Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Panel - University of Westminster

Intersectionality and Solidarity - exploring how marginalised groups can work together in solidarity against the divisive tactics of the far right

Hi guys! Thank you for inviting me today and this is actually the first time that I speak at a panel so don't be too harsh please. 
I am going to talk about social justice from my experience as a woman and a wheelchair-user. Anyway note that I have a lot of privileges too since I am white, middle-class, straight and cis. 
I am really happy to talk about disability issues today. The thing is, disability is rarely considered as a matter to discuss also in progressive social justice circles. For example, I study International Relations and I find that in the literature about civil rights for example disability is rarely mentioned. You can read about women rights, gay rights, black rights. Not so much of trans rights. But disability rights? Uhoh.

The problem is that in our society the main approach towards disability is the medical model of disability, that is, the model that says that disability is something inherently undesirable, to be cured, to be normalized as much as possible. Anyway, what does norm even mean then? So we learn that disability is a medical, individual issue, a problem, a tragedy that just happens. Something unlucky and bad. And the media promote this actually hurtful idea because, honestly, it sells much more. Have you watched the movie “Me before you”? Yeah, the movie where the dude wants to die because he has become disabled. This is not an isolated case. A disabled character who wants to die is a very frequent narrative in movies with disabled characters (“Million dollar baby”, “Scent of a woman”, “Whose life is it anyway?” are just a few titles) and I am very sick of it because it's so unrealistic and people still buy it.
Actually, disability is just a physical or mental characteristic. The truth is that the impact the impairment has on your life depends hugely on the help the state gives you. Disability is much more a social than a medical issue. 

For example, I am from Italy where direct payments for disabled people are still not a reality, and I am here because I can somehow afford to pay for my assistants, so I get to study abroad thanks to my family’s income. As I said, I have quite a few privileges. My disabled friend from Sicily is not self-sufficient as well, but he can't afford an assistant, so he is cared for by his parents because he has no choice. Meanwhile, a guy in Ghana with the same disability as me from a low-income family is probably having a hard time. Meanwhile a friend of mine with the same disability has all his assistants paid for by the state as he lives in Norway. These are just examples, but you see as the state makes a big difference. 

Historically, anyway, disability has just been dismissed as something that has to do with sickness, bad luck, and it has been constantly otherized, rather than being recognized as a minority worthy of civil rights. 
I could take a recent example for this attitude: the Women's March that took place in the US at the end of January after Trump's election. Disabled folks were almost not mentioned in the manifesto, even though they have a lot at stake under Trump administration, mostly because of cuts to Medicaid, which, among other things, pays for personal assistants. 
You might remember that during the election, Trump mocked a disabled reporter, who has a name BTW, his name is serge Kowalevski, he is a well known reporter who won many prizes. Even if the media often called him just "the reporter with a disability".
There was a outrage, a public outcry at the mockery, because how dare you to mock a poor disabled person, badly done Trump. As if Trump hadn't done worse with other minorities. As if a gesture like this wasn't perfectly in line with Trump’s horrible campaign. No, there was a bigger outrage because disabled people are seen as helpless creatures. 
And then, when disabled people lives are really at stake, they are not considered in social justice circles. They are considered just as bodies to take care of, without agency. 

A few American activists in wheelchair that I know went to the Women's March and constantly people would shout "make space for the lady”, “make space for the wheelchair" assuming that they were not there to protest against Trump’s administration, they repeatedly assumed they were just passers-by. So first of all, people should acknowledge that disabled people’s fights are social justice fights, because the Disability Rights Movement is alive and well. 

Now, do you know what ableism is? I didn't know until about three years ago. It is the oppression of disabled folks. On the lines of sexism, transphobia, homophobia etc. Even if I didn't always know it has a name, I have experienced ableism a lot throughout my life. 

Ableism exist at the cultural, social, institutional and everyday level. It is very pervasive and it essentially says that disabled lives have less value. Ableism is a ramp missing in a shop, it is a school refusing to put in place a reasonable adjustment, it is a driver refusing to take me on a bus because of my wheelchair. Yes, it happens.
Ableism exists in academia, also. There is a guy, whose name is Peter Singer. He teaches at Princeton, even though I am deliberately avoiding to call him Professor. He said that it is ok to kill disabled children because supposedly they can't fully enjoy life and they spoil their parents’ life. Also, he recently said that it is okay to rape disabled people because they supposedly cannot understand what consent is. 
And, in case you are wondering, yes, he's still teaching at Princeton. 
People who don't have a clue about disability constantly get to speak on behalf of disabled people. Disabled people lives should NOT be object of debate but they still are in 2017. 
On the other hand, disability studies is a discipline that is not yet very much known. We'll get there at last. 
Actually, I think I know why we are still so backward about disability rights. Disabled people are shut in institutions in the majority of the world and, you know, it is not easy to go and protest in the streets from behind the fences of an institution. 

Anyway, now after ruining my good mood by thinking about Singer I really need to quote the father of the disability rights movement, the first not self-sufficient guy to get to the university of Berkeley in the United States, Ed Roberts. He got polio when he was 14 and he had to fight just to go to university. And when he was still in the hospital bed he overheard a doctor tell his mother, "You should hope he dies, because if he lives, he'll be no more than a vegetable for the rest of his life.” Roberts later said, " So I decided to be an artichoke – a little prickly on the outside but with a big heart on the inside. You know, the vegetables of the world are uniting, and we're not going away!"

Now, you may have noticed in your Facebook timeline that this is Autism Awareness Month. I will just say a couple of words. The most well known organization that promotes awareness for autism is called Autism speaks. Their slogan is "Ligh1t It Up Blue” and people are following the advice by uploading blue images. 
The problem is that the organization has been founded by parents of autistic people. There is not a single autistic person among their executives. Only the 4% of the money they raise is directed to services to families. Autism speaks’s proposed aim is to find a cure for autism, which is something the overwhelming majority of autistic people do not want because one, it is not possible to cure autism and two, autism is an inherent part of the person and erasing it would mean erasing the autistic person. 
So, beware of organizations for a minority group which have not representatives of that minority group. Beware of professionals who argue they know better than disabled folks themselves. 

So, to sum up all this blabbering. 
Disability rights are social justice issues.
Let disabled people speak.
Let’s question patronizing attitudes in the media.

We could say that ableism is the root oppression of all, because it has existed for such a long time and it intersects other forms of oppression. Ableism could potentially affect everybody because we could become disabled anytime, and anyway we all age – unless we die young, which would be very unfortunate. So you'd better start picking your own vegetable.
Thanks for listening!


Image description: Elena staring at her mobile looking concentrated. She has brown hair with a lilac hue. She is wearing a grey sweatshirt and she is lying down on her electric wheelchair. In the background there is a beige sofa and a bookcase.

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