Self-determination, Disability and Anti-Colonialism or Self-Determination as Disablism and Colonialism

I am going to spend a lot of this post critiquing the idea of bodily self-determination but this is not to say that I don’t think it is incredibly important – I do. I think this is the case both in a theoretical way and in a very grounded way. As a trans person who takes hormones and has had surgery my ability to direct what happens to my body is essential. As a survivor of sexual assault, I think it is absolutely vital that people’s bodily autonomy and consent always be respected. As a disabled person who has had care collectives to help me meet my basic needs, it has been crucial that I be able to direct my care while maintaining my own autonomy.

But I am also White and a settler living on unceded land. My first site of concern with respect to self-determination being embraced as a political ideal is that self-determination is being co-opted from Indigenous struggles. I am using the term Indigenous in an anti-colonial context and want to be clear that I am not saying that all Indigenous people or cultures are the same. Colonialism works, according to Kirmayer, Simpson and Car, to construct a “pan-Indian cultural identity rooted in a timeless mythic past.”1 In speaking about Indigenous people and struggles here, I do so with the understanding that there is profound diversity within and between Indigenous communities and nations. Consistently, however, within the context of Indigenous struggle, self-determination is a national determination – a collective determination not an individualistic one.

In many Indigenous world views, the individual is not a rugged self-made individual but emerges in and through community.2 Indeed, the notion of an independent individual self is a European concept that is being imposed around the world as part of a colonial-imperialist project. When people like me – white settlers – take up the language of self-determination it tends to be applied to a very different understanding of the self. Here, self-determination can be used to support neo-liberal notions of individualism and self-reliance. So, I am concerned with the co-optation of this radical idea in Indigenous communities and it being used in ways that work to undermine these movements and reinforce colonialism and capitalism.

When folks approach self-determination from a Western perspective, we define it as individualistic self management. Here, it is synonymous with independence and self-reliance. So, here we see the severance of community from self-determination. (Alternatively, it is defined as state determination, which is also a very different concept from Indigenous national self-determination).

However, interdependence is something that we really all do rely on to survive. Did you grow all of the food you ate today? Did you sew all the clothes you are wearing? One of the brilliant tricks of capitalism is that it erases interdependence and perpetuates this myth that we all need to be self-supporting individuals. It asserts that the systemic oppression that people face, particularly their poverty are the consequences of their own individual failings. Disabled people are depicted as being burdens, as being needy, when non-disabled people’s neediness is normalized and thus erased. The root of disabled people’s oppression is depicted as rooted in the individual – often at a genetic level and the social causes of our oppression are erased.3

Independent Living
Instead of unpacking this really problematic understanding of self-determination, many non-Indigenous disabled people identify it is the goal. One of the best examples of how liberal notions of self-determination get taken up in disability discourse is with respect to the independent living movement and attendant care. Independent living has led to some incredibly important changes in the lives of many disabled people and I want to be clear that I am not devaluing its significance or impact. However, it has also constructed this notion of independence through capitalist consumption.

Independent living focuses the notion of independence around self-determination rather than physical acts.4 This line of argument actively pits physically disabled people against people labelled with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities. Physically disabled activists assert that independence, which in a capitalist society is tantamount to their humanity, is located in the capacity to direct. Those who cannot direct – cannot assert self-determination in this way (so we are talking about large groups of people considered to not have ‘capacity’) are not independent, not self-determining, not as human. Here, self-determination is being used as a way to actively marginalize people and legitimize their domination in order for certain people to access privilege. This is what Dan Irving calls “scarcity of liberation”5 – the notion that we must fight amongst one another for legitimacy and liberation rather than recognize it as necessarily a collective project.

Also, attendant care is restricted to those who can afford it or the small number of people who are lucky enough to receive direct funding (or, in very rare circumstances those who are able to mobilize community resources through care collectives). In Ontario, in order to get direct funding, someone else has to leave the program – this, essentially means that someone has to die for you to get the care you need. Once applying, it takes 3-5 years just to get an interview to qualify for direct funding.6 This means that poor people who need attendant care frequently have to choose between being confined to an institution or going without their basic needs being met. This is appalling. Everyone should have the care that they need.7

At the same time, however, it is important to recognize that those people who are getting their attendant care needs met are doing so on the backs of primarily immigrant women of colour who are often overworked and underpaid without job security.8 These workers are often referred to, within many circles, as one’s “arms and legs.”9 Here, certain disabled people are able to obtain ‘self-determination’ but only through the continued domination of others.

