Tag Archives: access

“Disability Justice” is Simply Another Term for Love

 

This was the opening keynote speech at the 2018 Disability Intersectionality Summit, in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Oct 13, 2018. The official video recording of this keynote can be found here. 

 

[image of a pile of fall maple-like leaves in yellows and browns on the ground with a large green leaf on top.]

Good morning everyone. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you to the organizers of this—I know it takes an incredible amount of work to put something like this on. And it is often the kind of work that happens behind the scenes and goes unnoticed. Thank you so much for all you’ve done. And I want to extend special thanks to Sandy, who’s been in contact with me—thank you.

 

In addition to the beautiful acknowledgement of the land and indigenous people we had today, I also want to extend gratitude to the people who clean and care for this building. The people who mop and vacuum the floors, clean the toilets, take out the trash and maintain the grounds. The people who built this building and all those who have been displaced from where we are as well.

 

When I started out doing disability justice work, before it was even called “disability justice,” these spaces were so rare. I want people to not take this space for granted because so many disabled people would kill to be here and so many people don’t have access to this type of space. And I know that for a lot of us, this I our political work, this is our life and we seek out these spaces, we create them. I want us to keep remembering that so many folks will never have access to these spaces and how do we keep reminding our selves of who is not in the room? All the different people who are not here.

 

And I know there are brilliant workshops scheduled for today. Workshops that will break down the connections between disability and prisons and immigration and race and gender and sexuality and dance and activism and so much more. I know the analysis will be brilliant and much needed.

 

And I found as I was typing away at my computer, the things that were coming up were not only analysis, but also story and feeling; longing and love for all of you and how precious it is to be here together, even just for a day. To be in a space where we can center disabled people of color, disabled queer and trans folks. To be in a cross-disability space and how rare that is too. Analysis, of course, but heart and breathe and body, too.

 

Because I want to express gratitude for this space—a space to hold disability and intersectionality, a disability justice space—because for decades of my life I didn’t have any spaces like this. I didn’t even have conversations that could hold this. I didn’t have people in my life who I could talk to about these things. And it would have meant the world to me to have a space to talk about how disability, race, gender, adoption, survivorship, violence, cure, queerness and so much more connected and collided in my life, as a disabled child who had no one to talk to about my own lived experience. Who had no one who could support me as I navigated the medical industrial complex on my own as a disabled girl korean transracial and transnational adoptee, surrounded by white abled adults and doctors, nurses and practitioners who often didn’t talk to me about what was happening, except to tell me what a “good patient” I was.

 

As I was preparing my remarks for today, I realized that there was a deep sadness that kept bubbling up in me. A deep longing and aching for what I wish I had had and grief for all I never had. A grief for all the other disabled kids and youth out there who are also so very isolated and the disabled people who would give anything to be able to have this kind of space—many of whom don’t know that these kinds of spaces even exist. Who are surviving, isolated in their families or communities and don’t know that we are gathering here today—that people have been gathering like this.

 

Because that was definitely me. I didn’t know. I was so isolated. I was so alone. And I know that so many of us can relate to that.

 

Because that is often what happens: when we start to connect with our dreams and our visions and our longings, we often tap into our grief and our sadness; our heartbreak and sorrow for what we never had. For the ways we wished our lives could have been. For the spaces we wish existed. For all that still is not.

 

I wish someone had been there to talk about disability in a complex and nuanced way—to be able to hold (what we now call) disability justice. I wish I had known that there was so much more out there, especially during the hardest times; especially when I was inside the medical industrial complex experiencing so much violence. Especially on those mornings when my blisters were still raw from the days and weeks before, but I was forced to put on my painful brace. A brace that didn’t need to be whole, but others needed me to wear so that I could be “the right kind of disabled child.” One who they needed to be seen as trying to be as abled as possible, trying to fix myself and my walk and my body to be something other than I was. Something other than I am.

 

Someone who now stands here after all the surgeries and the braces and the physical therapy and the forced healing, just as disabled as I was then. Because the cure didn’t work—as I knew it wouldn’t. It didn’t take, even though they really tried.

 

I think our stories are powerful and magnificent; and I hope you all will be able to share some of your stories here with each other because our lives so clearly encapsulate why we so desperately need these kinds of spaces. Our lives are illustrations of disability and intersectionality and there is a wealth of knowledge there for us to learn from and use.

 

And for so many of us, if we don’t tell our stories, who will? If we can’t share our stories with each other, whom can we share them with?

 

I often think about all the things needed to hold my story, just to name a few: someone who understands disability, ableism, abled supremacy; the medical industrial complex, histories and notions of cure, ugliness and the myth of beauty; race, white supremacy, orientalism, adoption, transracial adoption, transnational adoption, the commodification and ownership of children, immigration, forced migration; korea, diaspora, US imperialism, war, borders; the Caribbean, colonization, the US South, anti-black racism, slavery and the US slave trade system; misogyny, patriarchy, sexism, gender, domestic and sexual violence, child sexual abuse; feminism, queerness, queer people of color; rural lands, islands, rural communities. And how all of these intersect with each other.

 

I wonder what the things needed to hold your stories are? I wonder how many pieces of your story weren’t told because there wasn’t anyone who could understand and hold them? I wonder how many parts of all of our stories that we still have never told anyone because of this?

 

My story is just as much a story about korean adoptees and korea, as it is a story about disability, as it is a story about feminism and queerness and growing up on a rural island outside of the U.S. mainland.

 

A part of this symposium is not only revealing the connections of different systems of oppression, trauma and violence with disability; but also the connection of all of these things within our selves and our lives and refusing to cut ourselves and our stories up. Refusing to tell partial stories for other people’s convenience. Refusing to separate our work for the comfort of others.

 

Because this space should not be rare—this should be the norm. It should not be that we have to leave mainstream disability spaces (or even alternative disability spaces) to be able to be our full selves and have whole conversations—about our own lives. It shouldn’t be that we have to leave racial justice and people of color spaces to be able to fully name and examine how abled supremacy and white supremacy work hand-in-hand to oppress and target disabled people of color and all people of color at large. It shouldn’t be that we have to leave queer and feminist spaces to be able to talk about how gender oppression and ableism have deeply intertwined roots. And why it is just as important to abolish the gender binary, as it is to abolish abled supremacy.

 

It shouldn’t be that we have to go to the margins of the margins of the margins of the margins. And don’t get me wrong; I love living out there. There are amazing things and people out there. And it shouldn’t be that that’s the only place where we can be whole.

