I read over 90 disability focused blogs per day -- more, no doubt, after today. The number of openly identified blogging people of colour who are also disabled is small. Tiny. Tiny. Tiny. The absence of people of colour in the disability/disability studies community is striking (particularly considering the numbers of people who actually ARE disabled).
Why? Do the ideas that we treat as disability norms -- ideas about the social, cultural, and medical understandings -- have meaning and relevance in communities of color? Is the larger disabled world missing the nuanced understandings of disability that already exist in communities of colour?
How do we balance these questions? I suspect both are true. I think that there are nuanced understandings of impairment as disability in communities of colour and that the larger disabled world hasn't seen them yet. I also think that there is relatively little access in many communities of colour (particularly poor communities of colour) to these important ideas about disability. It is a two way thing -- and the interaction between them lowers the visibility of disabled communities of color. I have been worrying about this for a while. And trying to write about it for a while.
I have this idea, you see, that the small number of people who identify as disabled people of colour -- or should that be nonwhite people with disabilities, disabled person of colour, non-white disabled people, disabled, non-white people, people of disability and colour? Wow, there's a lot here that I hadn't really got to grips with before. I mean, our identity language tends to favour those who are choosing to prioritize or who identify with only one minoritized group: the way in which you order the words says a lot about who think you are. I like people of disability and colour.... Still, it's quite a mouthful.
For the moment, however, I want to talk about what I see as disablism and the first question: how the impairments of people of colour are and are not interpreted as disability. A disabled identity -- as we often define it in this positive cultural, non-medicalized way -- is really a privilege. To have one, you really have to have access to the kinds of health care and health support that make it easier for you to transition from being run by your disability to running your life. It's also much easier if you live in a world/culture that doesn't make that transition more complicated for you.
And that's where disablism comes in.
Usually, when we talk about disablism, we're referring to the kinds of ugly things that stigmatize people with disabilities. The stereotypes, the discrimination, the undercountings of our contributions, the environmental barriers, the lack of access, etc. These kinds of disablism refuse to allow PWD/DP access to the mainstream TAB world.
I want to add to our understanding of the word by looking at a different kind of disablism. I want to highlight a kind of disablism that refuses to allow people with impairments access to a disabled identity.
This kind of disablism can be "practiced" by anyone -- perhaps I should say perpetrated? Inside the community, it can be someone who is disabled from birth refusing to acknowledge the disability status of someone late-deafened. Someone who started to use a wheelchair as the result of an accident refusing to acknowledge the disability status of someone with age-related disabilities. Outside the community, it can be as simple as a doctor refusing to refer someone with an aging related disability to disability resources. It can be as vast as the very public narrative of tragedy, pity, and bravery, or it can be as small as an encounter in which someone says, "but you don't look disabled."
Disablism affects how we recognize each other and how the world at large recognizes us. And it particularly affects people with differing racial and ethnic backgrounds. I believe it is the most important factor that explains the low visibility of people of disability and colour. It's not that people of colour don't have impairments. Oh no. It is a question of recognizing (or not) those impairments as disability.
A brief clip from a discussion over at brownfemipower: I’ve been thinking a lot about disability and people of color. I actually grew up in a heavily disabled community... The thing is, I never thought of these people as disabled) got me thinking further.
triumphantmulatta:Where I come from, the concept of disability didn’t really exist. People had disabilities, but it wasn’t a point of social organizing or identity. Rather, impairments were a limitation like any other.
Why not? It is not as simple as arguing well, if people in the community don't want to be seen as disabled, then no problem. Live and let live. In addition to problems of access to health care and equipment, etc, there is a lot of pressure coming from the outside not to be seen as disabled.
bint: When you're in a place where poverty is just a heartbeat away and you're scared stiff that it could be you living on the streets, doing anything that could tip the scale back is considered a luxury. The effects of this mentality in people of color communities is always visible to me.
Aaminah (in femi/bfp's comments, link to her site): I’ve always kinda wondered if the difference in how middle and upper class white people with disabilities vs lower class whites and POC are dealt with has something to do with this belief that the disability “proves” the inferiority of the lower class.
