Welcome to the summer/fall season of Off-Kilter! We’re excited to be back and up and running with the show after a break, just in time to mark Disability Pride Month. And to kick things off right, Rebecca sat back down with Mia Ives-Rublee, a long-time disability rights and justice activist who today serves as the director of the disability justice initiative at the Center for American Progress. They talk disability pride; what liberation means to the disability community; how Mia’s path as a transracial adoptee and competitive athlete shape her advocacy today; and lots more.
Links from this episode:
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. And Happy July, friends. We at Off-Kilter are excited to be back up and running with the show, after a little June break, just in time to mark Disability Pride Month. And I just wanna say I really enjoyed the series on self-care as political warfare that we did this spring. We were digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is political warfare and how self-care shows up in the lives of a range of economic and social justice leaders so that they can continue to show up in the work themselves. I know I learned a ton from that whole series, and we got lots of really kind notes from listeners saying you all enjoyed it too. So, we decided we’ll be keeping that self-care theme alive, not as the sole focus of the podcast, but as a permanent fixture, as part of the weekly conversations that we have that continue to intentionally go behind the music, as it were, with visionary leaders and lightworkers working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance we all deserve. I think of it personally kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy.
So, without further ado, to kick things off right with July as Disability Pride Month, I am so incredibly excited to sit back down with my good friend Mia Ives-Rublee! She’s a longtime disability rights and justice activist and advocate who today serves as the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, better known as CAP. Mia, thank you for coming back on the show. It’s good to see you!
MIA IVES-RUBLEE: [sings] I’m so happy to be here!
VALLAS: Yay! Well, me too. And I wish we had drinks, and we were doing this in real life. But as I often say, Zoom will have to do, and it’s better than nothing.
IVES-RUBLEE: For now.
VALLAS: It’s lovely, lovely to be in space with you in one way or another. But, Mia, it’s been I’m gonna go with a couple years since you’ve actually been back on this show. And the last time that you were on, if memory serves, was, I think back in 2021, in the fall when I actually started doing the podcast with The Century Foundation. And it was an episode with you and Rebecca Cokley and Judy Heumann, who has since left us and is now a disabled ancestor. And so, I wanna give you the chance to sort of reintroduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners. We’re gonna talk about a lot of things in this hour that we have together. But share a little bit about who you are and how you come to this work, and then we’ll get to get into disability pride and more.
IVES-RUBLEE: Well, as you said, my name is Mia Ives-Rublee. I am currently the director for the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. I was also appointed to the President’s Advisory Council on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. I sort of flit between two very distinguished communities—disability community, Asian-American community—along with all my other identities, and have been doing disability work pretty much my entire life. I was born with a disability. I have osteogenesis imperfecta, which basically means I have brittle bones. I utilize a wheelchair to get around. And so, it wasn’t really much of an option in terms of sort of what my life was going to entail, partially because my parents were just such great examples of fighting for my rights and really sort of bounced off them and the many others who have come before me in terms of fighting for basic rights for all folks.
VALLAS: And I feel like that couldn’t be a better, we couldn’t really pick a better place to start this conversation, given that you’ve actually just laid out a bunch of the different threads that I know we’re gonna get to pull on. And folks who know you might know sort of this much of your work. I’m holding my fingers kind of closely together, about an inch apart. And I’ll say what I’m, I think, most excited about in this conversation is all the things that we’re gonna get to talk about that people may not know about you, [delighted chuckle] some of which I have the benefit of knowing because we’re friends in addition to getting to do this work together. But Mia, I’m excited to get into all of it.
So, I feel like the place that we need to start is disability pride and Disability Pride Month. And it’s July. For a long time, people have been marking July as the anniversary every year of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And this year happens to be the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, as it’s often called. But over time, the disability community has sort of reclaimed July in a way and taken it away from being just a celebration and a marker and a milestone moment every year of the ADA and how much we have to celebrate and also how far we still have to go. But the community has really taken it and kind of headed this month in a direction that is much more about pride and much more about celebrating disability as an identity as opposed to just a conversation that sort of starts and finishes with laws and policies. I’d love to give you a chance, as we get started with this conversation, to talk a little bit about what disability pride means. What is the significance of that shift and of marking this month not just as a legislative moment, but really as a cultural moment? And I’m curious what disability pride means to you personally.
