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.
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 I 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 and—both/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.