For many disabled people, part of living independently means access to assisted sex – attendants that help people have the kind of sex they want to have. This is a fundamental care need for many folks and a need that should be met. But when attendants are simply defined as “arms and legs” and particularly when race, class, gender and sexual hierarchies are ignored self-determination clashes with consent. This discourse of self-determination is simply too simplistic and limiting to engage with the complex issues of consent, negotiation and mutual aid.

As an aside, the way that assisted sex intersects with sexuality means that in Canada, assisted sex is legal (although some would argue otherwise) but assisted anal sex is clearly illegal.10 Here, Canada’s regressive anti-sodomy laws that make it illegal to have anal sex in public – public is defined as more than 2 people. This puts men who have sex with men, queers and people who get caught up in labels of sexual deviancy at risk. This is just one small example why we cannot approach oppression through single-issue lenses. Historically, disabled people have often been caught in the net of anti-queer/anti-sodomy legislation. This is not coincidence. Indeed, disabled people are frequently denied self-determination around sexuality – either through the systematic desexualisation of (primarily physically) disabled people or its inverse – the depiction of (primarily, people labelled as intellectually or psychiatrically) disabled people – as over-sexed, out of control, dangerous, even perpetrators. From time to time, I think in misguided response to the theft of disabled people’s sexualities, some theorists claim that to be disabled is to be inherently queer. Lately, people have been circulating information about the LGBTQC community – the C is for crip (slang for disabled – usually implying physically disabled). This too, however, is a denial of the actual sexualities of disabled people. This puts many disabled people into a double bind in which queerness is imposed on us while, at the same time, widespread disablism excludes many disabled people from queer communities or being considered legitimately queer.

Absent from this call and response game is the reality that disabled people are sexually diverse. Disabled people are jockeyed in a competition for privilege and resources in which we are consistently established as the other – as apart from.

Instead of operating from a “scarcity of liberation” mentality, we need to work, following Harsha Wallia’s call, to shift to a mentality of abundance.11 Working from a heart-set of solidarity and recognition that all oppressions are interlocked, it is also essential that we ask who actually gets access to self-determination and at whose expense?

As a trans person who has had surgery, I have exercised my right to self-determination but the only way that I could do that – as a disabled person who has never hit the poverty line is because I work in a unionized workplace with a really radical union and I do that because I go to school. So, my whiteness and educational privilege were engaged in order for me to have surgery. If, like so many trans people, I didn’t have the money and couldn’t access the public system, if I didn’t have people to support me recover, if I didn’t have the ability to take time off work, if I didn’t have stable housing – and I could go on and on – I couldn’t have exercised self-determination.

Time and time again, when individual autonomy or choice gets employed, it is the people with the most privilege who are able to benefit from it. Let’s look at feminism and the pro-choice movement as an example.

As a bit of background, (white) feminism in the Global North is thought about in three waves. First wave feminism, which began in the late nineteenth century and encompassed the women’s suffrage movement, came out of new discourses emerging around gender as well as sexuality and race. This began, according to Lennard J. Davis (1995) as a result of the emergence of eugenics. Eugenics is the belief in the selective reproduction of ‘desirable’ people and began in the mid- nineteenth century. Queers, working class people, people of colour, women and the people that we still think of as disabled today were cast as feebleminded – as disabled.12 As middle-class white women were defined as disabled, privileged women chose to establish themselves as something other than disabled in order to build a successful rights movement in the era of eugenics. The early feminist movement not only established (certain) women as nondisabled, it also worked to reinforce oppression on the groups that they left behind: racialized, disabled, queer and working class people.13

Second wave feminism, which began in the 1960s, while no longer publicly advocating for eugenics, built much of its movement on the principles of equality and choice, primarily the choice to have an abortion. When the “pro-choice” movement emerged, it was (and too often still is) largely by and for middle-class, non-disabled white women.14 At the same time that the pro-choice movement was building momentum, in the early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of women, primarily women of colour and/or disabled women were sterilized without their consent in Canada and the United States.15 Angela Davis writes: 