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah, I’ve been mulling on the term “disability pride” for pretty much this whole year just trying to decide what it actually means to me. And I think that some of this processing is due to sort of going through the same processes I was going through in terms of discovering what disability justice was and what it meant to me, you know? I think so often, we’re focused on laws and policies. In the medical field we’re focused on deficits and medical treatments, etc. And I think that what’s come about, and it’s been sort of a long road, is that disabled people have developed their own culture and their own shared identity—or our own shared identity—that is more than just deficits and policy. Because in essence, we’re all people, and we all come from different backgrounds, but we share a similar perspective in life and in terms of dealing with specific structural conditions that often negate our own personhood, right?
And so, I think that we’ve decided to sort of own this month in a way that has been, sort of become standardized in a way in public. And it’s like they trot out the same old sort of quote-unquote “ancestors” and sort of “founders” to say, “Hurrah!!! We did this one thing!” But we haven’t moved on from that one thing. I think we all know that the ADA much, even though it’s a great piece of legislation, that it really is sort of the subbasement of where we need to be today in terms of addressing the inequities in society and the ableism that flits through our whole society and all our lives. So, I think it’s been complicated because I don’t want to see what’s happened in Pride Month happen for Disability Pride Month. I want it to be our thing, and I don’t want it to become bought up by different corporations, etc., saying, “Hurrah, hurrah. We’ve done such great work,” when really, they haven’t. And so, I do want Disability Pride Month to be substantive, to be about our community, to uplift the accomplishments of so many people from the policy side, from the art side, from just general living side of who we are, and to show the diversity of who we are.
VALLAS: Yeah, I love that. And just to kind of stay there for just a moment. As you were speaking, some of what I was, some of what was coming into my mind was the commercials, for example, that you see during July, right? Or you see the, and the same thing happens, as you were saying, with LGBTQ+ Pride Month, right, in June, where it’s you see, you kind of know the rhythm. And you turn on the television and whatever platform, whether it’s Internet-based or actual cable. I’m not a person with actual cable anymore, right? But when you turn things on and you see commercials, you know what to expect. Or online, the images that are getting pushed, it’s all tons of corporate social responsibility kind of stuff with everybody saying, “Look what we’re doing for the community we’re celebrating this month!” right? And so, I appreciate you bringing that in as sort of how not to do it, right? [laughs] The thing that isn’t meaningful. We talked a little bit about this actually in the closing episode of the last season of Off-Kilter with Andraéa LaVant, where she was talking a little bit about how she works with corporate leaders to go beneath the box checking, right? And I feel like that’s the theme you’re bringing in here as well.
But I wanna also go a little bit deeper as well, because sometimes—and I don’t wanna, I’m not gonna name any names here—but I feel like during Disability Pride Month, sometimes I will get asked—and I assume you do as well, and I assume folks across the community do as well—“Well, why would the disability community say that they’re proud,” right? Like, “What is disability pride? Why would anyone be proud to have a disability? Isn’t that something that you wish you didn’t have, right? Isn’t it something that if you could get rid of it, you would get rid of it, you would cure it?” I’m putting in large scare quotes. So, I’m throwing that straw man up just to give you a chance to speak a little bit to that. Because for anyone who is not familiar with the depth and the significance of disability pride to folks who choose to celebrate that way this month in a way that isn’t box checking in a corporate social responsibility way, but in a way that is about claiming identity.
VALLAS: I’m curious if you could speak a little bit to that.
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah, disability is as complex as any other identity. There are great things about it, and there are things that stink about it, right? I think that a lot of people, because it’s such a stigmatized condition or identity, folks don’t look at what has been done within the disability community. One of the things that I love to say to folks, particularly corporations that are like, “Why should we hire disabled people?” And I say, “You know, disabled people are some of the most complex, creative individuals because they had to become that with this society that they live in or we live in.” And I think that it’s extremely important to understand that there are different ways to look at disability. And most people, when they think about disability, think of the medical model, which basically says there’s a deficit in this individual due to some genetic anomaly or due to some injury that has occurred that makes it so that this individual is unable to do X, right?
And there’s been a lot of push to reorganize our brains to understand that disability is a part of the human condition and that many of the things that are seen as quote-unquote “disabling” are actually only disabling because society has decided that we aren’t worth accommodating.
VALLAS: That’s the social model, right?
IVES-RUBLEE: That’s the social model.
VALLAS: That’s sort of the alternative to that medical model you’re talking about.
IVES-RUBLEE: Right. And I think that it’s important to understand that in any society, if you have a bunch of individuals who are extremely short within a community, and you have one really tall person, that person would, could be deemed disabled. You look at somewhere like Martha’s Vineyard that used to be well known for being a Deaf community, for having so many Deaf people in the community that everybody knew how to sign. So, deafness wasn’t a disability in that community because everybody could communicate with each other. So, I think that it’s important to understand where disabled people are coming from and understanding sort of how we have had to live our lives in the current perspective and our own accommodations of society. So, we’re accommodating a society because we have to.