And there's medical/social history. A history in which physical variation from the standard white body very quickly became freakish deviance, a sign of animality, worthlessness, and pathology. A history in which the neutral markers of racial difference were seen, understood, and literally medically treated as disabilities -- in the old medicalized way.
There's also a different understanding of disability -- I was trained as a mentor in a recovering your life after SCI programme. We were told that white SCIs were usually the result of accidents (skiing, cars etc) -- in addition to the stuff about employment, we were to make sure that we hooked our mentees up with the disability sports programs and any other signs of disability culture in their town. African-American SCIs were the result of gunshots and were not offered disabled culture. I don't see this as a sign of racism; it really seemed to come from a place in which skiing accidents were a known part of the disability "tragedy" narrative while gunshots (perhaps for reasons of racism -- I dunno) were not. (Note: that statistic is not true. Most African Americans with SCIs were not hit by guns).
Blue/Kay (in femi/bfp's comments, link to her site): Though I can’t verify the statistic yet, I found this online yesterday: “White men in wheelchairs are the dominant media image used because it is such a graphic visual. A study was done of 171 photos from twelve newspapers during the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coverage from 1990 to 1993. More than half depicted a man in a wheelchair while only 1.5 million of the 43 million people are actually confined to chair use."
This is where my kind of disablism comes in. Disabled people of all races and ethnic backgrounds experience difficulty in accessing appropriate health care, rehabilitation, employment, etc -- this is not something unique to people of colour. BUT the way in which the TAB world -- particularly the medical profession -- understands and responds these things is different. The image of a white man in a wheelchair is such a powerful image because it can be seen to render "powerless" the symbol of "all" that is "powerful." This strikes right at the heart of our disability narrative. It goes straight to the place of the debates around Roosevelt. The same circumstances just aren't true for a black man.
Remember the New York Times series of articles about diabetes? It's free and here. There are a number of weird race things going on, but the thing that strikes me is that among all people with diabetes and amputations in, say, East Harlem, no mention was made of disability culture and of treating these "patients" as people with disabilities. The same absence also influenced the reporting about diabetes in the Asian community. I have seen the same absence affect my own white family members. These are/were just people with a medical condition. I see that people of colour are peculiarly vulnerable, though I don't think racism is the primary factor at work here.
I call this disablism. It is a particularly pernicious understanding of disability that denies people with disabilities access to their culture and heritage.
Disability can happen to anyone. We are not spared by gender, sexuality, race, or class -- even though some of those things can make some of us more vulnerable than others. Disablism, on the other hand, doesn't have to happen.
Note: People of colour have held and played important parts in disability history. I would like to take this moment to recognize one. April 20th was the anniversary of the 504 sit-in.
One of the civil rights movement's most prominent activists, Corbett O'Toole, likes to remind us that the takeover of the Federal Building in San Francisco would not have been successful without the help of the Black Panthers, and that this fact is often forgotten in the dominantly white narrative of disabled civil rights. The link is to Corbett's history in the ROHO archive at the University of California at Berkeley -- It's a great read.
We could only carry in so much food and there wasn't a cafeteria in the building or if there was, we didn't have access to it. They figured they would starve us out, which is actually what they did in a couple of other of the cities. One of the people with us was a black man who was part of the Black Panthers and he called up the Panthers and said, "I'm here in this demonstration." So the Panthers turned on the news and saw that we were occupying a federal building, which they thought was really nifty. They thought that anybody that challenged the federal government's domain over their lives and were fighting for self-sufficiency and rights were cool people. And they had one guy in there and so they showed up.
They were running a soup kitchen at that point for their black community in East Oakland and they showed up every single night and brought us dinner, for the entire demonstration they showed up. The FBI was like, "What the hell are you doing?" They answered, "Listen, we're the Panthers. You want to starve these people out, fine, we'll go tell the media that that's what you're doing, and we'll show up with our guns to match your guns and we'll talk about, you know, about who's going to talk to who about the food. Otherwise, just let us feed these people and we won't give you any trouble"--and that's basically what they did.
I think the secret history of the 504 sit-in--that almost nobody talks about it--is that we never, ever would have made it without the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers fed us dinner--and they fed 150 people of which only one was a Panther--every single night for the whole demonstration. We never would have survived without them. There's not even a fantasy that we would have survived without them. They kept us physically alive.