On disability and emotional labour

The endless cycle of planning activist events that exclude disabled people is in overdrive right now, as I watch march after march and action after action pointedly ignore disability in their organising and in their diversity statements — unless, of course, they’re disability actions led by disabled people. At this point I would be genuinely shocked to see a major ‘progressive’ event announced, go to the organising page, and see disability explicitly included. I’ve spent the last two months expressing repeated frustration with this pattern and feeling like I get no traction, and the responses to criticism are highlighting some serious issues with self-described social justice groups.

It starts with the gleeful announcement of an event. Disabled people go to check it out and find out that the event’s organisers have no information about accessibility, and that any diversity/values/mission/solidarity/whatever statement either doesn’t include disabled people, or includes us negatively, for example positioning us as burdens. We speak up. We get accused of being divisive. Maybe a nice nondisabled person ‘speaks for’ us and then they decide to pay attention. Then grudgingly people say that okay maybe they’re open to discussing the issue, and they dump the entire problem on us.

There’s a pattern of privileged activists making giant messes and leaving them for marginalised groups to clean up, paired with a sneer — if you want it so much, build it yourself. If it’s sooooo important to you to be included, you do the work. It genuinely doesn’t occur to people who think of themselves as social justice activists that diversity and inclusion means everyone, not just a subset of humanity, nor does it occur to them that disability is an extremely highly intersectional identity — because most disabled people are disabled and. Disabled and queer. Disabled and trans. Disabled and Black. Disabled and Muslim. Disabled and female. Disabled and Latinx. Disabled and…you get the point. If you have an event that you claim is targeting a specific group, say, women, you should include disabled people.

Your mission statement must include accessibility. Your website and organising materials must both be accessible and include information about accessibility. It is not our job to do this for you. It is your job to centre it as an important value and to prioritise getting it done. From the start. Not later. Now.

That means that when you are organising an event or getting a group together, disabled people should be part of your first line of outreach as you’re building committees and setting policy priorities. Don’t know any disabled people? Ask for references. Google. Reach out. Be explicit that you are working on an organisation or project that you want to be diverse and inclusive from the start, not as an afterthought. Treat your disabled team members as you would others, but consider issues that may hinder their participation if you don’t account for them.

Don’t hold meetings in inaccessible spaces. Consider transit and food stipends for people who may be giving up important time for you. Don’t assume that disabled people don’t have jobs, or that government benefits are sufficient to survive upon. Don’t assume that disabled people don’t have children or family responsibilities. Respect the fact that asking people for intellectual and emotional labour is work that should be respected across the board, but that for some disabled people, it comes with an added physical and emotional cost — maybe someone attends an organising meeting but then can’t get out of bed for two days. It is not special treatment to accommodate access needs. It is social justice praxis.

I’m so tired of seeing groups casually after the fact grudgingly admit that maybe they need help and then assuming that disabled people will be stoked to jump in and fix whatever mess they made. I’m tired of seeing disabled people expected to provide free labour, as though consulting on values statements and/or access needs doesn’t require specific lived experience and specialised skills and knowledge. If you would hire a graphic designer, or hire an event planner, or hire a consultant to help with permits, why wouldn’t you pay a disabled person to help you with event logistics? If people would volunteer for those things, why do you assume that you should get free labour from others? Because you think disability doesn’t matter? Because you think that if disabled people want to join so badly, they can figure it out themselves?

This attitude that disabled people should want to rush to do your bidding is disablist and exclusionary. First you leave us out, and then when you’re criticised publicly for long enough, you suggest that we should fix your problems for you, thanklessly. And you’re shocked when you reach out to us expecting support and we come back to comment that we can’t support organisations or events that don’t have a clear commitment to diversity and inclusion. You’ve proven that you don’t want us, so why do you think that we should help you?

There’s an easy fix to resolving criticism regarding disability exclusion. It starts with integrating disabled people into the planning from the very start, and explicitly recognising their intellectual labour with appropriate compensation. If you don’t want people to yell at you for being exclusionary, don’t be exclusionary. If people yell at you because you’re being exclusionary, fix it. Yourself. Not by putting the burden on them.

Image: Eric Hill, Flickr