 

It shouldn’t be that we have to hold our tongues or risk backlash or be met with empty silence just to be able to talk about our own realities and the realities of our communities. Just to be able to talk about our own lives.

 

This is also a part of the isolation we face everyday.

 

In all of our sharp intersectional analysis, we must locate ourselves, our stories and where our lives live in all of their complexities: privilege, oppression, how we have been harmed and how we have been complicit in harm. None of here are innocent.

 

I think of this as a kind of access—liberatory access, that is. Because it is not enough to just make sure that we can get into the room or that the conversation is translated or that we can access the materials. And it is not enough for us to simply get to share what’s important to us (though I know that many times we don’t even get to share that), if no one knows how to hold what we are sharing; if no one knows how to understand and fully engage with what we are sharing. How many times have we been in rooms and shared our truths, only to be met with backlash, avoidance or blank faces and awkward silence because people have not done their own work to educate themselves to be able to meet us? Whether it is in white spaces, abled spaces, hearing spaces, neurotypical spaces? How many times has the conversation continued on as if we never shared at all?

 

I don’t just want technical and logistical access. I don’t just want inclusion, I want liberatory access and access intimacy. I want us to not only be able to be part of spaces, but for us to be able to fully engage in spaces. I don’t just want us to get a seat at someone else’s table, I want us to be able to build something more magnificent than a table, togetherwith our accomplices. I want us to be able to be understood and to be able to take part in principled struggle together—to be able to be human together. Not just placated or politely listened to.

 

I want this for us and I also want this from us. Because the moment we acknowledge intersectionality, it also means we must acknowledge and face ourselves. Because even within this room and out there on the live stream, there are many, many differences between us and between those that aren’t able to join us here. Some of us are immigrants, some of us are not; some of us are survivors of sexual violence, some of us are not. Some of us benefit from light skinned privilege and/or white passing privilege, some of us do not. Some of us benefit from anti-black racism, or hearing supremacy or a world built for cis people. I want us to do our work so that when people whose oppression benefits us, share their truths or their questions, we can meet them in those conversations. We can join them in principled struggle in conversations about activism, strategy, action, accountability and justice.

 

These kind of spaces (like the one we’re in today) often feel like tiny oases  in the middle of a desert, and that is real. And I would also like to offer that they can also serve as a microcosm of the world in which we currently exist and to think of them as any “safer” than anywhere else is an illusion. I would like to offer that multiple truths can exist and that one does not negate the other. This space can be both a welcomed respite from the unrelenting storm we are usually in andboth/and—it can also be a storm as well.

 

When I say “liberatory access,” I mean access that is more than simply having a ramp or being scent free or providing captions. Access for the sake of access or inclusion is not necessarily liberatory, but access done in the service of love, justice, connection and community is liberatory and has the power to transform. I want us to think beyond just knowing the “right things to say” and be able to truly engage. I want us to not only make sure things are accessible, but also work to transform the conditions that created that inaccessibility in the first place. To not only meet the immediate needs of access—whether that is access to spaces, or access to education and resources, or access to dignity and agency—but also work to make sure that the inaccessibility doesn’t happen again.

 

(This is also at the crux of transformative justice work I’m a part of: you work to not only address the harm and the immediate needs the harm created, but you also make sure that the harm does not happen again and that you are working to transform the conditions that allowed the harm to happen in the first place.)

 

Because, as we integrate disability justice into our political work more and more—as we grow it and cultivate it—we must also be mindful that it is not an easy fix, and if anything, disability justice will require us to work harder and dig deeper. Disability justice should not only be about our analysis and political work, but it should also encompass how we do our work and how we treat each other, as fellow disabled people with multiple oppressed identities and experiences. Because I know I am not alone when I say that some of my deepest wounds have come from other disabled people. I know I am not alone when I say that sometimes we can treat each other in more painful ways than those outside of our community have treated us.

 

As we work to change the world, we must also work to change ourselves. And we must support each other in that change. Ableism and other systems of oppression and violence have left their mark on us. We can’t, on the one hand, understand how devastating capitalism, misogyny and criminalization are and then on the other hand, pretend as if they don’t affect how we treat each other and ourselves. Because most of us treat ourselves in ways that we would never treat anyone else. Most of us are in an abusive relationship with ourselves and that helps to lay the groundwork for abuse in the world.

 

Because no matter how on-point our analysis is, if we can’t treat each other well, our work will not get far. Because the systems we are up against will require collective work—if we could have changed them on our own, we would have already done it—and collective work requires that we are in relationship with each other in some way shape or form.

 

It is always so amazing to me that disabled people, who are so incredibly isolated and exiled, will also isolate and exile each other. And I know most of us have been on both sides of this.

 

Now, I am not saying that we all have to be besties with each other or that people don’t need to be accountable for their actions and/or harm they have done—they absolutely do. What I’m saying is that disability justice requires us to understand intersectionality, and intersectionality requires that we learn how to hold and value difference and contradictions. (e.g. you can be both oppressed and privileged by the same identity. You can have survived harm and do harm. These are contradictions that we all hold. I’m sure that all of us have been harmed in this room and all of us have either harmed or participated in harm or looked away from harm in some way shape or form. Whether it’s via our privilege or whatever else it may be.) What I’m saying is that it is not only “those people out there” who need to change, but it is “us in here” as well. What I am saying is that isolation, exclusion and erasure has been destructively wielded against us and our communities, so why would we want to wield them against each other?

 

Because I would argue that “disability justice” is simply another term for love. And so is “solidarity,” “access,” and “access intimacy.” I would argue that our work for liberation is simply a practice of love—one of the deepest and most profound there is. And the creation of this space is an act of love.

 

And if we can’t love each other and ourselves, then what good is any of our work to get free? If we can’t reach out to break isolation and the walls we’ve put up between each other, as disabled people, then we will have already lost before we’ve won any political battle. What good is it if we can wage amazing campaigns, if we all end up hating each other in the end? If we can’t practice addressing the hard things between each other, then how will we ever have a fighting chance to address the hard things in this world that keep our peoples locked up and locked out?

 

We have to work to transform the world, but we can only do that effectively if we can work to transform ourselves and our relationships with each other at the same time. Because our work depends on us and our relationships with each other. And if anyone is worth it, it is us and the generations of disabled children and people coming after us. We have a responsibility to leave them a legacy worth fighting for. To leave them powerful stories of not only how we were able to shut down prisons and I.C.E., but also how we were able to come through harm together, for the better. How we were able to make amends with our disabled kin and heal together. One of the greatest ways to resist abled supremacy is by loving each other. How we were able to practice transformative love together in the face of fear, isolation and heartbreak. And I know that there’s a lot of heartbreak.

