I want to start by acknowledging that we are on Indigenous land. I am doing this out of respect, with the understanding social justice can never be achieved without redressing the injustices of colonialism and also because First Nations people are disproportionately disabled both as a consequence of colonialism historically and as a part of the ongoing colonial process.
I also want to start off by expressing my thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and speakers. And to take a second to thank everyone who helped with this book, many of whom are here tonight. Thank you.
Further, I want acknowledge that I have a tremendous amount privilege. And because I am disabled and otherwise marginalized, it doesn’t alleviate me from my responsibility to work against all oppressions. This isn’t to say they are separate and apart from disability issues because they aren’t – oppressions do not come in discrete containers, they interlock and impact upon each other in a variety of ways.
Disabled people protest austerity in Greece.
I want to be clear about my motives in this post. I am going to be giving examples of some of the things that have occurred recently in this city and I am not doing this as a form of personal attack or out of sectarianism. I want to also be clear that I am speaking only for myself. I am doing so with the hopes that people can learn and make corrections to their behaviours which myself and others experience to be oppressive and because I am committed to these movements and to making them stronger, not out of liberal notions of political correctness but out of the desire for meaningful and lasting victory.
I am going to start with 5 examples of what I find to be problematic and disablist rhetoric – either insidious or overt.
Following the G20 protests in Toronto, one activist wrote: “While the promotion of disability rights may be commendable, having people in wheel-chairs or other physical limitations at the front effectively limited the mobility of the protest. There was no way it could move fast enough to by-pas police lines.”
At that same demonstration a protestor told me “you shouldn’t be here” as I walked with my cane and asked her to slow down and respect the pace of the march.
At a protest against Rob Ford’s planned city cuts hundreds of people carried “stop the crazy train” placards while others attack him for being fat.
At a Toronto Casserole demonstration organizers were attempting to get the march to briefly return to the park to allow physically disabled people, people with children and whoever else wanted to to leave as a group. This was met with a great deal of resistance, with one man saying “there are enough honorable men here to protect the children and the weak” (I want to note that he has since apologized for this comment).
An organization that was involved in this anti-accessibility dispute wrote: “anti-oppression and ‘safe-space’ are deployed in the ‘movement’ to sometimes obscure another political perspective and action” after being critiqued for its members’ sexism and refusal to permit existing accessibility plans to be followed through on.
At a protest attempting to shut down a climate and economic summit involving a of number corporate and government elite, the march broke in half and the back half (of course, containing most of the slow walkers) was told to run up the street. It seemed like the running part was unnecessary for the circumstances but even if it was, it could have been easily communicated to the crowd so those of us who couldn’t run on that day weren’t stranded in the street and yelled at to “run!” and “hurry up!” The demo also went up sidewalks without curb cuts twice. When talking it over with one of the organizers, I learned that an organizer said at a meeting that they decided not to make the demo accessible (ie. that organizer made a choice to be actively disablist). This was particularly disheartening because I have worked with this group for years and they had built up a culture of accessibility which they chose to discard.
I could give many many more examples but instead, I want to talk about how we can create change. I am going address this anti-anti-oppression trend, which, sadly isn’t new but seems to be having a resurgence. I am going to do so through disability not because I think it is more important than anything else but because it has been ignored by social justice movements – with some important exceptions.
But first, who is disabled?
There is no fixed definition of disability, it has shifted over time, through contexts and between cultures. Those of us considered to be disabled are generally constructed as un- or under-productive within the capitalist economic system and are disproportionately also marginalized in other ways. This is because of oppressive diagnostic systems which have a tendency to label marginalized people as defective and because of war and poverty which disproportionately impact marginalized people – especially people in the Global South.
Why is disability important to take up in social justice movements?
Here are some broad key reasons:
- because disabled people are oppressed and if we want to root out injustice and oppression we cannot at best ignore, and at worst reinforce, this oppression.
- The current classifications of disability were created with the implementation of industrialization and the consolidation of capitalism. Disabled people are considered disabled because we are deemed to be under or unproductive. Disablism is woven throughout the history of capitalism and capitalism cannot be undone without undoing disablism.
- Disabled people are a part of every community and we cannot win justice for a community without winning it for its disabled members.
So, it is important to build movements that are inclusive of disabled people, not on superficial or tokenistic grounds. It is unacceptable to leave people out of the equation and, inevitably, reinforce the oppression of others as you win justice for some.
Disabled protestors in Bolivia fighting cops after a 1,000 mile march demanding guaranteed income.
The question is, what kind of social justice do you want and who is it for?
These days, a lot of people are talking about prefigurative organizing. Prefigurative just means that we pre figure the world we want to live in. In these politics, the ends justifies the means is an unacceptable approach; rather, the means can become ends in themselves. I am critical of a lot of the ways that this politic gets used (for another post) but one thing that it has really gotten me thinking about is what kind of world I want to live in and what my organizing in the present says about that world. One easy thing is that if you are a complete asshole, it doesn’t matter how good your politics are – you are alienating people and not helping to make things better (so even if you are right, you are wrong).
Thinking prefiguratively means asking ourselves do we want to live in and fight for a world in which disabled people are excluded, humiliated, put in harm’s way, erased and oppressed? If the answer is “yes” and you have organized something like one of the demos I discussed above – you are good (to be clear, not with me – I have a beef with you and you are totally wrong but you don’t need to think about it anymore from your perspective). But if the answer is “no” (and, really, you can’t legitimately claim to be fighting for social justice and say anything other than “no”) you need to think about accessibility.
