It is impossible to discuss disability justice without referencing American politics and American history. People have very different views of many aspects of American politics. Most people don’t really know American history. So, it will be impossible to discuss disability justice in a meaningful way and not make some folks feel uncomfortable. I say that to preface the truth that much of what I’m sharing here is my personal opinion. I have strong reasons for having the opinions I have, but I appreciate and recognize that some will disagree with me. Even if you disagree with me, I hope you will listen to me, not simply hear what I’m saying. To help you, even if we disagree, understand why I have the views I have, I’m going to share a bit about myself throughout this episode.
Important Facts About Me
I want to share a few things about me so I can refer to them later:
- As I hope most of you know, I was born blind.
- I’m a white male.
- I’m 49 years old.
- I grew up in a middle class home.
- I graduated from college and law school.
- I’m a lawyer by trade.
- I’m a homeowner.
- I earn a solid middle class salary.
- As a person with a disability, I face discrimination and oppression on a daily basis.
- As a white male, I am privileged on a daily basis.
- As a well-educated member of the middle class, I’m privileged on a daily basis.
- As a heterosexual male, I’m privileged on a daily basis.
The 10 principles of disability justice were created in 2005 by a group called Sins Invalid. Here is a little of how Sins Invalid is described on their website:
Sins Invalid is a disability justice-based performance project that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and LGBTQ / gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized. Led by disabled people of color, Sins Invalid’s performance work explores the themes of sexuality, embodiment and the disabled body, developing provocative work where paradigms of “normal” and “sexy” are challenged, offering instead a vision of beauty and sexuality inclusive of all bodies and communities.
There are now several versions of the 10 principles of disability justice. Since they all present the same ideas and to keep this a bit shorter, I have lightly edited the 10 principles. The light editing I have done also means I have eliminated a lot of explanatory information so I could cover it a bit differently or to save time. The 10 principles of disability justice are as follows:
- Intersectionality: We are all many things, and they all impact us.
- Leadership of those most impacted: When we talk about ableism, racism, sexism, and more we are led by those who most know these systems.
- Anti capitalist politic: In an economy that sees land and humans as components of profit, we are anti capitalist by the nature of having nonconforming bodies and/or minds.
- Commitment to cross-movement organizing: Shifting how social justice movements understand disability and contextualize ableism, disability justice lends itself to politics of alliance.
- Recognizing wholeness: People have inherent worth outside of commodity relations and capitalist notions of productivity. Each person is full of history and life experience.
- Sustainability: We pace ourselves, individually and collectively, to be sustained long term. Our embodied experiences guide us toward ongoing justice and liberation.
- Commitment to cross-disability solidarity: We honor the insights and participation of all of our community members, knowing that isolation undermines collective liberation.
- Interdependence: We meet each other’s needs as we build toward liberation, knowing that state solutions inevitably extend into further control over lives.
- Collective access: As brown, black and queer-bodied disabled people we bring flexibility and creative nuance that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity, to be in community with each other.
- Collective liberation: No body or mind can be left behind—only by moving together can we accomplish the revolution we require.
I want to discuss a few of the 10 principles of disability justice individually. Again, what I will say here are my opinions and are expressions of what the 10 principles of disability justice say to me.
Intersectionality is a concept invented by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how race, sex, class, and other characteristics intersect with one another and overlap. For more than 20 years after Professor Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, it remained an obscure term rarely heard beyond legal and philosophical discussions. Over the last decade, intersectionality has become a cultural and political lightning rod as some folks fight for more equity and others fight to maintain the status quo. But when you think about it, intersectionality makes sense. Everyone is a whole bunch of things. The more things any person has that are different from the traits of those with the most power, the more discrimination and oppression they will face.
Yes, I suffer because of ableism as a person with a disability. But I know that women with disabilities face discrimination based on ableism and sexism. Black women with disabilities face discrimination based on ableism, sexism, and racism. Blind white men with disabilities who live in poverty suffer from ableism and classism.