And understanding that, for me, as an individual who has grown up with a disability and who has gone through a wide range of feelings about my disability and has flitted back and forth, I think that for me, I see it sort of as I fit within sort of between the social and medical model, because I do understand that there are individuals with chronic pain who want that solved, right? They want to get rid of their chronic pain, and that is totally valid. But at the same time, the things that we’ve learned how to deal with and the things that we have shared as a community has created a specific identity that we want to claim as our own.
VALLAS: Mmhmm. And I so appreciate you bringing in the medical model and the social model, right? Because just to say it—and I feel like this is what you were, the point you were just making. I’m just gonna put it a little bit differently just to underscore it—whether or not a person is able to do a particular thing has very little meaning without an environmental and a social context.
IVES-RUBLEE: Right. 100 percent.
VALLAS: And that’s what you were describing with Martha’s Vineyard so beautifully, right? Deafness not being a disability because it didn’t interfere with communication, right?
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah. 100 percent.
VALLAS: And so, just I love you sharing that story. And I love you bringing that into this conversation. One set of words that I have had ringing in my ears all Disability Pride Month long—and as this episode is going to air, it’s actually gonna be the last week of Disability Pride Month—the words came at the moment when The Century Foundation was teaming up with the Ford Foundation and the Center for American Progress and you and a whole bunch of other folks to launch the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative last year in April. And that was 2022. And what Congresswoman Pressley said at that launch event—and I’m getting chills even preparing to say it because I’m just thinking again about her and her leadership and her passion—she said, “We’re not fighting for scraps. We’re fighting for liberation.”
VALLAS: And I wanna just note that liberation is a word and a concept that has particular meaning for a whole range of different marginalized and oppressed groups, and it has a lot of layers for the disability community in particular. And one, of course, pertains to the United States’ I’m gonna call it sordid history of mass institutionalization of disabled people. This was something we’ve talked about on several prior episodes of Off-Kilter. For folks who are curious for sort of a primer, I’ll send you back to that episode I mentioned with Judy Heumann and Mia and Rebecca Cokley talking about what America looked like before we quote-unquote “deinstitutionalized,” before we let people out by the hundreds of thousands from institutions that they were being warehoused in. But I wanna note that getting to liberation for disabled people in the U.S. is gonna take a lot more than just one piece of legislation or one policy, whether that be Home and Community-Based Services, right, as an alternative to people being warehoused in institutions as they still are, even though we quote-unquote, largely “deinstitutionalized.”
And so, one issue that I really wanna bring into this conversation with you is one that I very much see as connected to liberation for disabled people, but which honestly doesn’t get nearly the attention that it deserves, which is part of why people like you and I continue to work on it and not move on from it until we bring it into the spotlight in the way that it warrants. And that is a particular program called Supplemental Security Income, SSI, as it’s better known. It helps, it provides income support, I should say, to about eight million disabled and older people. And the reason I’m bringing it into a conversation about liberation, and economic liberation in particular, is because, in many ways, this program has really actually become, I often say, an institution without walls for millions of people because it’s been left to wither on the vine for so long. Its own eligibility criteria that it keeps people trapped within so that they can continue to get that income support is constraining people from living full and dignified lives. So, I wanted to bring that into this conversation and to give you a chance to talk a little bit about SSI and how it fits into a conversation about liberation. It’s a program that has personal relevance and importance to you in addition to professional significance. So, Mia, talk a little bit about why this issue of updating SSI, bringing it into the 21st century so it’s not that prison without walls anymore, why is this so important to you? And do you feel like it’s fair for me to call SSI’s eligibility rules an institution without walls?
IVES-RUBLEE: Those are great questions. I think that, so, just to give a primer, as you know, I was on SSI for numerous years, starting as soon as I got out of high school and going into college and post-college time. And it was something that you kind of feel like you’re going into a contract that you don’t really understand until you have to deal with all the rules around it.