One of the ways that I think we can address inclusion is with radical accessibility. Radical accessibility means many things, not just ramps and lifts – things that should, of course always be in place. Radical access also means thinking about interlocked oppressions. It doesn’t matter if an event has a ramp at the door but costs $5 to get in, or, if someone cannot afford transit to get there, that event isn’t accessible. If the event is racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or otherwise oppressive, it isn’t accessible to many disabled people. Access doesn’t begin at the front door. Radical access is about thinking about the world we want to live in, not just for ‘them’ the other who we are bestowing inclusion upon – but for us, all of us. We all have something to offer and we all benefit from having diverse, accepting and accessible communities. Radical access also means that accessibility and disability aren’t an afterthought; rather, they are deemed to be important and desirable at each step of the way.
Radical access is a form of inclusion that is very different from the idea of libertarian inclusion that ensures the active exclusion of many marginalized people. It also involves the active and ongoing negotiation of real people’s needs and the acknowledgment of the fact that we are all interdependent. Disabled or not, you probably didn’t grow all of the food you ate today. Our society is constructed to normalize certain dependencies but certain kinds of needs (help getting out of bed, personalized learning plans or ASL interpretation, for example) are considered excessive. I think that this is a real problem and it has negative implications for all of us – at some point in our lives we may not access the help we need because we feel like a burden and that is not the world that I want to live in.
What does all of this have to do with the examples I gave earlier?
They all promote the idea that anti-oppression, at least for some people is excessive, unimportant or burdensome. They overtly or covertly assert that disabled people, at least certain disabled people shouldn’t be in protest spaces.
This perspective erroneously sets disability issues and disabled people as separate and apart from “the movement.” This also mistakenly presents disabled bodies as being incapable of militancy. This shows a tremendous amount of ignorance about both disabled bodies and about disability history. In a quote above, the critic of an inclusive demo says that wheelchairs slowed down the demonstration. In actual fact, electronic wheelchairs can go really fast, while limited by curb cuts, it would be people like him, a non-disabled person, who slowed the march down.
Wheelchair users lead Raise the Rates demo, leaving the rest behind.
Disabled people have marched, locked down, occupied and fought back. For example, in San Francisco in 1977 disabled activists occupied a federal building for 25 days, not leaving until they won what they were demanding. This was a huge victory and people never would have been able to hold the building – the longest occupation of a US federal building in history – if not for their disabled bodies.
With increasing austerity, attacks on disabled people’s basic necessities have been taking place all over the world and disabled people have been fighting back.
I think it is important to ask why is militancy defined in one particular way, which by design, excludes many disabled people, along with others who cannot, for a number of reasons (immigration status, kids in tow, probation/parole, etc.), run through the streets avoiding police?
There is also an increasing argument that accessibility has to be sidestepped because it inhibits spontaneity and spontaneity is synonymous with militancy. This is the same argument that is made against condom usage. However, as we have also learned about condoms, putting measures in place that may impede spontaneity are worth it in order to avoid potential serious consequences down the road.
However, it is true that no matter how accessible we make a demonstration, we cannot control the police.
So what can we do?
- we can build in an accessibility plan from outreach to meetings to protests.
- at demos we can do our best ensure that there are safe exit routes for people – disabled or not.
- at demos, and everywhere, if disabled people or our allies are articulating the need for accommodations or adaptations, we listen and we implement them.
- we recognize that a strong culture of accessibility makes a strong movement and we work to constantly push ourselves to be more and more accessible.
- we can recognize that there are a number of factors that influence what roles people take on and ensure that there are meaningful roles beyond being in the streets. From legal support to cooking to layout to writing to childcare, there are a lot of things that need done. And, this isn’t just about disability but about people’s immigration status, family status and a myriad of other factors.
- In doing this, however, it is also important that we collectively work to combat the glamorization of certain roles – roles that, not coincidentally, are most often occupied by cis, non-disabled, straight, white men.
- We also need to think about how political movements often equate people’s worth with their productivity. This is a capitalist value that we replicate onto ourselves. People’s value is not in how much they produce and celebrating only this further marginalizes many disabled people as well as parents, the working class and many others. And, maybe some people should be less productive. Some of the activists I know who are the most productive on paper are often really hard to work with, undemocratic and destructive. Maybe if they took a breath or a break they would be more valuable to the movement because they wouldn’t be burnt out and alienating people.
I think it is also important for us to think about how in the end, it doesn’t matter if you marched to Bloor Street or to Queen Street or couldn’t march at all, what matters is where you are the next day and the day after that. Those protests that appear to be spontaneous whether in Tahrir Square or at a University in Montreal, were built up over years and, here – like everywhere we have to keep building.
Further, being in solidarity doesn’t mean that we don’t have to be critical or replicate others’ mistakes. People are looking to the Quebec student movement – which is awesome in so many ways and truly exciting and inspirational. But that doesn’t mean we should simply replicate what is going on there without seeing what fits here and without working to included people that that movement may have marginalized.
These are really exciting times. Some of why so much political mobilization is happening is,
no doubt, because these are terrible and unjust times. The world’s 12 hundred billionaires own more than half of what the poorest 3 billion people own, the vast majority of these people live in the
Global South. For too long, we have fought among ourselves for our little piece of the pie but that has to stop – we need to bake a new pie. And as Beric German says, “it can’t just be pie in the sky, it has to be pie you can eat.” What we have is each other, we have numbers. If we fight together, if we ensure we have an inclusive movement and if we fight to win we can win. And we will win.
I updated this panel speech I did a few years ago. I wouldn’t say everything here now the way I did then but I think it gets the point across.