 

This is how we practice interdependence. This is how we practice trust and belonging and hope. This is how we practice disability justice in its most powerful and magnificent potential.

 

So, I hope you all have a wonderful symposium and thank you so much for having me.

 

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Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm

Photo of my wheelchair in a dark room, silhouetted against a doorway, with a large shirt outlined in lights hanging against a dark wall.

“Forced Intimacy” is a term I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experience of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world. This often takes the form of being expected to share (very) personal information with able bodied people to get basic access, but it also includes forced physical intimacy, especially for those of us who need physical help that often requires touching of our bodies. Forced intimacy can also include the ways that disabled people have to build and sustain emotional intimacy and relationships with someone in order to get access—to get safe, appropriate and good access.

 

I have experienced forced intimacy my entire life as a disabled child, youth and adult. I am always expected to do the work of opening myself up for others’ benefit, education, curiosity or benevolent oppression.

 

Forced intimacy is a cornerstone of how ableism functions in an able bodied supremacist world. Disabled people are expected to “strip down” and “show all our cards” metaphorically in order to get the basic access we need in order to survive. We are the ones who must be vulnerable—whether we want to or not—about ourselves, our bodyminds and our abilities. Forced intimacy was one of the many ways I learned that consent does not exist for my disabled asian girl bodymind. People are allowed to ask me intrusive questions about my body, make me “prove” my disability or expect me to share with them every aspect of my accessibility needs. I learned how to simultaneously shrink myself and nonconsensually open myself up as a disabled girl of color every damn day.

 

Forced intimacy is the opposite of access intimacy. It feels exploitative, exhausting and at times violating. Because I am physically disabled and use a manual wheelchair, I often experience forced intimacy when able bodied people push my wheelchair without my consent or when I am in situations where I have to be pushed by people I do not feel safe with, know or who are actively harassing me while pushing me. This often happens when I am traveling and have to rely on strangers for my access needs. I cannot count the number of times a strange man has pushed my wheelchair in the airport, while saying offensive and gross comments to me. These are the moments where disability, race, gender, immigration, class, age and sexuality collide together at once, indistinguishable from one another.

 

Another example of forced intimacy is when I am somewhere and need an arm to lean on while walking, as I often do, and I have to be physically close to and touch someone I do not want to. This happened much more when I was growing up as a disabled child and youth, before I had more say over my life and the people in it. Forced intimacy is also my entire experience in the medical industrial complex with doctors, nurses, brace makers, physical therapists and practitioners, none of which I ever consented to. It is also the many moments in my daily adult life when I have to share more information than needed to get access for events I would like to attend from folks, including “comrades,” who do not post any accessibility information on their event pages or flyers, but have an “accessibility needs” section on their Google forms. Tip: if you don’t provide any accessibility information about your event, then I cannot assess what my access needs will be. Am I supposed to list out every single access need I might ever possibly have, simply because of your ignorance?

 

Even in writing this essay, I am pushing back against the ableist notion that disabled people should just be grateful for whatever we get—whatever crumbs are thrown our way. Well, at least they even had an “accessibility needs” section on their form. And most importantly, I am pushing back against the forced intimacy and emotional labor I am supposed to constantly be engaged in so people won’t be “mad” at me, because as disabled people know all too well, able bodied people will not help you with your access unless they “like” you. This is a very real and dangerous caged reality that I and many other disabled people live in and it is one of the main reasons why forced intimacy exists.

 

Able bodied people treat access as a logistical interaction, rather than a human interaction. People I don’t know or who have never even had a conversation with me about disability casually expect to be my “access person,” without realizing that there is significant trust and competency that must be built. People assume that I will accept any access—again, any crumbs—thrown my way and of course that I should be ever-grateful for it. They don’t realize that consent exists on both ends. Sure, I know how to survive and get by with ableist access, that is a skill I will never lose as long as I am living in an ableist world; but I am also working for a world where disabled people get to be human and have consent over our bodies, minds and intimacy.

 

The contradiction of having to survive in the oppressive world you are trying to change is always complicated and dehumanizing.

 

One of the reasons that forced intimacy has been so prominent in my life is because there is an inherent intimacy to access—or at least, in my experience, to my access. When someone is helping me with access, I am vulnerable; I am interdependent with them, even if they don’t realize it. There is a magnificent vulnerability to access and to disability that is powerful and potentially transformative, if we would only tap into it. Sadly, in an ableist world, access and disability get stripped of their transformative powers and instead get distorted into “dependent,” “burden” and “tragic.” Forced intimacy is a byproduct of this and functions as a constant oppressive reminder of domination and control.

 

Though I have written here about forced intimacy as it relates to disability and access, it is in no way relegated only to ableism. I have experienced forced intimacy as it relates to other forms of oppression as well, and it manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. It has been a constant part of my life and my experience as a queer disabled korean transracial and transnational adoptee woman survivor. The forced intimacy of transracial and transnational adoption, for example, is a never-ending black hole for so many of us.

 

I cannot account here all of the many ways that forced intimacy has so fundamentally impacted and shaped me, that is for another piece of writing. I ache for the day when that will no longer be the case, especially for future generations of disabled children.

 

 

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Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice

My remarks from the 2017 Paul K. Longmore Lecture on Disability Studies at San Francisco State University delivered on April 11, 2017.

 

To watch and listen to the video of my talk, click here. (Thank you to the Longmore Institute on Disability for the video!)

 

[Photo of a fall leaf with reds, oranges and yellows being held up against a background of water and land in the far off distance under a cloudy sky. Photo by Mia Mingus.]

 

Good evening everyone and thank you so much for having me. Thank you for being flexible as I recovered from being very, very sick. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you to the people whose work has made this event possible (twice!) and for your work to make this event accessible—work that is so vital and, sadly rare, when it comes to social justice work.

I want to send a thank you out to everyone here and around the globe who are resisting—in big and small ways—the current administration, greed, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, fascism, colonization, environmental destruction, xenophobia, islamaphobia, and rape culture. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I want to extend gratitude to not only the organizers of this event, but also to the people who work and care for these buildings, rooms and grounds. The people who built this building, dispose of the trash, and clean the floors and toilets. The people who work for this institution, but can’t afford to attend it or live near it.