During the early abortion rights campaign, it was too frequently assumed that legal abortions provided a viable alternative to the myriad problems posed by poverty. As if having fewer children could create more jobs, higher wages, better schools, etc.16

Reproductive justice, on the other hand, works (at least in theory) for people not only have access to abortion services – which are essential, but also for access to reproductive healthcare in general. It challenges the denial, repression and/or exotification of disabled women and/or women of colour’s sexualities. It also means working to eliminate poverty – which restricts reproductive freedom on a very material level. True choice does not always exist where one knows that there might not be enough food for the child. Reproductive justice also means working to eliminate the mass incarceration of men of colour which keeps families from forming and tears them apart – one of the many ways that eugenics operates today. And ultimately reproductive justice means the undoing of all systems domination and oppression.

Unfortunately, however, reproductive justice doesn’t actually look like this (yet). Feminists who advocate for reproductive justice have not expressed outrage over the continued denial of the access to reproductive health care – including access to abortion and the eugenic pressures on disabled women not to have children. For many women, freedom of reproductive choice is also threatened by the prevalence of pre-natal testing and the lack of information surrounding the results. Pre-natal screening is a widespread modern medical practice used to test fetuses for potential disabilities and diseases. This is done so the fetus can be aborted if the perspective mother cannot or does not want to carry or raise a disabled child. However, the absence of accurate information surrounding disability, the inadequacy of support for families with disabled children and societal contempt for disabled people create a discrete eugenics program rather than greater opportunity for choice.17 Pre-natal testing and the question of choice forces one to question which disabilities or conditions should be considered for testing and what criteria should be used for that determination. For instance, should fetuses with cleft palate or who should be pigeon toed be aborted? Should genetic tests be developed to eliminate these conditions? There have been proposals to use IVF sex selection to eliminate the possibility of carriers of X-linked genetic diseases. Feminist author Patricia Spallone points out that this proposal “is a most presumptuous eugenic tactic, defining us as fit to live according to our reproductive capacity and quality of our genes.”18 To be clear, however, her objection is about the sexist implications of this test, not the disablist ones.

In “Eugenics and Reproductive Choice” Lisa Blumberg states that “too often counselors do little more than provide future parents with a dreary laundry list of problems their child could have and express sympathy.”19 Prenatal screening cannot provide information regarding the severity of a medical condition, only that the fetus has a disease – that the fetus is disabled. Further, Abortion rates are incredibly high following a prenatal diagnosis (often 80-95%).20 In a disablist society, choice or self-determination is an illusion when it operates in the context of pre-natal testing.

Moving Forward
Shifting the discourse from choice or self-determination (in a European sense) to justice shifts the focus from the people with the most privilege to those with the least – shifting the focus from what Dean Spade calls “trickle down equality” to “bottom-up justice.”21

Outside of Indigenous struggles, if self-determination is taken up, it must be taken up within a justice framework (including supporting anti-colonial struggles) and at both the community and individual levels. The choice is ours: take up self-determination in liberal individualistic ways that actively work to perpetuate the oppression of many or to take it up in transformative and radical ways in which self-determination is an important component of social justice. Without a justice frame, the idea of self-determination can be dangerous and oppressive. For instance, the Quebec government has used self-determination discourse to justify its racist, anti-Semetic and Islamophobic Charter while denying the self-determination claims of Indigenous people.

I want to conclude by suggesting 5 practical ways that self-determination can be taken up in justice contexts that we can work towards. These are just examples, there are so many things that we can all do.

  1. On the level of discourse – challenge the way that self-determination and independence are produced and work towards supporting interdependence, mutual aid, collectivity and anti-colonialism.
  2. Work together to replace the capitalist values that are deeply embedded within activist communities with cultures of care in which everyone is viewed as making important contributions and intrinsically valuable. On a practical level, this means reconfiguring leadership not around work product but around lived experience and attributing meaningful value to things like compassion, dedication, and emotional labour – things that are, not coincidentally, also more typically associated with women and femininity.
  3. Ask for help. Disabled or not, we all need help with stuff sometimes. We all have hard times. Asking for help makes it easier for other people to ask for help and shows that you understand that none of us are rugged individuals. As long we structure help as nondisabled and helped as disabled we are reinforcing problematic divisions that depict disabled people as excessively needy and nondisabled people as independent.
  4. Appreciate and celebrate disabled people’s sexualities. Begin by deconstructing the ways that you have been taught to find normative (white, cis, thin, non-disabled) people attractive. This may also include asking us out on dates and it definitely includes building safe and accessible community spaces.
  5. Develop a complex relationship with solidarity. Come to it not through guilt but through love, respect and an understanding of its necessity while recognizing that the notion that there is an ‘other’ we need to support is deeply problematic.22 Because oppressions are interlocked, so too are our fates.

