Intersectionality: Getting the best out of advocacy

Kimberlé Crenshaw was a North American professor who first coined the term in 1989. Here, we talk about what it is and why intersectionality matters to advocacy.

Solihull Action through Advocacy have a vision for. a world free from discrimination, supporting the most vulnerable and ensuring their voices are heard through the provision of advocacy services. A good, just and noble cause. An unflappable raison d’être. A world we would all like to live in, of course. It’s a huge goal, and the true challenges lie in getting there. How do we get to a world free from discrimination if we don’t fully understand the nature of oppression?

Discrimination is treating someone less favourably because of a protected characteristic, something about a person that we feel is important and must be respected. This covers things like age, marital status, race, gender, sex, politics and more. Oppression is the prolonged mistreatment of people, or continued injustice. When we have civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter it is because they have been treated unfairly for years and people are making a change. But, why does oppression happen? Who does it happen to?

To understand oppression, you have to understand people. We are a people based organisation, we can do that bit. Intersectionality comes from the understanding that people are multi-dimensional, there are many things that lead to the creation of a whole person. I write this post as a black, disabled, awesome woman. These are different characteristics that I will experience oppression as a result of, throughout my life. As a black person, I will experience racism, systematic oppression, discrimination based on the colour of my skin. As a disabled person, I will experience ableism, disablism, discrimination because of my physical abilities and differences. As a woman, I will experience sexism and all other sorts of nonsense because we live in a world geared to benefit people who aren’t me. Our world is pretty awesome for able-bodied, middle class white men and if you deviate from that you’re going to have a bad time. The people we support will be discriminated against, oppressed, or placed in vulnerable situations simply because they have a learning disability. About 2% of the population in the UK has a learning disability — that works out to be around 1,198,000 people.

Someone with a learning disability finds it harder to learn, understand and communicate. Occassionally people with learning disabilities have other needs or impairments. These other needs mean that there are more barriers when people and organisations (society) isn’t prepared to support that person. When an organisation is ill-equipped to work with individual needs, they can often do whats easiest, or what’s best for them instead of the disabled person.

Advocacy is especially important when you consider the history of disability rights. Disabled people have always been spoken over, had their voices ignored or been told how to live their lives for the convenience of others. People with learning disabilities are especially vulnerable — being provided with complex inaccessible information means that they can be treated in a way that goes against their wishes. Statistics have shown that disabled people are twice as likely to be assaulted as those without disabilities. People of any age with physical or intellectual disabilities are at increased risk of abuse. Dependence on a caregiver can make it more difficult for a disabled person to escape or report abuse.

When we work in advocacy, it’s important to look at the other societal influences that have led to a particular situation. When a client is repeatedly arrested and doesn’t understand why — has this situation happened because they are black and disabled? Black people are statistically more likely to be stopped and searched, harassed by police and more. Being disabled means you’re more of a target, and people will come after you. Understanding the context leads to effective advocacy. When a client in a shared home is being forced to do all of the cleaning, has their gender played a role in this situation? Is this different, unfavourable treatment because of their complexities of their identity?

People will always attack difference, they’re scared of it. Advocacy is great when it is intersectional. When it realises, values and respects those differences and works to ensure they are celebrated.