To challenge ableism that manifests in social justice movements, intersectional understanding of disability is key
Disabled people exist in all our communities; and we must make room for them in conversations and decision-making positions. While ensuring this, it is also important to see if the disability rights movement represents the same diversity.
What is ‘normal’? In this fortnightly column, Srinidhi Raghavan explores the understanding of bodies-minds and navigating spaces as disabled, chronically ill and sick people. Read more from the series here.
It was nearly two decades ago that disability rights activist and academician Anita Ghai raised the concern of how women with disabilities fall through the cracks of the women’s movement and the disability rights movement. Intersectionality, she argued was the way to ensure that women with disabilities aren’t left behind by these movements. Since then, many disabled women have argued the same; that their presence in both movements was challenged, or neglected and forgotten because of the presence of the ableist patriarchy. In a recent public conversation on the state and its agenda, disability rights activist Nidhi Goyal raised an important concern regarding the five-member committee set up by the government of India to reform the penal code: it lacked diversity. She further highlighted that while critiquing the committee for its lack of diversity, we forget about disability: "We talk often of a sexist and casteist patriarchy. But shouldn't it be — sexist, casteist and ableist patriarchy?"
How can we be intersectional?
Intersectionality is the buzzword of our times. I hear it in so many of our social justice conversations. But what does it mean in practice? One of the most important conversations we need to be having in this moment is a conversation on the fact that our identities are diverse. Our work towards social justice needs to hold onto the idea that one person can be both oppressed and privileged. That we can both cause harm and be harmed.
Amba Salelkar, a disability rights activist and a person with disability, when asked about what intersectionality means to her, said, "For me intersectionality is at its basic, to do no harm to other movements of marginalised people or rights. So in our advocacy or programming, we as activists don't end up saying or doing anything that actively harms others. For that of course ignorance is a common excuse so we need to involve others especially our members who also inhabit other marginalised identities. Like do we actively reach out to disabled people who are Dalit, or are queer, or are indigenous?”
These are important questions we must ask ourselves. Who is getting left out of our conversations? Who occupies most space in our movements? And how do we as people with diverse and intersectional lived realities make room for each other? Shivangi Agrawal, an artist and accessibility consultant, was quoted in a piece talking about her efforts to make the queer movement accessible. She stated that it needed a visibly disabled woman’s presence to begin the conversation on accessible pride marches and to find her place in decision making spaces. Of course, if we look back at the disability rights movement, not just in this country, but across the world, it has been a largely straight and heterosexual space occupied by cis-men.
Therefore, it is important for all of us within social justice movements to remember that disability is an intersection; disabled people exist in all our communities; and we must make room for them in conversations and decision-making positions. While ensuring this, it is also important to see if the disability rights movement represents the same diversity.
‘Don’t have to be disabled to experience ableism’
In the first part of this series on ableism, I quoted Talila “TL” Lewis, an attorney, writer, organiser and educator, who says “you do not have to be disabled to experience ableism”. And it felt right to revisit this important facet as we reflect on how ableism manifests itself in conscious and unconscious ways in all our movements.
It could be from our language where we talk about “caste-blindness", or how we refer to the judiciary as “not just blind, but deaf and dumb". How we loosely use words like “crazy”, “unsound mind”, “insane” — all perpetuating discrimination and normalising the language of lack. It is pertinent to see how many of our movements prefer “physical protests” to “digital protests” without recognising that physical protests can be inaccessible for disabled people.
Yet, we know, this isn’t the only way discrimination manifests in the lives of disabled people. Jyothsna Phanija shared in an interview the ways in which caste privilege intersects with disability: “People often associate people like me as the receivers of double benefits in terms of reservations for OBCs and PWDs, undermining our hard work. Caste system and oppression against the disabled still continue because of the sustained prejudices.”
Her statement raises many questions: who are our leaders within the disability movement? Who do we look up to as role models in society? Who lends their voice to the masses? Are all disabled people in leadership positions from privileged backgrounds?
As individuals with multiple identities — some that are privileged and some that are marginalised — it is important to ensure that our conversations bring in the diversities of lived experiences in our country; and we find a way to hold space for the privileges and oppressions we might experience at the same time. Dr Aiswarya Rao, a public health professional and a disability rights activist, said in her column for Firstpost: “Article 14 of the Constitution states that no Indian must be discriminated on the basis of gender, religion, caste etc. I’d like to add that no one must be discriminated on the basis of ‘ability’ as well. I want to say that the constituency of Dalit disabled women is highly significant and they must be included in mainstream dialogues around disability and women’s rights.”
This is the conclusion of a three-part series on ableism. Part 1 focussed on language and ableism and part 2 looked at systemic ableism and medical ableism.
Srinidhi Raghavan is a writer, researcher and trainer. She works at the intersections of sexuality, gender, disability and technology. She works on programme development with Rising Flame and is the co-founder of The Curio-city Collective.
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