Let us also acknowledge that we are always on native land (and this is no exception) and that communities and lands around the globe are being exploited so that we may sit here in an air-conditioned room together. Let us remember how interdependent our lives are, not only when it is convenient, but every single day.

 

I want to say unequivocally that disabled people are everywhere. We are one of the largest oppressed groups on the planet. We are part of political movements, even if you don’t know or don’t acknowledge that we are. No matter what community you’re working with, you are working with disabled people. (And given how violent and polluted our world is, those numbers will only continue to grow.)

Disability and ableism are not secondary issues, though they continually get treated as such. If you are a disabled person out there, I want you to know that our experiences as disabled people matter. Our experiences as disabled queer people of color matter—even if queer, people of color, and queer people of color communities don’t bother to include us in their events, social gatherings, strategies, movements, analysis and communities. We matter and our stories and experiences matter. It means something to be disabled. Never forget that.

Understanding disability and ableism is the work of every revolutionary, activist and organizer—of every human being. Disability is one of the most organic and human experiences on the planet. We are all aging, we are all living in polluted and toxic conditions and the level of violence currently in the world should be enough for all of us to care more about disability and ableism.

 

Access Intimacy

I would like to focus my remarks tonight on access intimacy, interdependence and disability justice. I want to talk about these because I think they are—especially access intimacy—an important example of how we can reframe our understandings of disability to help us in our fight for liberation.

For those of you less familiar with Access Intimacy, it is a term I began using and coined in the spring of 2011 in my essay, “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link.” And I want to be clear, I didn’t invent access intimacy, I simply gave a name to something that was happening in my life and I hope it’s useful to others. Just because you name something doesn’t mean you invented it.

From “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link:”

“I have never had words for access intimacy before.  For years, I would feel it or crave it, but not know how to describe it. It has always been just out of reach; just beyond my grasp.  I have mistaken it for emotional or political intimacy, sexual attraction or romantic desire.  I have mistakenly assumed that it would be there based on one’s identity or experience.  I have grappled with how to describe the closeness I would feel with people who my disabled body just felt a little bit safer and at ease with. There have been relationships that carried emotional, physical and political intimacy, but sorely lacked access intimacy.  And there have been relationships where access intimacy has helped to create the conditions out of which emotional, familial and political intimacy could grow. 

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.  The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level.  Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years.  It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.  It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access.  Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.

Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives.  Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations.  Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access.  I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability.  It doesn’t mean that our access looks the same, or that we even know what each other’s access needs are.  It has taken the form of long talks into the night upon our first meeting; knowing glances shared across a room or in a group of able bodied people; or the feeling of instant familiarity to be able to ask for help or support.

In my life, access intimacy is something that has been hard won, organic or at times even felt magical.  It has taken me by surprise, showing up with people that I never would have expected to have that kind of “access connection” with.  It has been exciting and relieving, like a long slow exhale.  I don’t know where it comes from or how it happens.  It has felt like an unspoken, instinctual language between different people, like an entirely unique way of being able to communicate and connect.  Similar to meeting someone you just “click with,” access intimacy has felt like a distinct form of attraction, desire and energy unto itself…

Access intimacy is not charity, resentfulness enacted, intimidation, a humiliating trade for survival or an ego boost.  In fact, all of this threatens and kills access intimacy.  There is a good feeling after and while you are experiencing access intimacy.  It is a freeing, light, loving feeling.  It brings the people who are a part of it closer; it builds and deepens connection.  Sometimes access intimacy doesn’t even mean that everything is 100% accessible.  Sometimes it looks like both of you trying to create access as hard as you can with no avail in an ableist world.  Sometimes it is someone just sitting and holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.”

 

Tonight I want to focus on access intimacy between disabled people and able bodied people because it has been the hardest for me to build. This is a huge part of my life because most of my access depends on able bodied people and because I don’t have paid or formal attendants, I am often relying on friends, coworkers and strangers for my access, as is the case for so many disabled folks.

For me, I understand Access Intimacy as something that can transform ordinary access into a tool for liberation, instead of merely reinforcing “inclusion” and “equality.” I am done with disability simply being “included” in able bodied people’s agendas and lives only when it’s convenient. I want us to tap into the transformative powers of disability, instead of only gaining access to the current system, or the burning house as the late Grace Lee Boggs would say, and doing nothing to change that system. We don’t simply want to join the ranks of the privileged, we want to challenge and dismantle those ranks and question why some people are consistently at the bottom.

Cultivating access intimacy is a way to directly challenge ableism and the relentless isolation that disabled people endure, especially disabled folks who are part of other oppressed communities. Access intimacy at once recognizes and understands the relational and human quality of access, while simultaneously deepening the relationships involved. It moves the work of access out of the realm of only logistics and into the realm of relationships and understanding disabled people as humans, not burdens. Disabled people’s liberation cannot be boiled down to logistics.

Access intimacy is interdependence in action. It is an acknowledgement that what is most important is not whether or not things are perfectly accessible, or whether or not there is ableism; but rather what the impact of inaccessibility and ableism is on disabled people and our lives. In my experience, when access intimacy is present, the most powerful part is having someone to navigate access and ableism with. It is knowing that someone else is with me in this mess. It is knowing that someone else is willing to be with me in the never-ending and ever-changing daily obstacle course that is navigating an inaccessible world. It is knowing that I will not be alone in the stunning silence, avoidance and denial of ableism by almost every able bodied person I have ever and will ever come in contact with. Access intimacy is knowing that I will not be alone in the stealth, insidious poison that is ableism.

The power of access intimacy is that it reorients our approach from one where disabled people are expected to squeeze into able bodied people’s world, and instead calls upon able bodied people to inhabit our world.

It challenges able bodied supremacy by valuing disability—not running from disability—but moving towards it. It asserts that there is value in disabled people’s lived experiences. In this way, it reframes both how and where solidarity can be practiced. Access intimacy is shared work by all people involved, it is no longer the familiar story of disabled people having to do all the work to build the conversations and piece together the relationship and trust that we know we need for access—that we know we need in order to survive. I know this has been the story of my life, especially with able bodied people of color and able bodied queer people of color.

