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Disabled. Black. Woman. Pride – by Mike Mort

mike-mort-design

You best believe I am getting the above logo on a t-shirt! Mike Mort creates ‘SUPER ACCESSIBILITY LOGOS’, fun variations of the international accessibility logo inspired by comic book, film, television, video-game and pop-culture icons.

Here is some information on Mike from his site: “Mike Mort is a 25-year-old blogger and wheelchair-user, living with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He believes deeply in intersectional social justice and ending all forms of oppression. Disabled activism is a major passion and personal cause in his everyday life. With this blog, Mike hopes to educate others about ableism and promote the equality and understanding of all disabled and chronically ill individuals.”

Click on the image above – Black Wonder-Woman (Pride) – to go to his blog. Love that he has a STELLA YOUNG quote on his masthead. I truly miss her; and am only now developing the proud ‘crip’ moxy that she departed this earth with at the tender age of 32. It has taken me a decade to truly understand this, but Stella taught me that pride is not about ego for disabled people… it is about dignity and valuing ourselves – and our bodies – in a world that affords us neither dignity nor value.

Disability pride (like Black pride and LGBTQI pride) is therefore a revolutionary tool, a paradigm shifter in a world that marginalises us physically, culturally and institutionally everyday – which can be demoralising in the extreme. As a Black Woman in a white settler colony, I can physically go into most spaces, but know I will often have to deal with misogynoir once I get in there; however, as a Disabled Black Woman, I am frequently prevented from even entering the building. Most public spaces are inaccessible to me. And when I do get in, I know – from years of experience – that I will have to deal with cultural ableism along with racist misogyny at some point (and classism, ableism related to mental illness, et cetera.)

Black Disability Pride in the face of all of this is not an indulgence, it is essential; a way of affirming our humanity and right to exist without the barriers that society erects against us, whether maliciously or not. And since disability forces an extreme and painful type of marginalisation very few of my Black friends (let alone other lighter skinned people of colour) understand, it is up to me to fight my battles alone. So I will stare at the above logo whenever I need a reminder to be my own damn hero.

Love you Stella – I know you hated the concept of being an “inspiration”, but you have inspired me to grow a pair and be unwavering when it comes to speaking up for others, and for myself (something I have hitherto been tremendously shit at doing), in the face of pervasive ableist marginalisation/discrimination. You encouraged me to do so five years ago, and I am finally doing it. I am certain you would be mighty pleased about that.

Challenging ‘mainstream’ perceptions of disability (a low key rant, in full)

This is the full version of a “rant” on 3CR’s radio show ‘Intersections’ this arvo (which wasn’t delivered in full for time constraints).  I want to encourage people to unpack and examine their own assumptions about what it means to be disabled; I have to emphasise here that it’s a process I myself have had to go through. I also straight up read a previously published piece on intersectional marginalisation. I’m sick today, not feeling my best, got caught in the rain, but still enjoyed the experience 🙂 Largely because the intersectional feminists on the show are so welcoming and amazing. I’m really glad this space has been created on the airwaves.

 

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Let me just preface this low key rant by stating I am just a regular person who also lives in a disabled body. I have no expertise in disability studies, or disability education… but I do have a load of experience – the experience of being able bodied, and the experience of being physically disabled. I also have a lot of experience going through and recovering from various manifestations of mental trauma and illness… but let’s just stick with the physical for now.

My disability experiences have caused me to radically transform the way I see myself, others, AND the world at large, many times over. I’ve learnt that attitudes, and the way we see – or rather, DON’T see – people, matters a great deal. Attitudes tend to act as a filter of what we perceive to be important. What we perceive to be important influences the agenda. So I want to take a moment to tell you about my experience, and ask you to review the way you see disability and people with disabilities.

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So 18 years ago, I became a very, very incomplete quadriplegic. I sustained a spinal cord injury through illness, that affected all of my limbs, although I could still walk.

10 years ago, I became a paraplegic.

3 years after that, I started calling myself disabled.

Why is this? Why, despite having various levels of physical impairment from the age of 14 onward, did it take me so long to make peace with that 3-syllabic word?

In acquiring a disability, I discovered that I was, in fact, a closet ableist. I discovered that I had unconscious attitudes towards disability, and the disabled. I discovered that I was looking at disability through a particular lens that, I dare say, many people look at disability through.

Deep in my subconscious, becoming disabled was the worst case scenario… something I feared even more than death. And trust me, I have faced actual death more than once in my past.

This is because somehow, somewhere along the line, I, like many people, had picked up the notion that to be disabled meant to be on the outside.

It meant to be someone who was to be pitied.

It meant hardship.

It meant to be segregated from the majority of able-bodied people.

It meant to be deficient in some way, and needing extra help from society, who would benevolently bestow it upon you.

