Disability rights must always have a seat at the social justice table.
Ihave been keeping up with the important work of the Women’s March on Washington since I heard the internet’s first rumblings about the event following the election of Donald Trump as president. I did not choose to get involved in planning, either nationally or locally, instead focusing on other forms of social justice activism, including writing, public speaking, podcasting, and calling legislators. But as January 21, the day of the march, neared, I started to contemplate attending — either in Washington, D.C. or New York City, one of several cities hosting its own event that day.
Concerned about accessibility, I visited the websites for the marches in both locations, relieved to see sections on each site dedicated to accessibility FAQs. I also felt reassured that some incredible disabled women I know are volunteering and organizing behind the scenes, and that several of my friends with disabilities will be joining marches around the country.
A few days later, I was excited, albeit slightly taken aback, when the official Women’s March account followed me on Twitter. (Okay, I had a dance party.)
Right after that, I was elated to see the account tweeting about #AbleBodiedPrivilege. I did a bit more searching, and was heartened by the direct mention of disability rights among the “Unity Principles” informing the Women’s March. So, it followed that I had high hopes for the inclusion of disabled women in the recently-released official platform of the Women’s March, which is directly linked on the “Unity Principles” page.
My heart sank when I read it.
The first time the word “disabilities” is mentioned, it shows zero recognition of disability as a social justice issue:
“We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy. We further affirm that all care work — caring for the elderly, caring for the chronically ill, caring for children and supporting independence for people with disabilities — is work, and that the burden of care falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color. We stand for the rights, dignity, and fair treatment of all unpaid and paid caregivers. We must repair and replace the systemic disparities that permeate caregiving at every level of society.”
I also recognize that women of color disproportionately take on the caregiving as a job, that caregiving can be extremely demanding work, and that fair compensation is imperative. But you know what it says to me that this bullet point is one of only two places where disability is mentioned in the entire platform released by the Women’s March? It says that my existence as a disabled woman is a “burden.” My existence as a disabled woman is “work” for someone else. My existence as a disabled woman does not matter.
Disability is mentioned only one more time in the entire platform:
“We believe Civil Rights are our birthright. Our Constitutional government establishes a framework to provide and expand rights and freedoms–not restrict them. To this end, we must protect and restore all the Constitutionally-mandated rights to all our citizens, including voting rights, freedom to worship without fear of intimidation or harassment, freedom of speech, and protections for all citizens regardless of race, gender, age or disability.”
I’m obviously fully on board with this point. That said, the rights afforded to all humans by the Constitution do not prevent the stigmatization and injustices experienced by disabled people. This is why legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act came to exist, thanks to the hard work of disability rights activists. Yet, such legal protections still do not prevent prejudice or exclusion of disability — a major social justice issue. And considering that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans have disabilities, disability rights deserve more than a cursory mention in the official Women’s March platform.
Disability can intersect with every identity. Every. Single. One.
But I shouldn’t have to be explaining this — especially not to people who deem themselves leaders in social justice. Especially not to people who claim in the very first paragraph of their guiding vision to recognize “that women have intersecting identities and are therefore impacted by a multitude of social justice and human rights issues.”
Rather than just complain, though, I decided to take action. So I broke down the text of the “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles” published by the Women’s March section by section, providing sources that I researched to explain why disability should be included throughout the platform. My goal is to share this piece with Women’s March organizers, in the hopes of getting them to to be more inclusive of disability rights.
Below, I’ve highlighted specific parts of the text — and detailed why women with disabilities should be included in them.
It’s time to learn that disability can intersect with every identity. Every. Single. One.
“The Women’s March on Washington is a women-led movement bringing together people of all genders, ages, races, cultures, political affiliations, and backgrounds in our nation’s capital on January 21, 2017, to affirm our shared humanity and pronounce our bold message of resistance and self-determination…We welcome vibrant collaboration and honor the legacy of the movements before us — the suffragists and abolitionists, the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement, the American Indian Movement, Occupy Wall Street, Marriage Equality, Black Lives Matter and more.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this section: The Disability Rights Movement is conspicuously absent in this introduction, and yet it’s a movement that, although not always cohesive, has been ongoing for decades. Just as other marginalized groups have fought against oppression, so too have disability rights activists.
