It’s been a while since I published a blog post. I’m still alive and kicking, but I’ve had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head and I have been taking some time to sit, think, reflect and process them (whilst dealing with a medical crisis or three in our family!)
What’s been kicking around in my head is an increasing awareness of the way that we are busy collectively having all sorts of amazing conversations about race, gender and sexuality in our societies. We are even managing to have conversations about the ways that race, gender and sexuality intersect and overlap (for example, the unique challenges faced by trans women of colour).
But for some reason I rarely see or hear these conversations include folks with disabilities.
At first I thought this was just me – that maybe my own biases were feeling left out or that I was overly sensitive to this issue at the moment because of the level to which disability was dominating my life and my family’s life.
But the more I listened and the more spaces I listened into, the more my suspicions were confirmed – and that is a problem.
It’s a problem because in general people with disabilities have fewer resources to fight against the structural inequalities that make our lives difficult. We may have less physical strength or fewer hours of physical strength. Our time may be taken up in hours of daily medical management. We may have fewer financial resources (both because of being less likely to be employed and because of having much higher medical costs). We may have less mental stamina or lower levels of education.
We also face basic structural barriers to our very participation in the conversation: if, for example, the conversation requires that we be able to speak rather than write, to travel to a large, noisy gathering over uncleared snowy paths, to read text that hasn’t been published in braille or listen to others when no ASL interpretation is offered than our very presence is excluded before we even have the opportunity to contribute from our lived experiences.
It’s a problem because many of the same structural inequalities that make our lives as disabled individuals harder – issues with housing, access to quality medical care, assumptions that we are ‘easy targets’ or that we’re just ‘faking it’ – are issues that all marginalized groups face, and we should be lifting our voices together. If you put enough minorities together you start to build a pretty effective counter-argument to the voice of the majority.
It’s a problem because when you look at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and disability you find that the issues of disability are exacerbated significantly the more structural barriers an individual faces. In some cases, disability is even used as a tool of structural oppression for other groups (to site just one example).
And it’s a problem because ultimately disability will catch up with all of us – the question is simply when. So while you might be focused on issues of race, gender or sexuality and think “I just need to worry about fighting this fight and I’ll be okay” there will come a time in almost everyone’s life where you will wish that you had fought for those with disabilities – because when you do end up with a disability, you may find there are more structural issues than you ever realized. (Many people find the phrase ‘temporarily able-bodied’ helpful to reminding them of their able-bodied privilege and the transient nature of those abilities.)
So what can you do?
For years I have heard LGBTQ+ friends and speakers and POC friends and speakers call for folks to “look around the room to see which voices are missing, and then go out and find them so they can be included too”. Unfortunately, I still don’t see very many folks in wheelchairs on stage. I don’t see very many conferences where the speaker is presenting in sign language and an interpreter is offering the information to those who can hear in the audience. I don’t see many churches or religious organizations that are tackling the issue of sensory integration or social anxiety in their gathering spaces so that those with neurodivergence can speak from the stage. So the first thing you can do is look around and see who’s voices are missing.
For many, many years the disabled community has called for “nothing for us without us”. Regardless of our level of disability, we have something to say about our care, our needs, our challenges, and our unique perspectives. Building on point number one, I would ask “who’s voices need to be brought to the front?” It’s not enough to have disabled speakers as token members of a speaking roster. If the only disabled speaker at an event on disability is given just 15 minutes during one side seminar, but able-bodied speakers (including caregivers) bring all of the keynote addresses, then we have a problem.
Furthermore, a lot of learning happens through day-to-day experiences. When my able-bodied friends come to my house and find that all the cups and dishes are in a low cupboard (where I can reach them from my wheelchair) they always take a few moments to adjust mentally. When I explain which costs are covered by our Ontario Health Insurance Plan and which ones aren’t – and then explain how fortunate we are compared to those living in other provinces or countries – the surprise extends. But it’s when we go out in public and I need to go through a door or check in at a doctor’s appointment or use a washroom or get over a curb or up several steps to enter the building that everyone wanted to go to that they really get confused or shocked by the level of structural barriers I face on a daily basis. The third thing you can do is to build friendships that are interabled so that you can develop an appreciation for the struggles we go through on a daily basis.
Finally, just like there is a lot of entrenched homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and racism in our culture, there is a lot of able-ism kicking around that we need to become mindful of. For example, when we ‘celebrate’ the triumph of a paralyzed man ‘standing’ (with the help of his friends) to dance with his wife at his wedding, we strongly suggest that standing is preferable to sitting. When we refuse to vaccinate our children from a deadly disease because of erroneous research that has fuelled concerns that vaccination causes autism we strongly suggest that it would be better to die than to have a disability. And when the autism community is willing to fight for therapeutic funding for their own children without making sure that that funding is also available for those with more rare or severe disabilities, then even within the disability community we are suggesting that some abilities are more valid than others. We have to take the time to examine our words and assumptions.
Ultimately, when we look at disability issues, we are forced to examine the question that undergirds all other activism: “What does it mean to be a human? What makes us valuable?” I am convinced that the perspectives of those living with disabilities is critical to addressing the systemic issues we face when it comes to racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny, because if our definition of humanity is big enough to encompass anyone born from a uterus – regardless of communication capacity, number of limbs, level of energy or anything else that might make us ‘different’ – than our definition of humanity is big enough to include all of us.
Are you interested in having a broader conversation about these issues? Would you like to include a disabled voice at your next conference or event? I’d love to connect more.