And it probably meant that people perceived your needs, your sexuality, or contribution to society as somehow “different”, abnormal, or depleted.

So when, at the age of 22, I became a permanent wheelchair-user myself, I had to face ALL of those unconscious beliefs head on. And I got to see, for the first time, those beliefs influencing how other people responded to me.

The first unconscious belief to be challenged was my perception of what people with disabilities need. After sustaining paraplegia, I spent 6 months in a rehabilitation hospital. Almost all of the other inpatients were men under the age of 25.

Prior to acquiring their disabilities, they had led active lives, and many had gained their disability in the middle of a physically challenging or dangerous activity.

They were interested in all the things that many young men are interested in – enjoying themselves, finding careers, socialising, relationships, sex… actually, mainly sex. A lot of the conversations I had with fellow patients were about concerns about this particular aspect of life.

In an adjacent assisted living facility I also met a few accident victims who had sustained serious intellectual disabilities. My heart broke into pieces one day when, sitting in the hospital courtyard, a young man from that living facility sat down next to me and proceeded to tell me, as best as he could, how desperately he wanted to get out of that place.

And I realised – really and truly understood – that people with disabilities, whether that disability is acquired or congenital, physical or intellectual, have the same basic human needs as able-bodied people. Like anybody else, we want to be loved, be accepted in society, pursue education, a career, call the shots in our own lives and be independent.

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After my paraplegia I went through the same difficulties in coming to terms with my new reality as the young men did.

There’s a lot more public discussion around heterosexual male sexuality and disability in the mainstream, but I tend to see less coverage about heterosexual women or queer folk and disability. But believe me, it was on mind: I wondered how my relationships would change and even though I had no interest in having children at that point, I immediately started to fret I wouldn’t be able to have them (which, by the way, is absolutely not true).

In rehab, I luckily had a young lady sexual health counsellor to help me cut through the fears about the future I was grappling with.

Apart from the physical realities of having a disability and dealing with our structural institutional exclusion, one of the strangest things you have to face when you acquire a disability, is the reality that many people will now see you differently, and treat you accordingly.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is debatable. But, inevitably, it can have an impact on how you see yourself and your self-esteem, which will impact on your social self and your ability to pursue opportunities in life. And all of this nonsense comes from OTHER PEOPLE.

Facing the reactions and perceptions of others about my self, my life, and what I was capable of, led me to review some of my own attitudes towards people with disabilities.

I had always considered myself progressive in this regard, BUT, like so many, I realised that I had been operating with the same tendency towards pity for or over-admiration of people with disabilities.

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That is not to say that disabled people should not be admired, or given props for negotiating a messed up planet that does not really want US in it.

But that mindset too often leads to the objectification and disempowerment of people with disabilities. You are either seen as a brave and tragic victim or must aspire to some “super-crip” disabled iron woman ideal so you can feature in some “inspirational” meme that shames able bodied people about everything they are not doing with their privilege. 

Becoming disabled myself forced me to move from that mindset, which I now regard as damaging to the wellbeing of disabled people, to a place of RESPECT and empathy.

But… REAL empathy; not empathy based on ignorance and faulty assumptions of the supposed tragedy of disability.

Those unconscious ableist assumptions need to be unpacked and expunged first.

The best way to do that, other than googling the “social model of disability”, is to LISTEN to what a variety of disabled people have to say about their own realities.

It is only then that you may be able to even begin to imagine, let alone understand, what it is like to be disabled in an ableist world.

And an exercise in true empathy will inevitably lead to the thought: “If I were that person, what would I want? Would I want to be pitied or patronized? Would I want to feel pressured into being some kind of super hero disabled figure in order to be noticed or respected? Would I want to be segregated in “special” spaces?”

Or would I just want to live my friggin life the way I see fit, be independent,  access all public spaces like able bodied people do without a worry everyday, have the same educational opportunities, and live a life free of discrimination and marginalization?

I’ll let you think about that.

Diversity Feminism.

I have both a spiritual and justice agenda in life. Simply put, it is the empowerment of the Feminine and the healing/balancing of the Masculine – in my country of citizenship, in my country of birth, in the Pacific/Oceania region, and globally.

The text below has been sitting in my hard drive for eight months. I wrote it one evening, for myself, in the midst of one of those frustrating public discussions that occasionally arises regarding what feminism is and isn’t, who is and isn’t a good feminist, and why some women distance themselves from the term altogether.

It was inspired by innumerable disagreements I have observed on social media, about ‘white feminism’ and the bizarrely controversial term ‘intersectionality’; and my frustration with how essential conversations about the diversity (different realities) of women are often handled in this public sphere by otherwise intelligent, brilliant people.

