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Changing the Framework: Disability Justice

How our communities can move beyond access to wholeness

(Written for the RESIST Newsletter, November, 2010.  Initially posted on the RESIST website.)

spider web stretched between rocksIn my time doing social justice work, I have found that disability is something most people know very little about—and that includes seasoned, fierce and well-respected community organizers and activists. People usually think of disability as an individual flaw or problem, rather than as something partly created by the world we live in. It is rare that people think about disability as a political experience or as encompassing a community full of rich histories, cultures and legacies.

Disability is framed as lacking, sad and undesirable: a shortcoming at best, a tragedy at worst. Disabled people are used as the poster children of environmental injustice or the argument for abortion rights. For many people, even just the idea that we can understand disability as “not wrong” is a huge shift in thinking.

Towards interdependency

Our communities and movements must address the issue of access. There is no way around it. Accessibility is concrete resistance to the isolation of disabled people. Accessibility is nothing new, and we can work to understand access in a broad way, encompassing class, language, childcare, gender-neutral bathrooms as a start.

We must, however, move beyond access by itself. We cannot allow the liberation of disabled people to be boiled down to logistics. We must understand and practice an accessibility that moves us closer to justice, not just inclusion or diversity.

As organizers, we need to think of access with an understanding of disability justice, moving away from an equality-based model of sameness and “we are just like you” to a model of disability that embraces difference, confronts privilege and challenges what is considered “normal” on every front. We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.

In no way am I saying that accessibility is not important—it most definitely is. We cannot have disability justice without it, but we want to question a culture that makes inaccessibility even possible. Just because disabled people are in the room doesn’t mean there is no ableism (a set of beliefs that favors non-disabled people) or that people won’t pretend we’re invisible.

This work is about shifting how we understand access, moving away from the individualized and independence-framed notions of access put forth by the disability rights movement and, instead, working to view access as collective and interdependent.

With disability justice, we want to move away from the “myth of independence,” that everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence, as much of the disability rights movement rallies behind. I am fighting for an interdependence that embraces need and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is just that, a myth.

The power of disability justice

Disability justice has the power to not only challenge our thinking about access but to fundamentally change the way we understand organizing and how we fight for social change.

It has the power to bring our bodies back into our conversations. What do we do with bodies that have limitations, that are different (no matter how much we want to change them)? How do we acknowledge that all bodies are different, while also not ignoring the very real ways that certain bodies are labeled and treated as “disabled?”

Disability justice activists are engaged in building an understanding of disability that is more complex, whole and interconnected than what we have previously found. We are disabled people who are people of color; women, genderqueer and transgender; poor and working class; youth; immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer; and more.

We are pushing for an understanding of how ableism affects all of our movements for justice. We are drawing connections between ableism and other systems of oppression and violent institutions. We are pushing for a more nuanced and fierce interrogation of the medical industrial complex and understandings of health, wellness and healing that aren’t rooted in ableist notions of bodies and what is considered “normal.”

We are trying to understand how we can build organizing and community spaces that are mixed-ability, cultivating solidarity between people with different disabilities. We are working to move together, as disabled people, through a world that wants to divide us and keep us separate.

Disability is not monolithic. Ableism plays out very differently for wheelchair users, deaf people or people who have mental, psychiatric and cognitive disabilities. None of these are mutually exclusive, and are all complicated by race, class, gender, immigration, sexuality, welfare status, incarceration, age and geographic location.

Finding home

As a queer, disabled woman of color, disability justice feels like a political home for me, a place where I can engage in conversations about disability and race and gender and queerness and capitalism and more.

I tried to look to the disability rights movement, but I saw very few leaders who reflected me, and I found that, for the most part, disability was being talked about as an isolated single issue. Having been involved with racial justice, queer liberation, reproductive justice and feminist movements most of my life, I have rarely encountered spaces that addressed disability or connected it with other issues.