We succeed or we fail together. So let’s make the decision to win. Let’s fight to win and let’s fight until we win.

Notes:

1. Kirmayer, L., Simpson, C., & Car, M. (2003). Healing traditions: Culture, community and mental health promotion with Canadian aboriginal peoples. Australasian Psychiatry, 11(Supplement 1), s15-s23, p. s19.
2.
Baskin, C. (2011). Strong Helpers’ Teachings: The Value of Indigenous Knowledges in the Helping Professions. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

3. For more on interdependence, see my book Disability Politics and Theory.

4. Kelly, Christine. (2012). Re/Moving care: Making care accessible through the Ontario Direct Funding program. Carleton University, Ottawa.

5. Irving, D. (2005). Contested terrain of a barely  scratched surface: Exploring the formation of alliances between trans  activists and labor, feminist and gay and lesbian organizing. York University.

6. ARCH Disability Law Centre. (2013). Attendant Services: Fact Sheet #2: Direct Funding. Toronto.

7. I want to also point out that in independent living discourse purposely doesn’t use the word ‘care’ (see Kelly, at note 4). However, I and many others intentionally use the term (see Kelly, or of particular interest to me: Erickson, L. (2008). Hot & bothered. Shameless. (Winter/Spring), 21-23; Erickson, L. (2007). Revealing femmegimp: A sex-positive reflection on sites of shame as sites of resistance for people with disabilities. Atlantis, 32(2), 42-52).

8.Cranford, Cynthia J. (2005). From Precarious Workers to Unionized Employees and Back Again?: The Challenges of Organizing Personal-Care Workers in Ontario. In Cranford, Cynthia J., Fudge, Judy, Tucker, Eric, & Vosko, Leah (Eds.), Self-Employed Workers Organize: Law, Unions and Policy (pp. 96–135). Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

9. Kelly, (see note 4, p. 105) however, points out that the word care is intentionally removed from independent living discourse. However, I use it with political intention. See also:Erickson, L. (2007). Revealing  femmegimp: A sex-positive reflection on sites of shame as sites of resistance for people with disabilities. Atlantis, 32(2), 42-52.

10. Criminal Code (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46), S. 159.

11. Irving, D. (2005). Contested terrain of a barely scratched surface: Exploring the formation of alliances between trans activists and labor, feminist and gay and lesbian organizing. York University, unpublished PhD dissertation.

12. Davis, L. J. (1995). Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body. New York: Verso.

13. Withers, A.J. (2012) Disability Politics and Theory. Black Point: Fernwood.

14. Davis, Angela. (2003). Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights. In R. Lewis & S. Mills (Eds.), Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Routledge

15. Ibid; Withers, A.J. (2012) Disability Politics and Theory. Black Point: Fernwood.

16. Davis, Angela. (2003). Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights. In R. Lewis & S. Mills (Eds.), Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. New York: Routledge, p. 355.

17. Withers, A.J. (2012) Disability Politics and Theory. Black Point: Fernwood.

18. Spallone, Patricia. (1989). Beyond Conception: The New Politics of Reproduction. Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, p. 145.

19. Blumberg, Lisa. (1994). Eugenics vs. Reproductive Choice. In Shaw, Barrett (Ed.), The Ragged Edge: The Disability Experience from the Pages of the First Fifteen Years of the Disability Rag (pp. 228–239). Louisville: The Avocado Press.

20. Withers, A.J. (2012) Disability Politics and Theory. Black Point: Fernwood.

21. Spade, D. (2011). Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law. Brooklyn: South End Press.

22. For more on this, see Walia, H. (2013). Undoing Border Imperialism. Oakland: AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies.