And it was my first ‘stream of consciousness’ attempt to articulate my personal feminist framework in my 31st year of life – specific to my experience as a citizen of a ‘settler society’ (Australia) and the barriers that exist in this context. It takes into account the diverse lived experiences of women here (the experiences I am aware of), and how some women face additional barriers due to the intersection of gender discrimination with class, race, et cetera. 

Specifically, barriers to what liberal feminists would regard as the goals of feminism: equality in the public sphere and individual self determination. I did not consult any feminist theories whilst writing this document – my views expressed below evolved over time, shaped by diverse texts, debates, public intellectuals, and lived experience.

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So here it is. what I will refer to as my version of ‘Diversity Feminism’.

It:

1) Is focused on settler societies, and their diverse populations.

The locus of my Diversity Feminism is within ‘settler societies’ such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States – countries broadly built upon the displacement of Indigenous peoples by European colonisation, racist population and border control, and waves of migration. Some of these countries have historically also accommodated forced migration – various forms of slave labour. Australia included

Justice necessitates a full acknowledgement of these histories and policies, and the legacies they produced in terms of persistent intergenerational trauma and cultural, systemic inequalities – which adversely affect some groups in society whilst privileging others. Diversity Feminism seeks to understand – through history and other disciplines, the sciences, the humanities, and the arts  – the root causes of group disadvantage, and discord.

It seeks this multi-faceted understanding, in order to find holistic and innovative solutions to these disadvantages themselves, and create a more just society.

2) Is committed to reconciliation and respect for Indigenous peoples.

Full acknowledgment of history – in particular Indigenous history, both prior to and after white colonisation – is an essential condition of reconciliation, equality, and social cohension. 

The seismic injustice and wounding that occured at the time of the foundation of settler societies, and the destruction that policies governing Indigenous communities wrought over centuries and upon generations of people, must be acknowledged – as a precursor to a healthy society, the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples and, in particular, Indigenous women and girls.

Diversity Feminism upholds that justice requires SELF DETERMINATION for Indigenous communities, and recognises the esssential leadership role Indigenous women play in this self determination. These communities are diverse – geographically and otherwise. Their histories, needs and preferences will differ. The aim of government policies should be to work with communities in order to design and tailor programs to suit them and uphold human rights.

A committment to long-term funding and a ‘self determination’ approach is crucial – communities, Indigenous women and girls, have suffered tremendously as a result of myopic funding cuts and frequent policy changes. In many cases, successful, self determination oriented policies formulated with or indeed by community leaders have been attacked and shelved as a result of the ideological biases of politicians, bureaucrats, and activists. 

Top-down, radically assimilationist policies have in many cases caused much harm. Knee-jerk resistance to “paternalistic measures” required to interrupt cycles of dysfunction can also be harmful. Again, the specific conditions and needs of each community, and the vision and wishes of each community, should determine the policies designed for them.

Finally, policy makers, the broader society, and certainly diversity feminists must acknowledge the deep racism that lingers towards the Indigenous peoples within our countries. This is undeniable – reflected in shameful statistical disparities and documented lived experiences of Aboriginal people. To deny these disparities in 2015 is, in and of itself, an act of racism. And will continue to be until those disparities are fully eliminated.

Much progress towards reconciliation has been made, and this is to be acknowledged and celebrated. But both systemic racism and incidences of personal racism towards Indigenous peoples remain ubiquitous. Respectfully understanding the histories of our nations – not just the relatively recent white settler histories, but Indigenous histories – and how they have shaped our national consciousness, is essential to understanding why.

We cannot truly close the empathy gap and support the empowerment of all Indigenous women and girls without this understanding.

3) Asserts that diversity is reality.

My Diversity Feminism obviously recognises areas of “universal” concern for women and girls in settler societies: legal equality for women; healthcare and family planning services; equal access to education, jobs, and public spaces; equal pay for equal work; progressive restructuring of education and work institutions to accomodate and value caring duties and child rearing responsibilities; freedom for girls and women from violence, abuse and harassment in all its forms.

However, by putting the locus solely on “universal” concerns, many western iterations of feminism within ‘settler societies’ fail to acknowledge or address a vast array of specific, complex obstacles that inhibit marginalised or “Othered” women within them – and prevent such women from enjoying the rights, freedoms, and equal participation in society enjoyed by the more privileged – i.e. white, able bodied, middle class women.

[This has always been the case. An historic legal example: “women” in general were not granted the right to vote in Australian Commonwealth elections in 1902; white women were. Indigenous women had to wait until 1962. In 1920 British subjects were granted ‘all political and other rights’, but South Sea Islanders were still ineligible to vote despite being British subjects. Natives of British India living in Australia were allowed to vote in 1925.]