IVES-RUBLEE: And you go in, and you’re told, hey, in order to be able to get Medicaid and some financial support, sign up for this program. And so, that’s what I did. That’s what I was told to do. I went into it, signed up. After I signed up, I got a list of all the rules that I had to abide by in order to stay on it and also stay eligible for Medicaid. And so, some of those included I couldn’t earn over a certain amount, I couldn’t save money over a certain amount, that I had to report anything that I was earning, that I had to ensure that I let them know wherever I was moving, etc. And so, you go into it not realizing how many rules are there. But then you realize a lot of the program is essential to your life because it’s paying for your healthcare that you couldn’t afford otherwise, that it’s keeping you afloat, that it’s helping pay for your housing, etc. And so, then you’re having to make this really, these really bad choices, these really difficult choices of, well, do I take this internship that could help me eventually get a job, but it could impact my eligibility status? Or do I take this job or this summer job, this short-term job in order to help pay for my books? But at the same time, it may drop my SSI payments, which may affect my ability to pay for my rent. And so, you start balancing between what you’re allowed to do versus what you need to do in your life and what you want to do in your life. Which many of the individuals on SSI want to find a job and are unable to because of some of the particulars on the program. And so, for me, it did feel like a trap. It did feel like I faced this odd cliff of I had to sort of jump off this cliff or this wall in order to hopefully land in a job that was going to support me and that hopefully I didn’t have some emergency that would happen that would land me back into needing that support and those services.
So, I think I do agree that in in some ways, this is an institution without walls. And due to the fact that you’re literally not living above poverty line on this program, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of deciding what you can and can’t do while on that program. And so, even though the program was created to be that safety net for disabled people in getting them out of poverty, and that was one of the most successful programs to getting disabled people out of poverty, because there’s been so much neglect and lack of interest from folks on the Hill, we’ve really seen it become a program that has more likely constrained people rather than given them the freedom and independence that they wanted to live in their communities.
VALLAS: Yep. And just to provide a few numbers for folks who are hearing what you’re saying and wondering, well, how bad is it in terms of some of these prohibitions? Well, again, none of this was what Congress intended when they enacted the program in 1972, and then it was signed into law in 1974 by President, then-President Nixon. It was a bipartisan thing, right? They didn’t intend to be putting people in this institution without walls because they set up a bunch of rules that if you looked in 1972 dollars made a lot more sense. The thing that they never did was to index any of it to inflation. [chuckles] And so, what we’ve done over 40 years, almost 40 years now, is we’ve let that same set of 1972 dollars rules just sit, just sit on the shelf, just continue to apply to millions of people’s lives. And we’ve done nothing to update almost any of the rules, even for inflation, let alone for changing circumstances or modernization that might otherwise track with our current society.
And so, I often, honestly, given that SSI is a program I’ve worked on since I was a legal aid lawyer representing clients who were facing that institution without walls, I’ve always felt that there’s some significance to the fact that I was born in the same year that SSI’s rules were last updated, which was 1984! And that was the last time that any of these rules were actually updated for inflation, and that was the last time that SSI’s asset limit was increased at all. In 1984, it was set at $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple. Those rules have remained unchanged. Those dollar figures have remained unchanged in the way that, Mia, you were just talking about. And then when it comes to other parts of life, right, people aren’t allowed to get married without potentially sacrificing their benefits. People aren’t allowed to accept even a bag of groceries or a couch to sleep on from a loved one without seeing their benefits cut. So, we’ve talked a lot about these rules on this podcast over the years, so go back and find some episodes about SSI. We’ll put them in show notes if you want lots more about this. But Mia, what is your hope in terms of where some of those conversations have started to head in recent years? Do you wanna talk a little bit about what you might be optimistic about now that we’ve seen some bipartisan interest in paying attention to this program again?
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah. So, I think particularly ‘cause I got to be involved in one of the hearings and heard from some of the folks in the GOP who a lot of them stated that they had no idea that the things that were happening on the program were happening. And I think unfortunately, a lot of the things that are happening to the disability community are often due to ignorance and not due to like actual malice, but the situation is still the same. Like, the outcome is still the same, that we are still, you know, that we still see issues coming about. But it does provide a bit of an opening because we are able to go and educate folks who don’t understand even the differences between SSI and SSDI or Social Security, etc., you know? I think that we have seen some folks be very interested in addressing the issues. I remember one of the folks that was talking to me during the hearing actually say, “Don’t we want disabled people to get married?” And I was like, “Yeah. Yeah, most definitely.” “Don’t we want disabled people to be able to work?” And I was like, “Yeah, most definitely. We do want to. If they are able to work and they want to work, yes, we wanna make sure that we can give them that opportunity to test their limits and capacity, etc., if that is what they want.” And so, we’ve seen continual push to increase asset limits, to address the marriage, the issue with the marriage equality and being able to get married without getting penalized and losing the amount that you are allowed to save, etc. We’ve seen some progress, and we’ve seen bipartisan legislation that has had some legs to go on, versus some of our more message-y type of bills.
So, it does show promise. And I think we have to continue to push it. Almost made it into some of the package bills and unfortunately, got dropped due to some budgeting concerns. But I think that we’ve made more progress in the last few years than we have in decades on this issue.