Invisible Austerity: How the Liberals are Getting Away with Slashing Social Assistance

I lived on social assistance – first welfare and then ODSP (‘disability’) for many years. I have also been organizing and doing casework with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty for a long time. I was recently training some folks who were just starting to do casework and I wrote down the key benefits that they needed to know because they were relatively quick and easy ways to get people’s cheques increased – or at least they used to be. In looking at the list, however, I recognized a pattern of what I am calling invisible austerity. Austerity is the government program of reducing budget deficits – usually this means through cuts in spending. The Liberal government works to create the appearance that it isn’t targeting poor people but the reality on the ground is that poor people’s lives are way worse now than they were before they came to power.

There was widespread outrage amongst the Left over the substantial cuts that Mike Harris’s Tory government implemented in the 1990s. These cuts were dramatic, massive and very much a part of public conversation. Since that time, we have had two different Liberal Premiers – Dalton McGuinty who campaigned under the slogan “Choose Change” and Kathleen Wynne who fancies herself as “The Social Justice Premier.” But the reality is that the Liberals have been neither a change nor just. Indeed, they have solidified Conservative austerity measures and quietly made things worse. I am going to outline a few key ways that they have gone about this, the implications for disabled people and what we can do about it.

Before I do that though, I want to just quickly explain why I have to talk about welfare, or Ontario Works (OW) when I am talking about disability and social assistance. Lots of people on welfare are disabled. Roughly 70% of people who get ODSP were on welfare while they waited.1 Further, many people on Ontario Works are newly disabled, considered to be temporarily disabled or simply would never qualify for ODSP but can’t get a job because of systemic disablism. The restrictive definition of disability in ODSP leaves most disabled people out – including those who can’t work within the economy as it is.

There are a number of changes that the Liberals have made to social assistance – both OW and ODSP – that seem minor but have major implications in poor people’s lives.

The first is the Liberal government’s refusal to raise social assistance rates with inflation. They have raised rates 1-3% a year, generally below the rate of inflation. So if you already have shamefully low incomes for people and costs keep getting higher, poor people are actually losing more. Welfare rates were cut 21.6% in 1995 but since then people on both welfare and ODSP have lost much more. Indeed we need a raise of 55% to put welfare rates back at 1995 levels. The 21.6% – one fifth of people’s cheques was the austerity and the other 33.4% is what Hackworth calls “the shadow of austerity.”2 The shadow of austerity in Ontario is a very long one and grows every day. Effectively, people on social assistance have received an additional cut to their rates almost every year that the Liberals have been in power.

What seem like minor and confusing changes to benefits for most people are, in reality, massive slashing of programs. For example, the special diet was a little known benefit until OCAP began publicizing it in 2005. Lots of people started accessing this benefit that they were legally entitled to so, in response, the Liberals made it more difficult to get. They brought in a ridiculous rule that you had to use a special form that was designed to slow down the process for people. Then they changed the benefit from being needs based (like you need an organic diet or you need iron supplements) to being condition based (so if you have diabetes you get a set amount). Under the new scheme, if you had cancer or AIDS and had lost more than 10% of your body weight you still wouldn’t get the maximum amount of $250 a month – you had to have an additional condition to get it. It meant that lots of people who had dietary needs but not conditions listed couldn’t access the money they needed for food. For example, someone I worked with had an intellectual disability and couldn’t cook – he lost his special diet and started going hungry because he couldn’t afford to buy cooked meals anymore. Lots of people gave up. Some people lost their housing or got sick. Some people were successful in navigating the long appeals process for discrimination on the grounds of disability.

To give you an example of the scale of the special diet, before OCAP and its allies started publicizing it and working with medical providers to help people access it, about $6 million was going to people for this benefit. By 2010, it had gone up to $200 million.3 With poor people being a little better off in the province and with fewer people on social assistance having to choose between eating healthy and making rent, the Liberals announced they were going to terminate the program. We fought to keep it and won but the special diet remains a shadow of its former self although to the average person it looks no different which makes it a form of invisible austerity.