To remedy this, Diversity Feminism centres its focus on the diverse realities of:

  • First Nations women
  • Ethnically diverse women, and linguistically diverse women
  • Women living with neurological differences, chronic illnesses and disabled women
  • Women living with psychiatric conditions
  • Elderly women
  • Transgender women
  • Single mothers
  • Women carers
  • Women who struggle with English literacy
  • Women stuck on a low income (the working poor, and welfare supported women)
  • Women trapped in abusive and/or violent relationships
  • Homeless women and women who require public housing
  • Women in remote, rural or underserviced communities
  • Same-sex attracted women
  • Women sex workers
  • Exploited workers (including non-citizens & forced/coerced labourers)
  • Women in the prison system
  • Women who have sought asylum in our countries.

These women may in theory share some of the aforementioned “universal” concerns and seek the same gender equity that white, middle class, able-bodied women do – but they face additional external barriers to the realisation of full empowerment due to factors like location, class, “race”, cultural background, literacy/language competency, and disability that can prevent them from doing so.

Diversity Feminism therefore centres the experiences of these women and seeks to examine these barriers, to understand how they intersect (“intersectionality”) with gender – in order to find multi-disciplinary, holistic policy solutions for them. Diversity Feminism is committed to ensuring all women are valued, supported, and empowered to live safe, meaningful, productive, and self determining lives.

4) Upholds and supports individual human rights, both in mainstream national culture and for women within culturally diverse communities (First Nations women included).

For the purposes of this document, cultural patriarchy is defined as: cultures in which the desires, drives and demands of men carry more weight that the desires, drives and demands of women; within which women are restricted to defined gender roles, mores of behaviour, and life paths; and within which women are prevented from ascending to leadership positions due to their sex.

Diversity Feminism supports progressive cultural change away from rigid cultural patriarchy, towards equal opportunity and rights for all women and girls – within both the broad national culture AND within its various cultural communities.

Diversity Feminism also understands that sustainable cultural change comes from within – in this case, led by women and men inside the communities in which change must occur. It therefore seeks to offer firm support to women and girls in culturally diverse communities – and their allies – to instigate progressive change within those communities.

In doing so, Diversity Feminism aims to both respect the unique identities of various cultural communities that are important to many women, AND augment such cultural communities to include recognition of human rights for women and girls. Diversity Feminism affirms those who seek to be agents of change from within.

Fundamentally, Diversity Feminism recognises the reality that many feminists successfully mediate between different cultural identities, in ways that affirm and empower them – and that cultures can change. It therefore aims to foster progressive change across all cultures towards the recognition of human rights for ALL women and girls – and more broadly, all people.

5) Upholds and supports individual human rights for women globally.

Supporting ‘change from within’ is a principle applied in relation to women and girls in other countries too. It is expressed through supporting grass roots initiatives in other countries – and between countries – to secure the rights and empowerment of women and girls around the globe. In particular, the voices and leadership of women in the “Global South”, and conflict zones, should be elevated and affirmed. Overseas movements of men for progressive cultural and legal change – the empowerment of the women in their countries – should also be supported. 

6) Understands that the nation states we live in exist within a bigger picture – a global economic system, that entrenches inequality and relies upon exploitation. 

My Diversity Feminism recognises that Western nations enjoy the level of development they do in large part as a result of centuries of mass human and resource exploitation in the “Global South”. Western colonial projects also planted the seeds of many conflicts and territorial disputes. The international relations objectives and foreign policy of countries (notably the United States) since the development of the nation-state system, have created both immense wealth for some and immense suffering for millions of others globally. Obviously, women and girls are amongst those affected. 

And Diversity Feminism recognises that the material wealth and many of the products we rely upon/enjoy are stained with the suffering of unseen, unheard, exploited workers throughout the world – many of whom are women and girls, or the family members of women and girls.

Diversity Feminism therefore supports progressive government/legislative regulations at a regional, national and international level that protect ALL people, fauna and ecosystems from:

  • human and labour rights abuses
  • unsafe and unethical business practices in all markets (including practices harmful to animals)
  • unsafe and unethical supply chains in production of goods and services
  • unsafe and unethical resource extraction and/or processing

On a personal level, my Diversity Feminism compels me to try, as much as possible, to approach consumption with a sense of responsibility to both the wellbeing of workers and responsible resource extraction in mind – supporting businesses operating ethically in accordance with regulatory measures, or of their own volition [e.g. B Corps]. 

When exercising ones political, legal and consumer freedoms, the Diversity Feminist should endeavour to make choices that align with any or all of the above.

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And… that was it. First attempt to articulate my approach to feminism as a citizen of Australia, a lady with roots in the Global South, a disabled woman. The idealist in me actually believes settler societies have the potential to be the freest, healthiest, and most harmoniously diverse societies on Earth, if they examine their national souls and do the necessary progressive justice work; my diversity feminism is very much about getting us there. I will continue to refine the vision.

© 2016 Pauline Vetuna, All Rights Reserved.

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