VALLAS: Yep. Yep. And so, I know you will continue to work on it. I know I’ll continue to work on it, not with my podcast hat on, but as an advocate and a policy person. And I share that optimism. But also, it’s a, it does feel like it’s a conversation that’s worth continuing to uplift in a moment like Disability Pride Month, where we do celebrate and also, where we need to talk about the issues that we continue to leave on the shelf.
So, Mia, I wanna switch gears a little bit with you, much as we could talk about SSI all day and probably run out of all of our time, knowing you and me! I wanna switch gears and ask you kind of a bigger picture question, and this is where I’m gonna get a little bit into here are the things that I’m curious what your answers are to them, ‘cause I don’t know the answers.
VALLAS: And I suspect others may find this interesting too. So, we’re gonna do a little bit of a lightning round with you about some of you. Who is Mia Ives-Rublee as an advocate, as an activist? So, Mia, you have dedicated your entire career to civil rights activism, a lot of it for the disability community, as you noted, also for the AAPI community. What if you had to pick—and I’m curious if you already had something in your mind, or if you came up with something for this podcast taping, that’s okay, too—I’m curious, what is your personal mission statement, if you have one, and how you came to find it.
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah. That is a good question. I actually meant to write it out right before this podcast, but then ran out of time. But I think, you know…. I think…lean in with empathy and fight with fire is a good one to go with.
VALLAS: Love that. I love that. All right. Well, I’m gonna keep going with this lightning round. “Lean in with empathy and fight with fire,” I love. So, going to the next piece of this, which I think will connect nicely to this. I mentioned up top I see everybody who I have on this podcast as superheroes within that space of economic justice and economic liberation. And so, if you are a superhero doing this work, what do you consider to be your superpowers?
IVES-RUBLEE: I think partially empathy. I think that I’ve been very good at being able to help amplify stories that people tell me and to bring it onto a bigger stage, to help bring people on to a bigger stage and help fight for the issues that they are facing. So, my hope is empathy is my superpower and being able to help communicate stories and show just why we’re fighting for the things that we’re fighting for.
VALLAS: Do you have any particular examples of how you use those superpowers in your work?
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah, it was interesting ‘cause I was on a political campaign during the presidential, the last presidential campaign, and I spent so much time trying to connect with this one individual who I knew was a political leader in their community. And I really, really wanted to talk to him, and I was doggedly determined. I guess that is another one of my superpowers, is that when I get onto a scent, I will push through it. So, I kept on contacting him, and finally he relented and was just like, “Fine, I’ll meet with you!”
And he came into the office and was just like, the first thing out of his mouth was, “I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t agree with your candidate, and I’m not gonna vote for your candidate. And I don’t think I’m as liberal as you.” And I was just like, “That’s fine. That’s fine. That is not why I am bringing you in.” And so, we sat down, and I was like, “Look, I just wanna hear about what’s going on in your community, what are the issues that are most pressing in your community, and what are the policies that you want to see a candidate actually do, you know, create?” And we had this deep conversation about the issues around high pharmaceutical costs and the issues around public education, etc. And we just sat there talking for 45 minutes. And after that, he was just like, “Thank you so much for listening to me. Few people ever just sit down and listen. And can you come to our events? Feel free to talk to our community members and bring your pamphlets and whatever. But I want you to come and hear from our community members.” And that was just a huge moment for me in feeling like I was doing the right thing because people were willing to let me into their communities, because I was willing to listen and be empathetic.
VALLAS: I love that story so much. And the power of listening, right? Which is so little of what we often see made visible and get reinforced, right? ‘Cause it’s all about the what are you putting out into the world? The power of listening. I love that story. Mia, what is your walk-up song?
IVES-RUBLEE: My walk-up song. Okay.
VALLAS: I know you have one!
IVES-RUBLEE: Yes. This has been, because this is a question that we get all the time on campaigns is, “What is your walk-up song? And so, my walk-up song is, Immigrants (We Get the Job Done) because it’s just so powerful. Particularly the music video is extremely powerful and moving, and I just really relate to it. Immigrants come from so many different backgrounds, and all of us just want to find a hold on this ground and be able to contribute and find a life in this world. And there’s no one more hardworking than an immigrant, in my view, because all of us feel like we have something to prove.
VALLAS: I love that song for you, and now I’m gonna think of it whenever I see you come into the room. I’m gonna see if I can get better at knowing my people’s walk-up music to throw it on Spotify when the person’s coming in.