The Liberals recently eliminated the Community Start-Up Benefit which gave people on social assistance money to move or get essential furniture. This was money that women used to flee domestic violence that people were able to keep their housing with to make up arrears and that people used to replace what was lost because of floods, fires or bed bugs. The discourse was one not of a cut, simply replacing this program with a municipally administered one that could be used for any poor person, not just someone on social assistance. The reality is that many municipalities don’t have any replacement program at all. In Toronto, where we do have a program, it is only available to people on social assistance anyways and is much more difficult for people to access and is much more restricted in terms of what it is available for. This program shift is actually a form of invisible austerity and it means that people are less likely to leave a bad situation and less likely to have the basic things they need.

The new administration also means that there is a finite fund for people to draw from. Before, if you needed the money and you qualified you got it. Now if you need the money and you qualify for it you might get it and even if they would give it to you if the fund is exhausted, you have no chance of getting the money. In Toronto, people found that the bureaucratic bumbling of the fund made it really difficult to get so a lot of people were being denied. The City cut the fund because it wasn’t being used. This puts people on social assistance into the position where they are actively competing against each other for limited funds. This is a shameful and draconian approach to welfare provision.

Transportation is another benefit that has been hit by invisible austerity. It used to be quite easy for people on social assistance to volunteer and get an extra $100 a month for transportation. However, the pesky issue of inflation has meant that metro passes have gotten more and more expensive but transportation money has not increased. So, now a Metropass costs $133.75 – people on social assistance have to make up the difference. This difference is 14% of the basic needs amount that a single person on Ontario Works receives. This money has also been increasingly difficult to get, especially for people on ODSP who now have to show that their volunteering could lead to paid work and it is difficult for many people to get it for more than 6 months.

There is also a major attack on ODSP recipients taking place right now. Many people are not granted ODSP permanently but given a time period, usually 2-5 years before they are reassessed. Lots people’s reviews were not done when their time came up and the government is trying to eliminate 60,000 current and backlogged cases. By next April, the Liberals hope to be doing 1,900 reviews a month.4 This is not an innocent bureaucratic measure – it is a purposeful attempt to cut people off of ODSP and save money on the backs of disabled people in Ontario. The review package is almost identical to the original application – which takes a lot of work to complete and has to be filled out by an approved medical professional. People only have 90 days to go through this process – meet their doctor multiple times, meet with specialists fill out their personal statements, etc. Having gone through the ODSP application process, I can attest to the incredible amount of work that it takes. When people apply they generally know it is coming and are ready to go through the process – they’ve seen a number of specialists and have the reports and have discussed it with their doctors. But this reapplication review process comes out of nowhere and many people aren’t prepared for it. Some people will have lost their doctors and won’t even be able to find a new one before the deadline. Some people simply won’t be able to fill out the forms – they may be in crisis or not understand the process or be able to read or be able to leave their home to go to the many doctors’ appointments they will need or they may be homeless and not get the letter or their doctors may be too busy to fill the forms out. Some people will get this letter and it will put them into crisis. People used to get a phone call from a worker in addition to the letter – this way they could ask questions and be sure they understood the process but the Provinces eliminated this so called duplication.

Currently, about 20% of people are not found to still be disabled by ODSP’s Disability Adjudication Unit which means that 12,000 people will be cut-off. Some of these people will successfully appeal but we don’t know how many. The most recent stats available, though, say that 54% of appeals of the finding of not being disabled are granted, 41% of them are denied, including the 12% of people who lose their appeal because they don’t show up.6 Indeed, the system is one of which the Income Security Advocacy Centre has called “Denial by Design.” The government knows that some of the people will give up and not appeal so having a high denial rate means financial savings.

The last available statistics from the Social Benefits tribunal that hears appeals was that it took nearly 10 months, on average, to make a decision.6 This means that thousands of people will be in limbo for nearly a year to find out if they will lose their ODSP. Here again, what seems like the functioning of the social assistance apparatus is, effectively, a form of invisible austerity – one that is designed to cut people off of ODSP. In OCAP, we are deeply concerned that the province will attempt to ramp up reviews or work to do a massive reassessment of people (like they tried in B.C.) if they are successful in this.

When ODSP was proposed by Mike Harris, a number of people spoke out against it. One person said that “A major problem with everyone we have spoken to lies in the definition of “disability.” It is a fact that 90% of people with disabilities are considered to be mild to moderately disabled. With the definition of “disability” we are given in the present bill, the system appears to be designed to cut out the majority of those now considered disabled.” He also warned that “Under the Ontario Disability Support Program, the appeals process is seriously compromised. The nature of the information required, the time lines that must be adhered to and the options that are available for appeal seriously undermine the effectiveness and fairness of the appeal process…. Given the nature of the disabilities of many vulnerable people, these provisions are unnecessarily punitive.”7 This wasn’t an anti-poverty activist, it was Gilles Morin an MPPs speaking on behalf of the Liberal party.