 

Disabled people get told we must shrink ourselves and our desires to settle for living in the wake of an able bodied parade. And especially if we are part of other oppressed communities, we are expected to be grateful for whatever crumbs are thrown our way. In my life this has looked like a lifetime of political events by communities I am a part of that were not (and continue not to be) accessible—and where seemingly no one even pondered disability with no mention of it on any event information—or where access was done reluctantly or only for political show. It has looked like a lifetime of rich, passionate political conversations with people from my communities about everything under the sun except for disability and if disability was going to be talked about it was always me who had to bring it up. It has looked like friends from my communities inviting me to social gatherings and never once asking me or thinking about my access or differences in ability. It has looked like dates that were inaccessible and, in the worst cases, left me badly physically injured and bloody. It has looked like friendships that expect me to do all the work to educate them on disability and engage in conversations about disability and ableism. It has looked like a lifetime of supporting “my communities” in “their work” and them never showing up for anything related to disability.

It is easy to list these things off and analyze them, but it is harder to convey the way they have felt. It is harder to talk about how incredibly—sometimes unbelievably—painful these have felt when experienced. Queer people of color to-be-parents want to spend hours talking about how they will support their will-be children to explore their genders and sexualities outside of binaries, but when I ask them how they will support their child if they are or become disabled the conversation abruptly stops or I am told I am being “negative.” Or Asian, Korean or Korean adoptee communities don’t make their gatherings accessible and then I am asked, “why aren’t you more connected to those communities?” Or disabled communities who have no interest in talking about race, sexuality or gender and respond with hostility that you are being divisive when you explain that you cannot separate your disability from your other identities. Or the only access people you can find are white and there are “people of color only spaces” that you desperately need access to for your own survival as a woman of color adoptee. The ways that ableism and white supremacy work together so successfully to isolate disabled people of color continues to break my heart.

This is why access intimacy has been so important to me in my life. It has been an antidote to the pain and the extreme isolation that pound like crashing waves with no end. It has been a way to remember my magnificence and my dignity. It has been the tender balm and recognition of parts of me that most people would rather deny, avoid and pretend away.

And I want to be transparent, access intimacy is not easy to build. When it doesn’t happen magically and organically, it has been hard to create. It requires a lot of trust and faith and practice. And it has been lonely because not everyone is ready for it (or even a good fit for it) and it has taken discipline inside myself to not settle for crappy access when I don’t have to, which often means I have less access. And because we live in an able bodied society, most of the burden is still on disabled people (and will be for quite sometime) to grow it and introduce the concept to able bodied people in our lives. It is like anything else that transforms you, in that it is a thawing that will force you to inevitably question why you have gone so long without it and why it doesn’t exist in more places in your life, similar to the way that any kind of powerful alignment, love or joy does. It reminds me of the way that Audre Lorde talks about the erotic in her essay, “Uses of the Erotic”:

For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.

 

Access intimacy is one of the main ways that I have been building interdependence in my life. I have been pushing myself to grow it and not just subsist on the little I have been able to find, most significantly with my partner, as is the case for many disabled folks. Engaging in building any kind of interdependence will always be a risk, for everyone involved; and the risk will always be greater for those who are more oppressed and have less access to privilege. In an ableist world where disabled people are understood as disposable, it can be especially hard to build interdependence with people you need in order to survive, but who don’t need you in order to survive. In an ableist context, interdependence will always get framed as “burden,” and disability will always get framed as “inferior.” To actively work to build something that is thought of as undeniably undesirable and to try and reframe it to others as liberatory, is no small task.

Especially as disabled people, we know what it means to live interdependent lives and it does not always feel revolutionary or enjoyable.

There will always be a difference of power between myself and able bodied people I am in relationship with. It will always be a choice for them to not have to engage in any work around disability or ableism. It will always be perfectly acceptable for them to never have to have conversations about disability or ableism, and certainly not any conversations that address their privilege, ignorance or question their ableist desires. They will never be expected to be in solidarity with disabled people and even if they are—even mildly or offensively—they will be applauded by the world for taking pity on us. The scales are already tipped and those of us who are on the sinking side know all-to-well what living in the shadows is like.

In my life, access intimacy continues to be a game-changer, a way to queer access into a tool we can use to get free. It has been a way to shift and queer how I and others understand disability and ableism. And because of the inherent interdependence of access intimacy—the “we” of access intimacy—it has transformed the kinds of conversations I am able to have with some of the able bodied people in my life. Access intimacy has helped me to orient my desires from a place of magnificence and moving towards the Ugly. It has required me to demand more from the people in my communities and settle less because I know things can be better. In short, it has sparked possibility inside of me that, growing up as a disabled child, I never had and never knew could exist. As a disabled child, I didn’t know that access could be anything other than the usual mixture of guilt, shame and isolation that always seemed so normal.

Access intimacy is critical to disability justice because there will never be any work with disabled people that does not include accessibility work. And it is important to note that access is often one of the biggest hurdles to doing work with disabled communities. Access is not some “optional way of life” for us—it is part of everything we do. It is part of everything I do. So, if we are working to transform the world for all of us, and not just some of us, access will be a huge part of this work. There is no liberation without disabled people.

 

Liberatory Access & Interdependence

We talk about the importance of making our movements and communities accessible and yes, that is important. We have to make our work and spaces more accessible. There is no way around it. Access is concrete resistance to the immense isolation that disabled people face everyday. But I don’t want us to just make things “accessible,” I want us to build a political container in which that access can take place in and be grounded in. Access for the sake of access is not necessarily libratory, but access for the sake of connection, justice, community, love and liberation is. We can use access as a tool to transform the broader conditions we live in, to transform the conditions that created that inaccessibility in the first place. Access can be a tool to challenge ableism, ablebodied supremacy, independence and exclusion. I believe we can do access in liberatory ways that aren’t just about inclusion, diversity and equality; but are rather, in service of justice, liberation and interdependence.

I have been calling this concept “Liberatory Access.” Liberatory access gets us closer to the world we want and ache for, rather than simply reinforcing the status quo. It lives in the now and the future. There is no liberatory access without access intimacy, and in fact, access intimacy is one of the main criteria for liberatory access. Liberatory access understands addressing inaccessibility and ableism as an opportunity for building deeper relationships with each other, realigning our selves with our values and what matters most to us, and challenging oppression.

Liberatory access calls upon us to create different values for accessibility than we have historically had. It demands that the responsibility for access shifts from being an individual responsibility to a collective responsibility. That access shifts from being silencing to freeing; from being isolating to connecting; from hidden and invisible to visible; from burdensome to valuable; from a resentful obligation to an opportunity; from shameful to powerful; from ridged to creative. It’s the “good” kind of access, the moments when we are pleasantly surprised and feel seen. It is a way of doing access that transforms both our “today” and our “tomorrow.” In this way, Liberatory access both resists against the world we don’t want and actively builds the world we do want.

