As a queer, nonbinary, disabled person, I understand the intrinsic need to recognize and honour people’s intersecting identities. We are never just one identity, just one issue, and yet society often addresses us with one narrow image in mind, leaving many unseen, unheard, unconsidered. My experiences with ableism, cissexism, and anti-queerness are very much rooted in capitalism. An Indigenous’ person’s inability to access the medical system is very much rooted in racism and colonialism. A Deaf person’s failed attempts to interact with a medical system is very much rooted in ableism and audism (anti-Dead/hard of hearing). We never easily fit into only one box.
One of the most important precepts of Disability Justice is the valuing of lived experience, the leadership of those most impacted. Well-meaning people can try to help those who live in poverty but no matter how hard they try to imagine life in poverty, they will not know what it is actually like to live under the crushing weight of poverty, thus they should seek counsel, understanding, and lived experience from those who do live the reality, day in and day out. As a person with a disability, I can tell you that the majority of perceptions I encounter about my life are wildly off track. I don’t want someone guessing what my life is like, I want someone to ask for my expertise and listen to what I say, respect my hard-won knowledge, and work with me to address the issues.
Ableism encourages the centering of “normal” and “productive” and devalues disabled bodies, brains, and senses, seeing them as “invalid”, “unnatural”, and “unworthy”, leading to exclusion, isolation, and oppression. Disability Justice recognizes our inherent worth and sees us as whole beings with differing strengths and needs. People should not have to prove they are worthy of assistance, to jump through hoops set up by people who don’t truly understand what they are going through, in order to access what they need. We need to respect each person for their experiences, history, and knowledge and not because they fit a certain image.
Part of honouring people for their inherent value is working against isolation and this is deeply rooted, for many, in accessibility. We should not exclude disabled people because their body, brain, or senses are different. Currently, society is quite comfortable excluding disabled folk. Even when accessibility is considered, it is often incomplete, only for one type of disability, or offered in a way that expects gratitude or the accessibility is snatched away. Often, a person’s disability is not actually what restricts them from accessing their community, it is the negative thoughts, misperceptions, and judgements of others that keeps them excluded, isolated, and feeling unwanted.
Disability is a natural part of life. One of five people self-disclose as having a disability, that number increases as we age. There has been no point in time when disability did not exist but our current systems of oppressions prefer us to believe that there are valid and invalid bodies, brains, and senses, and we are taught in small and large ways to only honour those that fit a certain image. Did you know that 93% of these disabilities are invisible? Most likely, you did not know this, particularly as the International Symbol of Accessibility is an image of a person in a wheelchair. The system itself is rooted in the notion that disability must look one way and it severely impacts people’s lives, how they are treated, and their emotional and mental health. One place this plays out is the designated accessible parking. There is more need for the spaces than spaces themselves, and some people try to protect those spaces by harassing those who “don’t look disabled”, except there is no one look for disability and so they often harm the very people they say they are trying to help. This is just small example in the much broader scale of ableism that is played out on a daily basis.
Instead of seeking to divide, disability justice, however, is rooted in our interdependence. It understands that no one person ever goes through life unaided, unsupported. We need to strengthen these relationships, these connections, the basic understanding that we are all in this together. We will only achieve liberation by working collectively. We must commit to leaving no one behind. Ask yourself: Who is missing from your work? Who is present with your work but doesn’t have a voice? Who has a voice, but that voice is not valued or respected? We must continually ask these questions. We must seek connections and relationships that expand our part of the collective nature of our work.
When we recognize that everyone has the right to exist exactly as they are, with any or many intersecting identities, we will begin to move forwards. When we join that belief with collective action, we will gain momentum. As we gain momentum, we must constantly seek people being kept from our gatherings, watch for missing, silenced, dismissed, and/or devalued voices and work to do what we can to raise them up so that their existence and voices ring out strong and clear and unavoidable. Together we can utilize disability justice values and practices to work towards building cross-movement organizing that moves away from segregation, isolation, and ableism towards accessibility, inclusion, connection, and interdependence. Collectively we can challenge our way of thinking and fundamentally shift the way we organize and fight for social change.