But I feel like where that takes us is also another line of questions I was hoping we would get the chance to get into, which is that Mia, you are such a visible leader of the disability community, and part of your identity that you also claim very publicly—and you’ve brought it now a couple of times into this conversation, so I really wanna go there and make sure we have some space—is that you are a member of the Asian-American Pacific Islander community, AAPI, as it is often called, but you are also a transracial adoptee. And I’m curious if you would talk a little bit about how that part of your life and how that part of your identity has shaped you and who you are and what your path has been to claiming that part of your identity as well?
IVES-RUBLEE: All good questions. I think a lot of people are like, “What does transracial adoptee actually mean?” And it’s something that I’ve come into as I’ve gotten older, I think. I was adopted a very young age, at the age of three, into a white family. And while they were very, very loving, they didn’t really know how to address the racial issue and the issues that I faced around race. I had to deal with racism growing up. I had to deal with hypersexualization growing up. And so, that experience, a lot of us needed some type of term to describe that experience. And so, I don’t even know. I think it was in the ‘90s that “transracial adoptee” came about as the word that described our experiences, our lived experiences. And unfortunately, it’s been maligned with some individuals who are trying to say that they’re transracial. And that’s much different from transracial adoptee because it’s not that we are trying to be something that we are not.
IVES-RUBLEE: It’s that we are in this middle between two cultures that we don’t feel we belong to either of them. And this is due to structural oppressions that have been put upon us, right? So, it’s a bit different from when you hear the word “transracial” out by itself. And the term just really means that it’s an individual who came likely from a marginalized community and is adopted into a majority community, usually a white community. And so, our experiences are a bit different because we don’t have people that we can rely on to talk to them about some of the racial trauma that we experience in our lives. And so, that can complicate some of our ability to sort of process it in a way that is healthy for ourselves. And so, it’s been something that I have been sort of trying to make sure people understand it’s specific terminology, which is why I’m very reti-, why I use the term as often as I can to help educate folks. Because I’ll go into the Civil Rights communities who are like, “What do you mean you’re transracial?!” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no! That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. I mean I’m a transracial adoptee, and this is what it means,” in order to help educate folks about our experiences. ‘Cause our experiences are often just erased, you know? Whenever somebody says “adoptee,” they think of a little kid, right? They don’t think of an adult, a fully-fledged human being. And so, our experiences are often seen as happy little children who are saved by their parents instead of here’s some kids who were traumatized that were taken from their family for whatever reason, or they were removed or separated from their family for whatever reasons, and unified with another family that doesn’t have the cultural background that this individual might have come from. And this is their experiences.
VALLAS: Do you feel, I mean, actually, I’m gonna revise how I ask that question. How do you feel that that part of your identity, that that part of the path that you have rolled in this life, how do you feel that that has shaped how you show up as a disability advocate and activist, given that you live with an intersectional identity that is not one that is generally spoken about nearly as much as the disability side?
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah, I think it’s been an interesting process for me. You can tell I go through a lot of processing and processes throughout my life.
VALLAS: As do we all.
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah, as do we all. I think that I was going about my life understanding that I had a disability. My parents were very good at talking about disability, and I give them all the applause for that and gratitude. But I felt like something was missing. Like, there was something that I couldn’t explain that I was experiencing, that I couldn’t explain to my parents, I couldn’t explain to friends, etc. And I spent so much time trying to figure out what that was, you know? And I was fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the sit-ins happened. And it was something that I was super fascinated about and felt like I empathized with in a certain sense. Not that I had the same experiences, but that I understood what it meant to not be allowed to do things because of the way that I looked or the way that I, or where I was from.
And so, I went into sociology because I was just fascinated with human society and how it all sort of structurally worked out. And I ran across, while I was studying criminology, I ran across Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality. And it was just a huge, just mind-blowing moment for me of like, somebody gets me now! Like, this is it! This is what I’ve been experiencing my entire life. And this was in the early 2000s that I had come across her work before it became sort of the word of the moment within the Civil Rights Movement or the progressive movement. And it was just a moment where I could be like, I can be myself. I don’t have to single myself out as just disabled. I don’t have to single myself out as just a woman or just Asian American. I can be a multidimensional individual and fight as a multidimensional person, which was huge for me. And I think that was an important time in terms of being able to feel like I could utilize my own experiences to empathize with other people who may not have the same background as me, but come from this multidimensional lens of, hey, I’m experiencing all of these things, and I don’t know the word for it. And I need help to address these issues. And so, it’s become a very important tool for me as an individual who continuously tries to empathize and tries to help uplift people’s stories and fight back against structural oppression. And I think it just comes down from that understanding that I have never felt like I fit into one box or another. And so, it’s very easy for me to work with other people who have never felt like they fit into that box.