Liberatory access requires a political container to live in and orient from and I believe that disability justice is that political container.

Access should be happening in service of our larger goals of building interdependence and embracing need, because this is such a deep part of challenging ableism and the myth of independence. The myth of independence is the idea that we can and should be able to do everything on our own and, of course, we know that that’s not true. Someone made the clothes you’re wearing now, your shoes, your car or the mass transit system you use; we don’t grow all our own food and spices.  We can’t pretend that what happens in this country doesn’t affect others, or that things like clean air and water don’t bound us all together. We are dependent on each other, period. The myth of independence reflects such a deep level of privilege, especially in this rugged individualistic capitalist society and produced the very idea that we could even mildly conceive of our lives or our accomplishments as solely our own. And of course, the other side of this is not just that it’s not true—not just that the emperor has no clothes, but that everyone else should pretend he’s fully clothed too. So, the Myth of Independence is not just about the truth of being connected and interdependent on one another; it is also about the high value that gets placed on buying into the myth and believing that you are independent; and the high value placed on striving to be independent, another corner stone of the ableist culture we live in.

Interdependence moves us away from the myth of independence, and towards relationships where we are all valued and have things to offer. It moves us away from knowing disability only through “dependence,” which paints disabled bodies as being a burden to others, at the mercy of able-bodied people’s benevolence. We become charity cases, a way for able bodied people to feel better about themselves and we in turn, internalize our sense of being a burden, sad, and tragic. All of this sets up a dynamic where disabled people feel like we have to be “liked” in order to receive basic daily access to live and where able bodied people feel entitled to receive praise and recognition for providing access. This is not access intimacy and this dynamic of disabled people being “dependent” on able bodied people shapes so many disabled people’s lives and is the foundation upon which so much domination, control, violence and abuse happens.

Liberatory access is something I work to practice in my life and political work. Whenever we have events, I always think, how can we build access intimacy into our access work and our political work at large? I think of liberatory access and access intimacy as things we can use to unhinge ableism. These are tools we can use in our work to confront ableism and all forms of oppression because disabled people are not only disabled: we are people of color, we are all different genders and sexualities, we are from different class backgrounds and cultures, we are survivors, bystanders and offenders—we are human. In our campaigns and at our conferences, we can ask our selves, how do we use this opportunity to practice parts of disability justice? How can we help grow access intimacy? Or what would liberatory access look like? In the same way that we would work to try and practice racial and gender justice, again, in service of things such as justice, building community, trust, love, we can work to practice disability justice.

 

Closing

In “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access and Love,” I wrote:

These are the parts of disability justice and liberation that keep me up at night, that have hurt more than any ableist remark, that have left more scars than any surgery. This is the underbelly of ableism. This is what I fear we will be left to wrestle with after every building is made accessible and every important policy is passed.

In all of my work for disability justice, I always come back to the human parts of disability. The parts that we would rather not talk about. The parts that are not about the bills or budgets or laws or services. The parts that live under our skin and inside of our bones and cells. The parts that are buried. The parts that most of us have had to learn how to navigate on our own, if we learn to navigate them at all.

I love being disabled and my history of disability has been so drenched in trauma and sorrow, pity and isolation, silence and pain, shame and guilt, violence and abuse. I don’t know how to talk about disability without talking about these parts—without pulling them out of their hiding places and holding them out to show you and asking, where are yours?

I don’t know how to be disabled without being all of who I am: a queer disabled korean transnational and transracial adoptee woman survivor from the Caribbean non-mainland U.S., always searching for others who have had to learn how to live on the outskirts; who know how to survive off of longing and laughter. These identities and experiences are all part of each other and asking me—or anyone—to separate them is not only oppressive, it’s impossible.

Access intimacy has transformed my life and transformed my present, even if I can’t change my past. It is one of the ways I practice disability justice in my everyday life and one of the ways I ask others to do the same. Ableist access has shaped so much of who I am and every relationship I have ever had. When I think of all the oppressive forces in my life that demanded (often violently) that I shrink myself in order to survive, ableist access is easily one of the most prominent.

Access intimacy means so much to me, that it is hard to articulate. When I try and explain it the people with whom it exists, I never seem to do it justice. When I think about disability justice, I think about access intimacy because it has a direct affect on my daily life and makes love possible. And in any of our work for liberation, isn’t that what we should be working for: anything that makes love more possible? Anything that makes joy, healing and trust more possible? Anything that can take away the power and cruelty of oppression, violence, abuse and trauma?

Access intimacy makes love more possible in my life and in myself. And I will always be grateful for that. I’ll never understand the magic of it or how it works exactly, only that it softens my heart and let’s me exhale. Only that it gives me hope, as terrifying as hope can be when your survival has always depended on fear and the lesser of two evils. Access intimacy has been a lighthouse in the storm of ableism, beckoning me back home to love and reminding me that I never left.

Thank you.

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Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access and Love

This essay was originally published in Issue Ten of Makeshift Magazine.

forsythia

This is a beginning; a dive into waters that I swim every day, but have been taught not to speak about.  I struggle with how to talk about love out loud in a way that holds access and doesn’t diminish love in all its glory, but instead illuminates how ableism twists and threatens love and relationships. Needing to constantly negotiate access for my physical disability within all my relationships in an ableist world has shaped the kind of connection and love I am able to have.  I have been scared to open up the Pandora’s box that holds the intimacies of ableism.  Scared to talk about some of the deepest parts of what disability has meant in my life.

Most days I feel like access and love are like oil and water.  I wonder how the two can possibly coexist.  I am speaking of love broadly, meaning any relationship where there is love, whether that is between friends, lovers, family members (chosen, birth, situational), community members, etc. As a queer disabled woman of color adoptee, I am questioning the very fabric that makes up love and, in particular, disabled people’s access to love—or, rather, the kinds of love (and relationships) that disabled people have access to.  How can disabled people who rely on our loved ones for daily access be our whole selves when that threatens the relationships our access and survival depends on?  And how can this support genuine, deep, loving relationships?

The activist-dreamer-revolutionary part of me believes that access and love don’t have to be separate.  It is the part of me that is committed to revolutionary love, radical love, or whatever it’s being called these days.  It lives off of the idea that somehow, if we work hard enough at this thing called liberation, our lives will be different: institutions, relationships and all.

But my life has proven different.  My lived experience has left me holding one half of my heart in each hand, one for access and one for love, crushed.  I have found myself on cold windy cliffs, staring at the canyon between the two.