The Liberals know that who is considered disabled is overly limited, that the appeals process is punitive and that the system is designed to keep people off of ODSP, not help people onto it. That is one of the reasons why they claimed to be against implementing ODSP in the first place. Now they are using it to cut some of the poorest people in the province off of their tiny incomes in order to continue an austerity plan that only benefits the rich. Indeed, Pupatello, who became the Minister responsible for social assistance, acknowledged that “Not one of us could probably safely live on welfare.”8

While the Liberals celebrate themselves for raising social assistance – which, again, still equates to a cut – they seem to also intend to cut every adult who lives with another adult’s cheques by 14%.9 The rationale is that they share costs so they should get less. The reality however, is that rates aren’t high enough. A single person on welfare gets $626 a month and a single person on ODSP gets $1,086 but the average bachelor apartment in Toronto is $873.10 This leaves someone on OW on the street and someone on ODSP with just over $200 a month. A single parent with two young children will have just over $300 after rent. A 14% cut would be devastating to most people on social assistance.

There has been a consistent and concerted concealed attack on social assistance recipients in Ontario under the Liberal government. Why haven’t more people fought back – especially when poor people were being attacked under Harris the Left was united against those attacks. I think there are two key reasons for this. The first is that the Liberals employ this notion of constructive engagement – the appearance that they are approachable and will listen to us. But while segments on the Left talk with them they are fucking us over. The second reason is deeply related – certain sectors of the Province are much safer under the Liberals than the Tories. The Liberals were never going to lay 100,000 people off, for example. So, people take small concessions from the Liberals and don’t fight them – essentially selling out the most vulnerable to be less insecure. Rather try and slow the rate of austerity, we think that it needs to be stopped and that, if we are united, we can stop it.

What I have described probably seems really grim. It is grim. People are losing their homes or forced to stay on the street because of austerity. People are going hungry. People are getting sick. People are dying.

While I intimately understand the direness of the situation, I want to be very clear that I have hope. My Hope comes from knowing that the Liberals tried to eliminate the Special Diet benefit entirely and failed because poor people in this province and our allies fought back. While they were successful in eliminating the Community Start-Up, collective resistance forced them to put $42 million back into the new benefit. And, the Liberals wanted to eliminate ODSP and make the vast majority of disabled people go onto welfare and our fight against that forced them to backtrack. I know that we can win what we need but I also know that it will be a fight.

We need you in it. We need you to come out to the Raise the Rates week of Action events in your town. Share this post and talk to people you know about this issue. For more information visit raisetherates.ca or ocap.ca. When I say it will be a fight, I mean it. We have to give it all we have, we have to fight back together and we have to fight to win.

Footnotes

1. Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. ( 2012). Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. 

2. Hackworth, J. (2009). Political marginalization, misguided nationalism and the destruction of Canada’s social housing systems. In S. Glynn (Ed.) Where the other half lives: Lower income housing in and neo-liberal world (pp. 257-277). London: Pluto Press.

3. Clarke, J. (2010). Who Pays for the Crisis?: The ‘Special Diet’ Cut – An Injury to One… The Bullet. No. 343.

4. Based on conversations with government officials.

5. ISAC. (2003). Denial By Design…The Ontario Disability Support Program.

6. Social Benefits Tribunal. (2010). 2010 Annual Report. 6% are “other”

7. Ontario Hansard, September 2, 1997

8. OCAP. (2005). ‘Scripts for food’ cooks up controversy.

9. Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario. ( 2012). Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. 

10. Settlement.org. (2013). How much does it cost to rent an apartment in Ontario?

Uniting Against Social Injustice

My speech at the Psychiatry Disrupted: Theorizing Resistance and Crafting the (R)evolution book launch.

My chapter is “Disability, Definitions, and Disablism: When Resisting Psychiatry is Oppressive.” I am disabled, queer and trans. I am calling on people involved in the consumer/survivor/ex-patient/anti-psychiatry movement(s) to actively support disability movements and adopt anti-oppressive practices and discourses. While I focus on issues of disablism, I think it’s essential for this and all social justice movements to also combat white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, cisism, colonialism and capitalism.