When I can’t complete an online mortgage application because it’s inaccessible, I’m being discriminated against because I’m disabled. But in the mortgage process I’m advantaged because my legal education means I can understand all of the documents without needing a lawyer or a realtor to explain them to me. Sadly, the fact that I’m white means I’m more likely to get an adequate mortgage than are people of color with the same level of education and salary I have. My lifelong membership in the middle class means I have the ability to get a mortgage when many cannot.
The mortgage process, like everything else in life, leaves me sometimes being oppressed and other times privileges me. I go back and forth between oppressed and privileged because of the intersections that combine to make the whole person that is Jonathan Simeone.
The principle of disability justice discussing the idea that people most impacted by discrimination should be leading efforts to reduce and end that discrimination is something I talk about all the time. But I have not yet, on this podcast, referred to the idea of us leading projects impacting us as a principle of disability justice. Still, the notion that we should decide what impacts us and our community is a principle that means a great deal to me and influences much of what I do.
We hear the word “capitalism” every day. But we must use a standard definition of capitalism to better understand disability justice. For our purposes, capitalism is an economic system in which private individuals or businesses own capital goods. At the same time, business owners (capitalists) employ workers (labor) who only receive wages; labor does not own the means of production but uses them on behalf of the owners of capital. In other words, the vast majority of people own little. The bulk of what they acquire depends on their ability to convince someone to hire them. If, for any reason, someone is either unable to produce for the capital class, or the capital class wrongly believes they cannot produce, a person has very little opportunity to achieve. The economic model of disability, as we discussed in the episode on disability equity, reflects true capitalism. Once someone is being paid to produce for the capitalist class that person, no matter how much discrimination they face inside and outside of work, is no longer considered disabled.
Look at Social Security Supplemental Income (SSI). Even though people with disabilities are significantly more likely to be unemployed than people without disabilities, SSI provides far less on a monthly basis than what the federal government considers a poverty level existence because that [person has never produced much if anything for the capital class.
Let’s also consider Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). If someone is working and becomes disabled, SSDI pays them only a percentage of their former salary. At a time when someone must face no longer being employed, learn to adjust to having a disability, and try to accept being disabled, their ability to pay their bills is diminished because they are no longer producing for the capital class.
In a just society, people whose disability-based discrimination has been a major contributor to why they have never worked much and why they may never work again, the federal government would not force them to survive on an amount it knows is far less than anyone can actually use to survive. In a just society, people who lose their job because of a disability would not lose a large portion of their salary too. Forcing people to live far below the poverty line or forcing them to lose a large portion of their income because they are disabled is simply immoral and unjust.
The idea of recognizing each individual as the whole of who they are is hugely important and rarely happens. I have heard from people of color with disabilities that in disability spaces their race is not seen and that in racial spaces their disability is not seen. People should have all of their identities recognized, appreciated, and spoken to in all spaces. We are not inclusive if someone feels like they can’t discuss a part of who they are in a group.
One of my biggest frustrations with the disability community is how rarely we act as a community. Instead of working together to make the systemic change we all need, groups representing different parts of our community almost never work together. Sure, what I need as a blind person is different than what someone who is deaf requires. But if we work for what each other needs, we are both more likely to get more than what we have now.
Everyone needs help sometimes. Things would be much better if we all did more to help people in our communities. Whether we are talking about communities of disabled people or not. But things would really change if we worked more often to help those who are not part of communities of which we are members. For working together and helping each other is the best way to foster understanding.
Often we hear about the relative size of the disability community. Typically, people say that up to 20 percent of the population is disabled. While there is truth to that, that truth fails to acknowledge that the experiences of all disabled people are not nearly alike. My experiences as a person who was born blind are vastly different than are the experiences of someone who went blind recently in the middle of life. My experiences and those of someone who lost their sight recently in the middle of life are more similar than are our experiences and those of someone who is deaf. But in a country where all the blind and deaf people taken together constitute a fraction of the total population, we better care about each other’s liberation. In order for us to be liberated, we better get much more support from way more people who aren’t blind or deaf if we are ever going to be liberated.
Simply put, we cannot be liberated through our efforts alone. Unless we work together and work with all people, regardless of disability or disability status, our disabled community will never be liberated. If our disabled community is never liberated, those of us who are disabled will never be individually liberated. The key to our personal liberation and the liberation of our community is viewing our liberation through the lens of disability justice.