I have watched ableism tear apart relationships with people I love.  I have seen access be too much of a barrier for people to be in relationship with each other.  I have made excuses for inaccessibility because I loved people and didn’t want to lose relationship with them.  I have excused racism, sexism, violence, homophobia because I didn’t want to, couldn’t afford to, lose access.  I have asked for access or raised ableism in relationships, only to have those relationships end abruptly. I have stayed in relationships for access and I have been too afraid to enter into relationships because of access. I have had access held over my head, leveraged for able-bodied supremacist means, or treated like a reward for good behavior.  I have had access made invisible or belittled by loved ones; I have had to make access happen so the person providing access didn’t know they were.  I have kept parts of myself from people I love because I was afraid to, didn’t know how to, be whole and complex in the context of needing access.

This is the cruelty of ableism: it robs us from each other.  This is the weight of access.  This is what gets said in whispers, not on the microphone and at the panel.  This is what gets shared in a fleeting glance between us, disabled, sick, crip folks; a recognition, a silent sigh, an unfocused stare.  This is what we don’t share, don’t know how to share, because it is so instinctual, so ground-level, so what’s-the-point-it’s-never-going-to-change.  This is the air I’ve breathed since I can remember, as a disabled child, never knowing it could be any different—never having been able bodied.

The weight of inaccessibility is not logistical.  It is not just about ramps, ASL interpreters, straws and elevators.  It is a shifting, changing wall—an ocean—between you and I.  It is just as much feeling and trauma as it is material and concrete.  It is something felt, not just talked about.  It is made up of isolation from another night at home while everyone else goes to the party.  The fear of being left by the people you love and who are supposed to love you.  The pain of staring or passing, the sting of disappointment, the exhaustion of having the same conversations over and over again.  The throbbing foolishness of getting your hopes up and the shrinking of yourself in order to maintain.  It is an echoing loneliness; part shame, part guilt, part constant apology and thank you.  It is knowing that no matter how the conditions around me change, my body will still not be able to do certain things—it will still need other people, it will still signal dependence, it will still be disabled.

At 30, I have experienced many different kinds of beautiful love, largely because I have had the privilege of not being locked away in an institution, group home or my family’s back room like many disabled people.  And indeed, to question the love I have been honored to experience on this page is terrifying and puts my current relationships, love and access at risk.  But these are the parts of disability justice and liberation that keep me up at night, that have hurt more than any ableist remark, that have left more scars than any surgery.  This is the underbelly of ableism.  This is what I fear we will be left to wrestle with after every building is made accessible and every important policy is passed.  This is what I desire as a queer disabled woman of color adoptee: to be able to love and not have access used as a weapon, and to be able to have access without the fear of losing love.

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Edges

This post is inspired out of a recent conversation with the magnificent Wheelchair Dancer.  As two physically disabled women of color, a conversation about our edges is complicated.  There are many edges and, for me, it is hard to know where to begin and how to enter.  Our conversation began around a table in the sun one afternoon with not nearly enough time to share everything. We decided we would continue it here on our blogs and post our thoughts on the same day at the same time.  Her post can be found here

I am grateful for this space to talk about my edges, a place to lay down some of the swirling mass inside my head and body.  When I think about edges, I think about my limits, the places where I need to stop in order to take care of myself.  I think about my physical limits particularly, as someone with a physical disability, and how far is “too far” to push my body.  Many times this was dependent on actually being able to feel my body—a complicated task for so many of us.

As someone assigned female at birth and socialized as a disabled girl and woman of color by white adoptive parents, my emotional edges have seemed impossible to find.  I have always felt that because I have physical limitations, I can’t have emotional ones.  It has felt like I’ve had to learn how to hold emotional space for others, in order to redeem my physical “shortcomings.”  As a girl and woman of color adoptee it felt like this was a way to “fit in,” to not be a burden, a way to finally feel wanted.  It was a way that I could give back, instead of always being made to feel like I was taking too much, instead of constantly being called “lazy.”  A way I could hold other people and have them be dependent on me, instead of the other way around. Pushing past my emotional edge has looked like giving too much emotionally, denying my own emotional needs for the sake of others, holding emotional intensity even when I didn’t want to or wasn’t ready to, shrinking, never sharing my emotions with people or learning how to make others feel emotionally (comfortable) close to me, but rarely having people I felt emotionally close to or comfortable with.

This strategy of emotional edge pushing also aligned with being feminine and indeed, as people who are (socialized to be) feminine, we are taught that it is our job to take care of other people’s emotions, denying our own.  As a disabled girl of color, wanting to try and find any way into “woman,” not having emotional edges seemed to be almost desirable; or rather, it seemed like it would make me more desirable.  The cruel cutting twist that heteronormativity seemed like the only route back to being desirable after ableism had pushed me out and adoption had pulled (taken) me away, and left me with a life-size puzzle of asian-disabled-womanhood to put together on my own.

I have lived a life of pushing myself too far, well past my edge, partly to survive and partly because I had no clue where my edge was.  And this is still true in so many ways.  Ableism is so seductive, so alluring, so all-together-spell-binding, that I find myself erasing my edges and redrawing them, until I become laid up sick in bed or physically injure myself.  I am constantly navigating access or connection, “my edge” or being with community.  The pull of connection and relationships, is always what gets me.  It excites me and makes me abandon my edge.  It is the part of me that foolishly thinks I can be someone who can party hop, work a 14 hour day and then go and socialize, doesn’t need sleep, doesn’t need to bring my wheelchair.  It is internalized ableism.  It is the seduction of ableism.  And it has been the only way I have been able to be part of queer people of color community and social justice community in any real way.

I know what’s at stake.  The edge is no mystery.  I know that disabled and sick people are coerced in small and big, covert and blatant ways everyday to harm ourselves by systems, institutions and the very people we love and who love us.  I know that the life I have lived, the amount of people that I know, the relationships I have been able to build, the access to love, sex, desire, laughter and community that I have had are a direct reflection of (and have been dependent on) me pushing past my edge.  Otherwise, I could not have been part of the work that I so love and the communities that have saved my life.

This should not be the way it has to be.  We cannot keep asking our kin to harm themselves to feel like they belong or to be worthy of connection.  We cannot keep expecting that ableism (and capitalism) will do the work for us to keep disabled people segregated or propel us to push, those of us who can, past our edges.  This is what I think about when I think about edges.  I know I am one fall, one slip away from a very different edge; one that doesn’t have as much give and take.  One that cannot do stairs, even on a good day, even with enough shame to motivate me.