I also want to be clear about what I am talking about when I talk about disability. Disability, like race and gender is a social construct – it is a political category that is imposed on people deemed deviant, abnormal, and/or un- or under-productive. While it is a social construct, disablism has real consequences.

Firstly, these movements often use disablist language. For instance, they describe psychiatric drugs or ECT as “brain-disabling,”1 “crippling”2 and they “disable and disempower through their unique and disabling effects.”3 Disability is considered entirely bad and in need of prevention. I would also argue that regardless of the authors’ intentions, the concept of disability and disabled people are inseparable.

People tend to use disability as a stand in for harm. But, I would implore people to address the harm rather than devaluing a marginalized group. For example, the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza have led to over 2,000 deaths and 11,000 Palestinian people being injured.4 Many of these people will be categorized or categorizable as disabled. An anti-oppressive social justice practice would require us to address the harm including the bombing of schools and apartment buildings and the ongoing apartheid system – not denigrating disabled Palestinians. The tragedy of Gaza isn’t the surviving disabled lives, it is the violence, murder and depravation.

There is also a tendency within these movements to argue that psychiatrized people are not disabled. Underlying this argument is often the sentiment that there is ‘nothing wrong’ with mad, crazy or psyciatrized people. But the implications of this assertion are that there is something wrong with disabled people. This belief reinforces problematic depictions of disabled people as flawed rather than understanding disability as an imposed identity. Indeed, many people in these movements regard psychiatric diagnoses as social constructs but fail to consider medicine itself as a social construct. This is especially troubling with regard to intellectual disability which is also classified within the DSM but many people in these movements distance themselves from and reinforce the oppression of this community.

The argument that disability is permanent and psychiatrized people can recover or become survivors also indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of disability and disabled people. Individuals move into and out of disability and definitions of disability have changed over time, depending on the needs of power.

Some people reject the categorization of disability because they don’t want an ‘additional’ stigma. This argument, however, does not represent a misunderstanding of disability inasmuch as it does a misunderstanding of stigma and privilege. Choosing to identify in a particular way is often irrelevant to how one is identified and, therefore, stigmatized by others.

Fighting among ourselves about who should get what stigma, about what kinds of medicalization are legitimate or about what kind of abnormal is okay is a waste of time. This is a practice that works to divide us rather than unite us. And, if we view it as a legitimate practice, is there any point when groups should stop dividing in pursuit of privilege? In the book I trace through how the mainstream gay rights movement worked to divide itself out from the category of mentally ill, reinforcing the stigma and oppression of those it left behind. This practice is an active one within the trans community right now. Max Zachs, the person who started the We are Trans* Not Sick petition to get being trans declassified as a disease which has more than 85,000 signatures, demonstrates this. He says “The whole point is we are perfectly healthy, there is nothing wrong with us, and we don’t need to be treated like nutters or pitied as physically afflicted.”5 So, for Zachs, the oppression that mad people and physically disabled people experience is okay but trans people should not be subjected to it.

I am arguing that psychiatrized and mad people are disabled not because there is something wrong with them but because it is a category imposed on us. But even if you reject that, you cannot reject that many psychiatrized people are otherwise disabled just like many queer or trans people are also mad or physically or intellectually disabled. Selling out these communities also means selling out your community. Social justice takes action so let’s fight together and fight win.


Footnotes

1. Dr. Peter Breggin uses this term a lot. For example: Breggin, P. (2008). Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry.
2. Mindfreedom Virginia. (2012). “What’s needed to improve mental health recovery rates?”
3. McCubbin, M., Weitz, D., Spindel, P., Cohen, D., Dallaire, B. & Morin, D. (2001). “Submissions for the President’s Consultation Regarding Community Mental Health Services,” Radical Psychology.
4. Palestine Chronicle. (2014, September 9). “Palestinian Girl, 5, Dies of Injuries Sustained in Gaza War. For more on this see my post about Gaza.
5. Morse, P. (2012) “‘Transgender People Aren’t Mentally Ill': World Health Organsation Urged To Change Classification.” Huffington Post UK.