AJ Withers is a Canadian Disability Activist whose zine “If I Can’t Dance, Is it Still My Revolution?” had a profound effect on me as a disabled person and activist. After reviewing the zine and website for Shameless magazine (the Labour issue, out this week!) I wanted to connect with AJ and hear more about radical disability activism. Specifically, I wanted to know what it takes to build solidarity, among and with disabled people, how to connect the struggles of differently disabled people, and to reflect on how this work is transformative. I personally can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of their new book, Disability Politics and Theory, due to be published by Fernwood in April of this year.
Kate-Christine Miller - There are some great guides out there for being an ally, and the guide on your site points to a lot of the problems that come up with being a non-disabled ally. I would imagine there are a lot of issues with disabled organizers recognizing all of each other’s needs and experiences. Are these issues that you see come up in disabled organizing?
AJ Withers - Yes, all the time. The mainstream disability rights movement has focused on getting middle-class straight white men the privilege that they would have had if they weren’t disabled. So, it has often been classist, heterosexist, racist and sexist, and worked to uphold the oppression of other groups and the many disabled people who are a part of them. I think it is important for all disabled organizers to recognize that disabled people are an incredibly diverse group and that we need to attack all forms of oppression, not just disablism.
KCM- What advice do you have for disabled people just starting to be interested in radical disability organizing?
AJW – 1. Make sure that the fact that disability is intersected with other oppressions is reflected in everything that you do.
2. Work with a diverse group and inter-generationally. When people organize with people who think and act the same way they do, that work can be really limited and one-sided. It is important to work with lots of different kinds of people with different perspectives. Sometimes, this means that you will have fights and it will be harder to compromise, but the final outcome will be better.
KCM - What are some of the biggest challenges building solidarity among disability activists?
AJW - I think the two key ones are resources and internalized and/or horizontal oppression. It is hard to make things accessible when we don’t have the money, space and people to make it happen. So, without things like ASL, ramps and attendant care, lots of people get left out. This is unacceptable and we have a collective responsibility (disabled or not) to work to change this.
Also, a lot of people have internalized disablism. This means that they have accepted at least some of the hatred directed at them from mainstream society. It means that some people don’t think that disabled people are deserving of justice and respect, so they put up barriers to other disabled people. Horizontal oppression also can make things difficult. This means that disabled people oppress other people on the grounds of their disabilities. This is a really big barrier in disability organizing. For example, physically disabled people often exclude intellectually disabled people because they don’t think they are deserving of solidarity. Horizontal oppression is a really good way to divide and conquer. If we are fighting among ourselves, we aren’t fighting for justice.
KCM - I read some of the stories about dealing with the medical establishment, especially when you were younger. What are some of the things that you think are most important for medical professionals to know about being a disabled patient?
AJW - There are so many things that I would like medical providers to know about disability. It is really hard to narrow it down. Primarily, I think that they need to understand that they have been educated in a disablist system and that many disabled people don’t see our lives the way the medical establishment does. Disabled people frequently rate our quality of life as much higher than doctors rate our quality of life. I think that this is a symptom of their disablism. We are repeatedly devalued. At a minimum, medical providers need to understand that they undervalue us and that we understand our lives to be rewarding – not tragic.
Also, there are a lot of basic things like listen to what we are telling you, respect our decisions and understand that many of the problems we face cannot be solved through medical interventions but through addressing social injustices.
KCM - There are a number of barriers for disabled people becoming involved in a lot of activist and political projects. What are some important things for organizers to do to ensure disabled people can participate safely and comfortably?
AJW - I don’t know that I can answer this. There are so many things and I think that they need to be figured out by disabled people with those organizations and organizers and vice versa.
However, I think it is really key that people make things accessible and they don’t consider accessibility to be an add-on but something that is a built in part of organizing. This also includes the way people talk about disability, not using disabilist language and ensuring that our demands are incorporated in organizing.
KCM - Who are some of the most inspiring disability activists you have read about or met?
AJW - There are so many. Certainly in history, women like Harriet Tubman, who liberated slaves, and Helen Keller, who was a socialist and had really amazing political ideas, are inspiring. I also find inspiration in many of my disabled friends, including Loree Erickson, who does lots of work on sex and disability, Griffin Epstein, who works at a drop-in for psych survivors and writes about race and disability, and Anne Abbott, who is a talented artist – to name a few.
KCM - Everyone who wants to be an ally should definitely read the “Being an Ally” section of the website. What do you think is the most important thing for non-disabled activists to understand when they think about being an ally?
AJW - The role of ally should only ever be approached in the spirit of solidarity and mutual aid, not out of charity. Disabled people have been subjected to charity for too long. These attitudes are undermining and don’t respect the many things that disabled people give in relationships.
Also, I think it is really important to not let your fear of making a mistake and hurting people keep you from taking action, but also to know that you will probably hurt people at some point. When you hurt someone, it is important that you take responsibility, act with integrity and learn from your mistakes.
KCM - Do you have any recommendations for books or websites that are “must reads” for those just starting to be involved in disability activism?
AJW - The book that changed how I saw disability and myself was Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation [Interviewer’s note: this is available at the Toronto Public Library]. It originally came out in 1999, but they recently put out a 2nd edition. I am critical of some of the ways that Clare talks about disability now, specifically their support of the “social model of disability” but I think that it is a really good book and definitely worth reading. Two really good websites are dreaminghome.tumblr.com and leavingevidence.wordpress.com but there are many others. I have a pretty good list in the resources section on my website.
I would also recommend my book, Disability Politics and Theory, which is coming out in early 2012 from Fernwood. It is about the main ways that disability is understood in mainstream society and puts forward the radical model as a new way to think about it.
If you are looking to learn more about radical disability politics and its connections to feminism, I recommend Living the Edges: a Disabled Women’s Reader, edited by Diane Driedger (2010), which contains a number of essays by Indigenous disability activists, and touches on a broad range of issues. For an international feminist perspective, Janet Price’s Seeds of a Movement: Disabled Women and Their Struggle to Organize (2011), which is available for free online, is a great historical piece. And of course, check out Shameless blogger Shoshana Erlich, who has written some great pieces on working, inclusion, and being a friend/ally.