For a comprehensive look at disability history, check out the timeline created by the National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth.
“#WHYWEMARCH We are empowered by the legions of revolutionary leaders who paved the way for us to march, and acknowledge those around the globe who fight for our freedoms. We honor these women and so many more. They are #WHYWEMARCH.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this section: First, a little-acknowledged fun fact: Harriet Tubman had a disability. However, there’s someone I believe is missing from this list, a civil rights leader whose name the world should recognize as readily as Harriet Tubman — Judith Heumann. She is a leader in disability rights activism and current appointee to the U.S. Department of State as a Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. Heumann has spent her life fighting for disability access and legislation to ensure equal rights for all people with disabilities.
“We believe Gender Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice. We must create a society in which women, in particular women — in particular Black women, Native women, poor women, immigrant women, Muslim women, and queer and trans women — are free and able to care for and nurture their families, however they are formed, in safe and healthy environments free from structural impediments.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this bullet point: Disabled women who want to become parents or who already have children experience both systemic and societal prejudice that cause impediments to caring for their families. According to chapter 12 of Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children, a report from the National Council on Disability, “People with disabilities face significant barriers to creating and maintaining families… created by the child welfare system, the family law system, adoption agencies, assisted reproductive technology providers, and society as a whole.”
“Women deserve to live full and healthy lives, free of violence against our bodies. One in three women have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime; and one in five women have been raped. Further, each year, thousands of women and girls, particularly Black, indigenous, and transgender women and girls, are kidnapped, trafficked, or murdered. We honor the lives of those women who were taken before their time and we affirm that we work for a day when all forms of violence against women are eliminated.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this bullet point: The statistics will do the talking for this one. According to research published in 2008, as cited by the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, “women with a disability are significantly more likely than women without a disability to experience domestic violence in their lifetime, 37.3% vs. 20.6%. Women with a disability are much more likely to have a history of unwanted sex with an intimate partner, 19.7% vs. 8.2%.” Available information on disability and sexual assault is limited, but as research compiled by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reveals, “studies estimate that 80% of disabled women have been sexually assaulted.”
I am part of this statistic.
“We believe in accountability and justice for police brutality and ending racial profiling and targeting of communities of color. Women of color are killed in police custody at greater rates than white women, and are more likely to be sexually assaulted by police. We also call for an immediate end to arming police with the military grade weapons and military tactics that are wreaking havoc on communities of color. No woman or mother should have to fear that her loved ones will be harmed at the hands of those sworn to protect.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this bullet point: Disabled people — especially disabled people of color — are disproportionately impacted by police violence. A recent report issued by the Ruderman Foundation concluded that “a third to a half of all use-of-force incidents involve a disabled civilian.”
Disabled people — especially disabled people of color — are disproportionately impacted by police violence.
Consider, for example, the story of Natasha McKenna, a black woman with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder who died following police use of a stun gun. Learn more from the National Council on Independent Living’s project, “We Can’t Breathe: The Deaf & Disabled Margin of Police Brutality Project,” which includes a video and toolkit that “addresses how state violence affects people with disabilities who are also women, people of color, and LGBTQ+.”
“We believe it is our moral imperative to dismantle the gender and racial inequities within the criminal justice system. The rate of imprisonment has grown faster for women than men, increasing by 700% since 1980, and the majority of women in prison have a child under the age of 18. Incarcerated women also face a high rate of violence and sexual assault. We are committed to ensuring access to gender-responsive programming and dedicated healthcare including substance abuse treatment, mental and maternal health services for women in prison. We believe in the promise of restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration. We are also committed to disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline that prioritizes incarceration over education by systematically funneling our children — particularly children of color, queer and trans youth, foster care children, and girls — into the justice system.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this bullet point: Issues of disability justice are deeply entrenched in the school-to-prison pipeline. A 2015 report from the National Council on Disability, entitled “Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students with Disabilities,” highlights a key statistic about disability and incarceration: “Among incarcerated youth, 85 percent have learning and/or emotional disabilities, yet only 37 percent receive special education in school. Most were either undiagnosed or not properly served in school.”