I am learning to find my edge.  My edge is different on different days.  Some days I can feel my body, some days I can’t.  Some days the pain makes it too hard of a place to be.  Some days I can handle what is revealed from feeling, some days I can’t.

There is memory there, mixed with blood and bone, cells and tissue.  There is history that you cannot turn away from embedded in these veins.  There is a telling of war and pain, division and separation, loneliness and longing, humiliation and violence, resiliency and returning.  There are stories of a land, a family, a body, a heart, a life.  Knowing my edge means knowing all of this, as well as when I feel tired and when I need to rest.  Knowing my edge means knowing myself and all the ways my body (heart) has been pushed past what was good for it.  It means knowing inside and out that belonging does not have to be proven or earned or sacrificed for; it is for all of us.  For all of us.

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Access Intimacy: The Missing Link

abstract painting with yellow, purple, pink and red spots.There are many ways to describe intimacy.  For example, there’s physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, intellectual, political, familial or sexual intimacy.  But, as a physically disabled woman, there is another kind of intimacy I have been struggling to name and describe, what I have been calling “access intimacy.”

I have begun using the term loosely and am still realizing different aspects of it.  This is in no way a complete describing of it, instead, this is an initial naming and the beginnings of giving it shape.  I am offering it as something that has been useful for me and I hope is useful to others to describe all different kinds of access, not just in relation to disability.  I think Access, as a framework, is powerful for so many of our lives.  Here, I am speaking from my own lived experience as a physically disabled person but I know access intimacy can also happen in many different ways for mamas and parents, women of color, queer and trans folks, etc…  Anyone can experience access intimacy.

I have never had words for access intimacy before.  For years, I would feel it or crave it, but not know how to describe it. It has always been just out of reach; just beyond my grasp.  I have mistaken it for emotional or political intimacy, sexual attraction or romantic desire.  I have mistakenly assumed that it would be there based on one’s identity or experience.  I have grappled with how to describe the closeness I would feel with people who my disabled body just felt a little bit safer and at ease with. There have been relationships that carried emotional, physical and political intimacy, but sorely lacked access intimacy.  And there have been relationships where access intimacy has helped to create the conditions out of which emotional, familial and political intimacy could grow.

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.  The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level.  Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years.  It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.  It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access.  Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.

Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives.  Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations.  Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access.  I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability.  It doesn’t mean that our access looks the same, or that we even know what each other’s access needs are.  It has taken the form of long talks into the night upon our first meeting; knowing glances shared across a room or in a group of able bodied people; or the feeling of instant familiarity to be able to ask for help or support.

In my life, access intimacy is something that has been hard won, organic or at times even felt magical.  It has taken me by surprise, showing up with people that I never would have expected to have that kind of “access connection” with.  It has been exciting and relieving, like a long slow exhale.  I don’t know where it comes from or how it happens.  It has felt like an unspoken, instinctual language between different people, like an entirely unique way of being able to communicate and connect.  Similar to meeting someone you just “click with,” access intimacy has felt like a distinct form of attraction, desire and energy on to itself.

Access intimacy is something I am coming to understand that I need in my life; something that I cannot (and don’t want to) live without.  I need it to literally be my whole self because access is such an intimate part of my life as a queer physically disabled woman of color adoptee.  Without it, relationships exist under a glass ceiling or split by thick frosted windows, with huge pieces of myself never being able to be reached. Without it, there is survival, but rarely true, whole connection.

Access intimacy is not just the action of access or “helping” someone.  We have all experienced access that has left us feeling like a burden, violated or just plain shitty.  Many of us have experienced obligatory access where there is no intimacy, just a stoic counting down of the seconds until it is over.  This is not access intimacy.  There have been numerous relationships in my life where I have loved people very deeply, but never fully felt safe with them around my access.  So many relationships where I knew I could only ask for or share so much, without getting snapped at, chided or being punished with reluctant passive aggressive access.  So many times where I was too afraid, because of the lack of access intimacy, to speak up and voice what I needed or what I couldn’t do, resulting in being isolated or getting very badly physically hurt from pushing myself too hard, in some of the worst cases.

Access intimacy is not charity, resentfulness enacted, intimidation, a humiliating trade for survival or an ego boost.  In fact, all of this threatens and kills access intimacy.  There is a good feeling after and while you are experiencing access intimacy.  It is a freeing, light, loving feeling.  It brings the people who are a part of it closer; it builds and deepens connection.  Sometimes access intimacy doesn’t even mean that everything is 100% accessible.  Sometimes it looks like both of you trying to create access as hard as you can with no avail in an ableist world.  Sometimes it is someone just sitting and holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.

It has looked like relationships where I always feel like I can say what my access needs are, no matter what.  Or i can say that I don’t know them, and that’s ok too.  It has looked like people not expecting payment in the form of emotional currency or ownership for access.  It has looked like able bodied people listening to me and believing me.  It has looked like people investing in remembering my access needs and checking in with me if there are going to be situations that might be inaccessible or hard disability-body-wise.  It has looked like crip-made access.  It has looked like crip solidarity.

In the last half decade of my life I have been able to experience many different forms and levels of access intimacy.  Before that, I was not even in a place where I could have had access intimacy with anyone.  It has only been in the last seven years that I have come into myself as a politically disabled person enough to begin to experience or desire access intimacy, even on superficial levels.  Looking back, there have been only a handful of relationships in my life where access intimacy has existed.  And in most of them access intimacy was not instant, but built and cultivated, with me bearing the brunt of the work.

For the first time in my adult life, I am experiencing access intimacy that is not just painstakingly built over years, conversation by conversation, but is already in fertile existence, ready to grow.  For the first time in my life I am in disabled community meeting sick and disabled folks and experiencing a kind of mutual access intimacy that feels like family.  For the first time in my life, I am in relationships with able bodied queer people of color experiencing access intimacy that is beyond explanation and belief.  For the first time, this year, I am experiencing a level of access intimacy in my intimate relationships and home life that I have never experienced before.  It has been both amazing and saddening, now having something that actually cares for me.  And it, like emotional intimacy, is also a deep risk because it would be devastating to lose and requires maintenance.

Now, when I describe relationships, I include access intimacy along with my many other descriptors.  I am watching it, studying it, bearing witness to it as it grows, evolves and shifts and as I learn all the different ways that access intimacy can exist.

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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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