Disability: Always Left Off the List

Some social justice movements finally seem to be catching on to the notion of intersectionality and the importance of acknowledging the complexity of oppressive institutional and social structures (others always did…more simply refuse to take notice of anything outside their own bubble). That means more and more ‘solidarity laundry list’-type publications in which such organizations make catchy posters, graphics, and brochures to demonstrate how committed they are to intersectionality and working with many groups across different kinds of oppressions and communities. Such documents are intended to serve as situational placeholders in society, giving people added reasons to support such groups — see, they’re acknowledging you now too!

I always look at these proud performative presentations of solidarity with some trepidation when they come across my desk. Ah yes, I see, it’s a gay rights group wanting to show its support across other marginalized social groups. It acknowledges race, and class, national origin, faith, transgender issues…the list goes on and on, becoming ever more creative, starting to feel like a Pokemon game, must catch them all. But there’s one thing that doesn’t appear, that I’ve learned through sinking heart after sinking heart almost never appears: Disability.

In the laundry list, the list of -isms, the discussion of all the different ways that people are oppressed, disability is never acknowledged. It’s not just the feminists that do this, but other groups as well, including those the disability movement has worked in solidarity with in the past. On disability, there is a great silence, a stillness, a blankness, a nothing. A void. Disability, it seems, has no intersections, no connections with minority identities, and there is no reason or need to express solidarity with disabled people. When someone brings it up, that person is made out to be That Person, ruining the fun: ‘Well, they’re trying.’ ‘Why do you always have to bring down discussions by nitpicking.’ ‘You should be happy they’re making some kind of progress.’

The list goes on. It always goes on. There’s always a reason to refuse to hold groups accountable for their decision not to acknowledge disability, and it is a decision. You don’t ‘overlook’ a huge marginalised social group that’s incredibly vocal and active in protest movements. You choose to turn away from them. You choose to ignore the roughly 20% of the population that identifies as disabled, including those with permanent impairments as well as temporary conditions. You choose to ignore those who interact with disability in their daily lives, even if they themselves are not disabled.

You choose to ignore the fact that disability plays a huge role in poverty, that a key factor for living below the poverty line is disability, that a huge percentage of the unemployed population is disabled. You choose to ignore the fact that race is a tremendous factor in how disabled people are treated, that people of colour, especially women, are denied needed treatments and experience more complications, including death, as a result. You ignore the fact that disability is gendered, that chronic pain conditions and other chronic illnesses are more common among women, and also undertreated and consistently treated as unimportant. You ignore, too, the fears LGBQT disabled people face when dealing with the medical system, when seeking aides, when trying to live independently. You consciously choose not to think about the intersections between faith and disability, like the fact that many disabled people have difficulty finding an accessible place of worship where they are welcomed as a full member of the congregation.

You ignore disability, even though it is all around you, and in so doing, you remind disabled people that they have a lower status in society. That, even among social justice movements, they are secondary to ‘real people,’ and aren’t as deserving of solidarity, support, and respect as others — there’s no need to express solidarity with disabled people, no need to incorporate them into social justice movements and advocacy work. Your media don’t have to be accessible, and neither do your marches, your venues, your communications.

To admit that disability is a social justice issue is to confront the fact that social justice movements have a huge disability problem. Disabled people challenge our lack of inclusion not because we want you to add another ticky box to your performative list of concerns, but because we want you to genuinely consider disability issues, and think about their role in larger social justice movements. Putting out a nice little list or poster or other publication is nice, but it means nothing without a supportive backing, and this is what disabled people are asking for — for the social justice community to turn around and look at us, to sit down with us, to listen to us.

When we ask why disability has been left off the laundry list, it’s not a game of gotcha, it’s not a bitter cripple refrain, it’s not a suggestion for yet another way you can make yourself stand out as a progressive organisation. It’s a genuine question: Why doesn’t disability matter to you? Why is disability an afterthought? Where are disabled people, in this vision you have of a changed world and a place in which everyone has an opportunity to thrive and contribute something to society on their own terms? Where is disability? What does disability mean to you?

If these are uncomfortable questions, they should be — and you should also ask yourself why, after over 100 years of disability activism, these questions still need to be asked.

Image: Wheelchair Racers, Peter Miller, Flickr