What does it mean to not have the luxuries of deciding when to use the bathroom in the place where you live, having alone time or going to visit a loved one in their home? How do we re-imagine relationships that center interdependency? How do able-bodied people move from simply “supportive allies” to political comrades who are actively incorporating a disability justice understanding into their work and lives?

We cannot fight for liberation without a deep, clear understanding of disability, ableism and disability justice. The bodies of our communities are under siege by forces that leverage violence and ableism at every turn. Ableism is connected to all of our struggles because it undergirds notions of whose bodies are considered valuable, desirable and disposable. How do we build across our communities and movements so that we are able to fight for each other without leveraging ableism?

I imagine a world where our organizing and activism is less segregated, where our movements and communities are accessible and don’t participate in the isolation of disabled communities. I imagine places where we fight for whole and connected people, families and communities.

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Video: Recognizing Each Other: Adoptees of Color

Recognizing Each Other Video Transcript

Just over a month ago, I met up with two other queer adoptees of color to talk about adoption.  Mariama Lockington is a queer black transracial adoptee and So Yung Kim is a queer korean adoptee, both of whom have done writing and work around adoption.  (We had over an hour and a half’s worth of footage, so it took awhile to whittle it down and pull out some of the highlights and pieces from what was shared.)

As with my last video*, whenever I get to hear queer adoptee of color stories, I am entranced.  I crave adoptees of color that want to talk about adoption, what it was like for us growing up and how we are still being impacted by adoption—and always will be.  I crave time and experiences with other adoptees of color that is not mitigated through, by white people, white parents and non-adoptees.  It is so rare that I get to hear queer adoptees of color talking about our lived experiences.

I love hearing our words (all of them, in whatever way they come tumbling out) and feel ever-so appreciative, especially knowing how long I went without ever hearing any of our voices tell our own stories and stumble through sharing and asking and loving.

As adoptees, it is so important for us to tell our stories and to leave evidence for each other.  We are often isolated, individualized or discouraged from connecting our stories with each other.  There may be adoptees who will watch this in secrecy, who have never met another adoptee, who never talk about being an adoptee with anyone in their life or don’t think about how adoption impacts them.  It is not easy.

Our stories are all so different and complex and they all have value–we have value.

We will not be polarized, made one-dimensional and pitted against each other.  I don’t want to be used by non-adoptees to prove, justify, and support arguments about adoption that don’t include us, profit off of us or don’t speak to our whole, full and various lived experiences.  There is no “good adoptee” or “bad adoptee,” as many of us may have come to understand.  We are complicated, our lives are complicated, our histories are complicated; our identities are complicated.  And as adoptees of color, all of us have the lived experience of being people of color who were adopted, and that thread connects us all.

Immense love and gratitude to Mariama and So Yung for sharing some of your story, knowing that it’s not all of your story.  Thank you for your honesty and humor.  And most importantly, love and gratitude for being visible (as adoptees), for being recognizable to me and for recognizing me.

(*This is the second video in a series of videos I am making for Leaving Evidence.  They are video snap shots of some of the brilliance and deep complexities that we hold individually and collectively, as a people.  We must leave evidence for each other.)

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bodylandhome

drawing of heart over red grid linesIf you asked it, this body would tell you that it is tired.  That i run it harder than i should.  That i don’t take care of it the way it deserves.  It would tell you about sterile white lights and sterile white voices beaming in on it from every direction.  Demanding results, scouting for hidden keys.  It could show you the places that were dug up, the pieces of it that were taken, the scars on the bodyland that will never fade.  It could show you where tendons were moved, sensation was stolen–a casualty of a battle lost long ago by both sides.

It would show you how i have my sister’s laugh, my father’s face, my mother’s hands and spirit.  It would tell you that there were memories past on that only exist in feeling, color and dreams.  It could recount the strength of my mother’s arms, the way she cried and her pain in letting me go, passing me on to my mother’s joy and oblivion in taking me in. It would tell you that i was already gone.  It would tell you that maybe i was never found and that i am still finding.  It would tell you that it loves me, even though i don’t know how to love it.

