflects in my work.

Mia Ives-Rublee | Image: Kisha Bari

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