VALLAS: Yeah, not needing to fit yourself into a box anymore, right? And saying that’s okay and that you get to be you as you are without trying to squeeze yourself just into one of those boxes. And I feel like there’s so many threads of this conversation that are connecting back again to that conversation with Andraéa LaVant, who was talking a lot about claiming her whole identity as well. So, I’ll send folks back to that episode, Claiming Identity as Self-care, for some more pieces there.
Mia, you have quite the résumé, I have to say. And one piece of that résumé that people may or may not be aware of is that you are also, you have a long history as a competitive athlete, and this has been a big part of your life for a very, very long time. You’ve written about it, you’ve spoken about it, so it’s not like you’re hiding this part of you. But it just might not be what people know about you as an activist and as an advocate. Was there anything that you feel that you learned or that you took away from that experience that shapes how you approach your activism work today?
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah, it’s funny. I think part of, you know, I have a lot of different pockets of my life that I’m not very good at staying in one lane. And I was diagnosed as ADHD, and it’s sort of like an aha: Oh, this is why I’m the way I am.
IVES-RUBLEE: But yeah, I did athletics, and it was a huge part of my life. And I think growing up, I was told so often what I could not do, and I need to be careful physically, etc. And that put a lot of boundaries on who I thought I could be, you know? Because doctors were telling me this and teachers were telling me this, parents were telling me this, and it meant that I felt like I could never test that out. And I was an individual that didn’t like boundaries.
IVES-RUBLEE: And so, when I went to the Paralympics, my ex-uncle, he was on the U.S. soccer team for the Paralympics, and we went to go watch the game at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics. And that was an eye-opening moment for me where I was like, oh. Look at this. There’s a whole society of people with disabilities who have just said, “F- it. I’m gonna do what I want, and I can accommodate whatever I want, and I’m gonna do the sports that I want and compete at a high level.” And that was just the first time that I felt like somebody was like, “Yeah, go do it. Go try it.” And so, I’m sure my mom would disagree with me and say that I very much liked testing boundaries even before that, but I think this sort of gave me the permission to go and test those boundaries. And so, a few months later, my brother got invited to do wheelchair basketball, and we were told about a wheelchair track team. And so, my mom was like, “Okay! You can go and try this wheelchair track.” I think she’s hoping that I would not like it on the first try, and then she’d be done with her obligation of allowing me to do this.
IVES-RUBLEE: But of course, I got addicted to it immediately, and so continued to go into it. I think it was the first time that I got to, one, test my own physical boundaries, which, as somebody with osteogenesis imperfecta is probably not always good, but it was good for me. And I’m not a doctor, so this is not any, [laughs] a prescription for other folks. But for me, it was a freeing moment where I got to test my physical boundaries. But then also, I got to start learning how to create goals, which was not something that I was really that familiar with as a kid. Because a lot of kids are asked like, “What do you wanna be when you grow up,” right? And for me, as a disabled kid, nobody asked me that. They were just like, “When’s the next surgery? When’s the next procedure,” you know, etc., and “when do you have time off, etc., from procedures, etc.?” And so, I think that when I got into sports, it allowed me the chance to start creating my own goals, which eventually led me to being like, hey, I can get into college. Yeah, let’s go to college and get a scholarship and go to college. And so, I decided to go to college, which was not something that was super thought as possible for me, and it ensured that I continued to create goals. And I still utilize a lot of the same principles that I utilized during my athletics in my own work today.
VALLAS: I love all of that. And just the concept of setting your own goals, right, which itself is an exercise of liberation, right? Because it’s instead of saying, no, I’m gonna only think about what other people tell me is possible, it’s that—I love what you said—it’s that testing of the boundaries, right? It’s that saying, well, maybe those boundaries don’t need to be real. I love that so much.
So, we’re coming up on the end of our time together. I only have a little bit time left, so I’ve gotta be really, really choosy with the last couple of questions that I ask you. So, we’re gonna do one little closing lightning round so I can get a few more in. And one that I wanna ask to make sure we have some time for this, Mia, is how does self-care show up for you as someone who is really one of the foremost leaders of the disability community today? And I ask that question connecting this to that whole series we just did and keeping my promise that we’re gonna keep this theme as part of these conversations moving forward because they are important all the time, not just for little moments in time where people pop in and focus on self-care. So, Mia, how do you take care of yourself so that you can stay in this work for the long haul? And I ask this question knowing that you are someone who doesn’t just do a great job at that, you also are a real model for living a very full, and to use your word from before, multidimensional life. I say that as a person who is very self-aware about my own tendencies as a workaholic. I’ve learned a lot from you. How do you do this? What are your tricks?