If you asked it, it would tell you that we made it through; made it out.  And we are trying to make it home.

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(This piece was written at the Azolla Stroy* queer and trans of color disabled and chronically ill love and zine making workshop at the 2010 Allied Media Conference. Thank you to all of the amazing people that were there and shared such powerful, tender, moving and inspiring pieces of yourself.  i love yall.  Look out for the Azolla Story Zine!  *The Azolla Story is a closed online community-movement-home for queer disabled people of color. )

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there are many borders we share

(excerpt from UC Davis Pride Week Keynote Address)

silhouette of birds flyingMy longing for queer community that reflects me and where I can bring my whole self is palpable.  And in many ways because our families don’t often reflect us as queer people, we are adopted.  As adoptees, I think there are many borders we share with queerness (and disability).  We are queered as adoptees.

The longing we have as queer people for each other, for our families, for our people and histories and legacies is something that we carry with us.   It is a part of us.  We love our families but they do not always love, accept or desire us.   What do we do with that longing?  Where does it go?  Where does it live?  It pushes us to build our own families, with other queer people.  Or it pushes us away from queer people and queerness, away from ourselves, into the families and communities that help us to survive, but not truly live.  It pushes us to cut off the queer people we love when they hurt us, or when we hurt them, because it asks us to risk isolation, pain and hurt again and again; it pushes us to choose between safety and connection, often times compromising one for the other: we can be safe, as long as we aren’t connected; or we can be connected but never safe.   It pushes us to build our own chosen families and relationships, but also keeps us from returning to the very families that raised us, that we were birthed into; from returning to the very places we were raised, the very land we’re from.

I think about the idea of returning a lot.   As an adoptee and as a queer person.  What “returning” means for many of us as queer people, especially queer people of color, since we are often times pushed out of where we are from.  What returning to our land and people means.   I think about how our families and communities may not have had what they needed to be able to keep us; or how we didn’t have what we needed to be able to stay.  I think about why we were “given up” or why we chose to leave.  I think about how many of us are from rural places, but live in metropolitan cities because we can’t go back or don’t want to go back to where we came from.  I think about my own trip back to Korea the first and second time and what it means to “find family” and how we create belonging in our lives.

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everywhere and nowhere

I was talking with my father last night, my adopted father, and telling him that I always felt pretty disconnected from my family that I was raised in, both immediate and extended.  I never felt like I belonged.  I don’t even know what that means, ‘belonging.”  As a transracial and transnational adoptee, queer, disabled, woman of color; all of it.  I  never felt deeply connected to them.  Always felt odd; outsider.

So often it feels like a splitting.  Like a fracturing inside of me.  In a million different pieces; pulling one way and another at the same time.

We belong everywhere and nowhere at once, those of us living with multiple oppressed identities.  We make our homes out of debris, migrating when the storms come—learning how to survive through the rain and snow.  We make our home on the outskirts; on “this thin edge of barbed wire” (Gloria Anzaldua) and learn how to live without comfort.

Sometimes we have traded in parts of ourselves, just to know what it’s like to sit by a warm fire and sleep through the night.  Just to have a break, take a breath and loosen our shoulders.  But, I have found, comfort is never worth splicing myself open or erasing parts of myself.

We try and explain our lives through broken words and “well, it’s kind of like this” or, “no, no, it’s both and.”  But how can you explain the complexities of a life?  How can you explain the silent tearing of ableism?  The way the ocean feels?  The smell of garlic?  Or the color crimson?

I try and explain to my white parents what life was like as an adoptee disabled queer girl of color and we wade through together trying to make sense of a life witnessed from the shore and experienced below the surface.

I say, “I just don’t know where I belong.”  And they are silent because they know.

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