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 interdependence

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 interdependence? 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.


Filed under Writing

45 responses to “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice

  1. Pingback: The Power of Disability Justice « Bloody Show

  2. Brooke

    YES! YES! YES! Excellent article.

  3. Brooke

    I have re-posted your essay via Facebook and Twitter. Let’s circulate and re-circulate this beautifully crafted critical and urgent analysis.

  4. emmarosenthal

    wow!!! you said it! i would add that in human justice circles, not only are we ignored, if we can even get our “wheels in the door”, we’re often subjected to humiliation, ridicule, violence and infantilization; the hostile indifference to taking on “one more issue” under the excuse of “we can’t include everyone” “we can’t be expected to take on that expense” “there are real emergencies in the world right now.” “we have to pick out battles.”

    also, it’s still generally accepted that it’s okay to pick on the crrrpl. so that when i’ve posed a particular problem for someone because i raise issues that make them uncomfortable (usually regarding race, sexism, heterosexism or u.s. imperialism–specifically palestinian human rights) it has been easier to attack my dis-ability (claim it’s not real, that i use it to get attention, that i complain too much, that i shouldn’t ride a motor vehicle in a public building (!), that i should learn to take a joke, that i want change too fast) than to take issue with something that would in the end reflect poorly on the person attacking me. it’s outrageous, but attacking dis-ability is considered in many circles, to be a legitimate and acceptable strategy for dealing with adversaries, and for cleaning out the room of such undesirable people, that no one wants to have to look at anyway!
    it’s really limited my ability to continue the work i’ve done my whole life on social justice and anti-racism (etc). the lack of allies on an issue that makes people uncomfortable, and for many provides them with one last group of people they can dis-criminate, dis-respect and dis-miss without consequence, has been unbearable.

    looking for allies in los angeles!!

  5. “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.”

    So true.

  6. I have found that a particularly virulent form of the independence myth, up-by-the-bootstraps “rugged individualism,” “with enough hard work anybody can make it on their own,” etc. is VERY deeply rooted in American culture, springing from the myths of the Old West (though frontier life in reality was extremely interdependent and cooperative). Rugged individualism is so entrenched in the American psyche, I don’t know how we can subvert, circumvent, or even circumnavigate it. We need to discuss this.

  7. Janice

    In the struggle for disabled people please remember those who have no physical disability but are slow. There may be services for these folks but it’s a struggle to get them help, esspecially if they are listed as “high functioning”. Imagine struggling with daily living with your hands tied behind your back.

  8. Thank you so much for writing this. I am going to share it with my friends, colleagues and students immediately and in the future. As a trans woman with a mentally disabled mother, your framing of disability justice and accessibility links two issues very, very central to my life. thank you.

  9. Liz

    This is so good! It’s like a cool drink of water to read something I agree with so hard, expressed so well! Thank you.

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  13. Kimber

    Right?! I consider myself to be relatively able-bodied but this line really resonated for me. Of course, no one is an island.

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  16. Do you mind if I reblog this? I am organising a queer festival in the Netherlands and disability /crip is rather new there. This is a lovely text showing how to go.

  17. Mia Mingus

    i don’t mind at all! it is here for people to share and use! please feel free to reblog, link, tumble, tweet! glad it is useful. :)

  18. Pingback: Disability Justice: How our communities can move beyond access to wholeness | Tertium Datur – Er ís een derde optie

  19. Reblogged this on Diversity is Art and commented:
    This article is great.
    I understood that when the author talks about the body they also are talking about mental disabilities because the brain is part of the body, some people forget that.
    Reading this kind of post makes me feel better and reminds me that many of my problems are not because I am disabled, I am isolated because of lack of accessibility related mostly to autism, sadly people don’t even consider that lack of accessibility since it’s not about ramps but about sensory overstimulation like background music and lights.
    The part that talks about the idea of healing, wellness and health being deeply connected with the notion of being “normal” like it was the same or necessary is something that I have personally experienced with harmful consequences, I don’t think the idea of normal should exist or pushed for people that are looking assistance for reasons unrelated to being “normal”. Normality makes people suffer, disabled people are forced to try to be normal, children born with a disability are taught and many times abused to learn how to be normal, as autistic I learned that many autism treatments are to make the person normal, it doesn’t matter the cost or the trauma. The other points of the post are equally important.

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  25. Amanda

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and couldn’t agree more. Intersectionality affects every part of our lives we are not just our race, ability, sexuality, etc. we are ALL of these things all at once and each and every aspect shapes the lives that we live. I think it’s particularly interesting to consider disability simply as another social construct. As I am studying disabilities and aging, I cannot help but think about how our society focuses on ADL’s to describe someone’s ‘level’ of disability. However, like everything else in our world, disability constructed socially, so how do we know what really is a “disability”? For instance, a society which does not value being able to feed yourself, certain disabilities in the United States might not be considered a disability for that particular community.
    -Amanda Leytham

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  37. Reblogged this on DA's Ephemera and Etceteras and commented:
    Yes, yes, and yes. Time to stop talking about “disabled” and start talking about “us”.

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