IVES-RUBLEE: My parents would say I need to do it more often, but I think a couple of things have sort of stuck with me. And one is trying to learn to put boundaries up, which is ironic ‘cause I was just talking about breaking boundaries. But trying to set up my own boundaries is important and learning to say no, that it’s not the end of the world and that you’re not, the world is not going to end just ‘cause you said no to an event or to an ask. So, being able to set your own boundaries is extremely important. And knowing when you provide suggest-, or when you provide exceptions, why are you doing it, is another thing. And then lastly, it’s just find something that you love to do and go do it. I think make sure that you book time to do it. And as you know, I love the water. I go out and paddleboard all the time. Even when I’m on a work trip, I try and find a place to go paddleboarding. And so, it’s kind of become my goal to go paddling across the world, not literally. But to get to go paddling in different locations around the world is definitely a goal of mine. And so, I try and make sure that I spend enough time going and doing that kind of thing.
VALLAS: Yeah, you always inspire me to do more in terms of thinking outside the box on travel. You’re always going cool places, I feel like. Sometimes I’ll text you, and I get a text back and you’re like, hello from wherever! And I’m like, “What are you doing?! Where are you, Carmen Sandiego?”
VALLAS: I love it. Penultimate question, and then we’re gonna give you a chance to plug whatever’s coming up in your work that you want to before we run out of time. But I threw a question on this list that I wanted to make sure we had time for because I was asked recently in an informational interview with a young leader who wants to work in law and policy and economic and disability justice and a range of other intersections, she asked, “Should I go to law school, or should I get a social work degree?” And I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked this question, but it pinged in my brain, oh, I’m about to talk with Mia. So, this is a question I should bring in to talk with Mia about. I suspect this is a question you get a lot as well, but probably from the flip side, because you’re a social worker. I’m a lawyer. I have to say, though, the path not taken for me was social work. That is literally the path I didn’t take. And so, I’m extra interested in your answer to this question. As someone who went the social work route yourself instead of going to law school—and here we are on the other side working together, doing this work, right—how do you feel that that path and that experience shaped your approach to policy work and activism? And I ask this question in large part because I personally believe there’s more than one way to the pharmacy. There’s more than one way to end up doing the work you wanna do.
VALLAS: People can get very fixated on, oh my God, I have to get this degree, or I have to pursue that path. So, talk a little bit about, to you, how you feel that social work path shaped your approach versus law school. What’s your advice to that person that I was in that informational interview with?
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah! Well, ironically, I’m the exact opposite. I was gonna go to law school but decided to go to social work school instead, partially ‘cause I really wanted to do direct practice. I think one of the suggestions that I have for folks—and they likely aren’t going to like this answer as much—is that the experience of working in community is much more important than whatever degree you’re going to get. And I say that as an individual who did direct practice for seven years, which most people don’t know about me. They talk to me, and they think that I’ve just started in the Civil Rights Movement doing organizing. But I actually started in direct practice with individuals with mental health disabilities, helping them find jobs and resources in the community. And that actually provided me so much more understanding of policy and how it impacts communities than anything that I learned in college and in my master’s program. And I think it’s extremely important to get that personal knowledge of community as a basis of your work. ‘Cause no matter how much you study from books, you’re never going to learn the amount that you need to learn about communities other than actually being in those communities.
VALLAS: I could not agree more.
IVES-RUBLEE: So, it’s something that I launch into every single time as like, it’s more important that you’re working in the community and you understand that community. You can get the schooling later. You can get, like, you can learn from books while you’re doing that work. It’s that work that you can’t get other than doing that work.
VALLAS: I could not agree more. And also, I appreciate that that’s your answer, because that was almost verbatim what I said to this young person! And I appreciate the social worker also saying it the same way. So, that’s wonderful.
Mia, we’re gonna run out of time. So, in about ten or 15 seconds, is there anything exciting you want to plug that’s coming up in your work?
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah! We’re actually going to be releasing a accessible democracy tool that is going to evaluate different states’ accessibility on access to the polls. And we think this is extremely important as we roll into another presidential election, but it’s important any year. But we’re hoping to get as many organizations to fill out this so that we can create an interactive tool that lets organizations and organizers be able to see what’s going on in states in terms of access to the polls.
VALLAS: I love that. How cool. We will have to have you back on to talk more about that down the road when that comes out, and we’ll make sure to plug it in show notes once it’s available. But Mia Ives-Rublee is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Mia, thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time. This was a lot of fun for me, and I learned a lot about you that I didn’t already know in this conversation. But I’m really grateful to you for the time and for all of your work. And that’ll do it for this episode and join us next week for more Off-Kilter. Thanks, Mia. [theme music returns]
IVES-RUBLEE: Thank you so much for having me on!
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.