Tuesday, May 1, 2007

BADD: Disablism, Language, Disability Identity, and Race

OK, then. Where are you all? Where are the hordes and hordes of disabled bloggers of colour? Huh? What? Where are you?

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.

Why not?

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.


  1. Great post. I meet a lot of age-related disablism in my job and thought about blogging on it - I didn't realize the same attitudes affect racial minorities as well. Thanks for opening up a new perspective!

  2. This is a much needed perspective about disablism. It raises a lot of issues. Thank you for the great disability history pieces recognizing people of color.

  3. what a freaking amazing post WCD!!!

    I've struggled to understand disability within the context of race--and a lot of that has to do with what you mentioned at the very top--there's SO FEW POC with disabilities who are blogging!!!! blogging is where I go to find out issues and complexities and and the such. I and bint were noticing that there is a HUGE absence of bloggers of color blogging about disabilities.

    I think you are right on about the refusal to name "disabled" in our communities. I just haven't been able to put my finger on *why*--I mean--we all talked about how X was "hurt in the war" or Y "is sick"--but it's never been named as disabled. It's made me wonder if disabled is an academic-y type term--for example, I call myself woman of color--but I had never heard of the term "woman of color" until I went to university. And frankly, most of the people in my community look at me like I'm insane for calling myself that--it's the first time they've ever *heard* of that particular identity marker. so with the absence of a positive identity marker like "disabled"--what's left, really--but the negative ones like "retard" or "crippled"?

    And on a personal note--it wasn't until I started blogging that it clicked--OMG, the people who are dealing with the effects of agent orange are DISABLED. I have participated in Agent Orange activism for a long time--since I was a kid, really, and it wasn't until I was a grown woman that it clicked!! but then, once it did click--I just couldn't find a way to reconcile disability activism that I read about online through blogs with what I saw happening in the agent orange activism--from what I've seen, there's a real distrust and rejection of "blaming" somebody/something for disability--which is absolutely FINE--except what happens when things like deliberate application of agent orange becomes involved? Or whole tribes of people taking vows to stop reproducing because nuclear fallout has devastated their tribe with horrific disabilities?

    I don't know how to reconcile the lived experience of the people I love and grew up with (and who are still being destroyed by man made devastation) with something like autism or skiing accidents.

    Thank you SO much for writing this and broaching this topic--that you.

  4. These are/were just people with a medical condition.

    I think this goes right to the heart of it.

    Largely, I think the reason that people of color are sometimes not seen as "part of the people with disabilities community" is because the disabilities in POC communities is not a single tragedy in an otherwise potentially-unblemished life. That seems to be the narrative of white disability and the reason the white male wheelchair user is so often the image of the disability movement. A person can't be simultaneously the token person of color AND the token person of disability. (I like your phrase: person of disability and color.) There is tremendous pressure in this society to be only one thing, have only one identity, compartmentalize our lives and discard whatever doesn't 'fit' into the popular narrative or what is socially acceptable. Identities that intersect and interact with each other are not part of the dominant discourse yet.

    Either you're disabled or you're Black; either you're the token queer or the token person of color; either/or.

    We still have to fight to be our totality.

    Your posts always make me think. Thank you.

  5. Very thought-provoking. I've been meaning for a while to ask if when we talk about "disabled" we mean this only in a physical way. Because several things over the last couple of months (including posts on BFP's blog about the Duke rape issue and the Virginia shootings) have shown me how little we talk about mental illness, and how little understanding or respect is given to this issue. I've been mulling over a post on this for a little while but haven't gotten my thoughts straight on it yet.

    So I guess when you ask why aren't there more disabled people of color blogging, I kinda wonder "how are we defining the term 'disabled'". I've never really thought of myself as disabled even though I am bi-polar. But maybe some people would disagree. Maybe we have more disabled PoC bloggers than we realize because it depends on your definitions. It's just been on my mind lately and your post makes me wonder even more. Obviously I'm not going to say that there is more mental/emotional illness among PoC, but there are noteable correlations between poverty and all the other things talked about (Agent Orange, alcoholism, testing of vaccines, forced sterilizations, etc.) that create physical disabilities that can also have a huge part in creating non-physical illnesses.

  6. you know, as I'm thinking more about this and reading the responses, i'm wondering how much the whole disability benefits/welfare thing plays into the idea that poc don't define "disability". for example, i'm thinking about how I, as a woc who gets welfare, really had to push and push the system in order to get enrolled into all the different programs I was eligible for. I've met with my caseworker and talked with the people on the phone etc--and it's only through digging up information online that I was able to figure out, oh, wait a minute, the kids are eligible for X and Y and I'm eligible for M and N--they won't *tell* you what your eligible for--they don't have a universal application that then automatically enrolls you in the programs you are eligible for--and unless you are persistant in asking, the caseworkers won't just out and tell you (at least mine didn't).
    It very clearly benefits the state to not have every person under the sun with disabilities claiming their rightful benefits--and in the case of disabilities caused by the state--it probably saves their butts from being sued. For example, Vietnamese Agent Orange activists have been unable to "prove" disability connected to the AO, so they recently lost their court case suing for damages.

    I wonder what the numbers look like as far as poc communities collecting disability--or maybe even more telling, what's the ratio of denial.

  7. I read this and thought awhile, and read again, and I'm still thinking, and that's why I read your blog, and others who make me think deeply. Thinking, processing, understanding, progressing.

  8. Anonymous3:47 PM

    Lots to think about. Thanks so much.

  9. Hi!

    Just want to respond to these wonderful comments. Thank you for reading and writing to me.

    To Aaminah: Disabled, to me, should include all disabilities, phys, psych, dev ... But you are right. Too often, the world is set up to recognize physical disabilities -- and too often, (as in cases of access) disability can be thought of only as a mobility impairment. Whaddya mean it's not accessible? There's a ramp.... I write only about the small corner I know which is mobility. I am looking for people who identify as disabled -- I see this as kind of different from actually having an impairment.

    To Triumphantmulatta: Yes. I think multiple identities are complicated, personally, academically, and theoretically. I'm a lousy juggler. :-)

    To Bfp: Yes. Absolutely, this is a disability question. Your question about "blame" is a harder one. What responsibility does the state have towards disabled veterans -- since culpability for a state is not the same as, say, culpability for a drunk driver... But on the ground, however, I would argue for the commonality of lived physical and social experience as a way of linking skiing accidents with veteran experience. OUr histories may be different and our daily excperiences may be different -- and I am not saying they don't matter -- but I can say that we can unite as a community around questions of access.

    It's kinda like saying disability is no one thing, but we can be recognized as a community because of the process of access, the kinds of commonalities we have in interacting with others, and because of the affects just the slightest mention of disability has on the TAB world.

    I don't have this quite right yet, .... but I do see a post coming up.



  10. Thanks for excerpting O'Toole's story. I've read it some time ago but it's just tremendously entertaining and provacative, I think.

    I wonder what role disability culture does and does not play in persons of color identifying as disabled. Certainly what dis culture is available out there to experience in has all the same cultural biases as mainstream culture, but in what ways are the shared experiences -- and not just what's seen as suffering -- varied and not fully expressed in dis culture?

    Thanks for giving me so much to think on.