“We believe in Reproductive Freedom. We do not accept any federal, state or local rollbacks, cuts or restrictions on our ability to access quality reproductive healthcare services, birth control, HIV/AIDS care and prevention, or medically accurate sexuality education. This means open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people, regardless of income, location or education. We understand that we can only have reproductive justice when reproductive health care is accessible to all people regardless of income, location or education.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this bullet point: Disabled people are among the most undereducated about sexuality, both in terms of pleasure and safety. Sex and disability is viewed as taboo, and disabled people are often fetishized or infantilized. Because of this, parents, caregivers, educators, and medical professionals often ignore the sexual health of disabled people. (Advocates for Youth offers a helpful resource on sexual health education.)
Disabled people are often fetishized or infantilized.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal published an article in 2011 aptly titled “Sexuality of the disabled often overlooked.” As the article highlights, “The sexuality of people with disabilities, many of whom require varying degrees of assistance to lead fulfilling sex lives, continues to be overlooked, avoided or even dismissed as a component of holistic care because of a longstanding stigma that shrouds disability and sex. A dearth of resources, training and infrastructure to guide caregivers and patients in addressing sexual needs contributes to the problem.”
“We firmly declare that LGBTQIA Rights are Human Rights and that it is our obligation to uplift, expand and protect the rights of our gay, lesbian, bi, queer, trans or gender non-conforming brothers, sisters and siblings. This includes access to non-judgmental, comprehensive healthcare with no exceptions or limitations; access to name and gender changes on identity documents; full antidiscrimination protections; access to education, employment, housing and benefits; and an end to police and state violence.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this bullet point: The language in this bullet point technically indicates that it extends to all people, but I’d like to specifically highlight the intersections between disability rights and LGBTQIA rights. To do this, I defer to the insights of Dylan Orr, who identifies as both disabled and transgender.
Orr works as the Director of Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards, after previously serving in the U.S. Department of Labor. In a blog post for the White House, Orr wrote, “I have come to recognize the multiple intersections within our communities — from being labeled by society as ‘other’ or somehow different from what is ‘normal’ mentally or physically, to negotiating disclosure, to facing barriers and disparities in critical areas of life like public accommodations, housing, education, employment, the legal system and medical care.”
“We believe in equal pay for equal work and the right of all women to be paid equitably. We must end the pay and hiring discrimination that women, particularly mothers, women of color, lesbian, queer and trans women still face each day in our nation. Many mothers have always worked and in our modern labor force; and women are now 50% of all family breadwinners. We stand for the 82% of women who become moms, particularly moms of color, being paid, judged, and treated fairly. Equal pay for equal work will lift families out of poverty and boost our nation’s economy.”
Why women with disabilities should be included in this bullet point: Did you know there’s a law that allows employers to pay subminimum wage to people with disabilities? Seriously. Disabled workers can be legally exploited, doing a full day’s work while earning mere pennies. As explained by the National Federation of the Blind, “Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)…allows the Secretary of Labor to grant Special Wage Certificates to employers, permitting them to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. This is based on the false assumption that disabled workers are less productive than nondisabled workers.”
To top off all of this exclusion, not a single disability organization is represented among the lengthy list of contributors to the platform. I can’t say I’m shocked, but I am deeply disheartened and disappointed.
And all the reasons I’ve shared for inclusion of disability are but an overview of the experiences of women with disabilities. What every one of us needs to do right now is dig deeper into these issues, to recognize that disability rights must always have a seat at the social justice table. I feel like my work as an activist has turned me into a broken record, because my urging for people to dig deeper than surface-level mentions of disability is constant. I only wish a major effort like the Women’s March, which is a critical part of the overarching movement for women’s rights, had already gotten this message from the disability activists who have been advocating tirelessly.
Even so, I intend to join the march to lend my voice and show support for the rights of every woman. As the new administration is about to begin, let’s all work together to ensure that none of us are excluded, left behind, or forgotten.
Addendum: The Women’s March On Washington Disability Caucus, a grassroots initiative of volunteers, has written its own platform for the march that’s worth checking out. You can do so here.
UPDATE: Following publication of this article and advocacy from several passionate disability rights activists, including leaders of the Disability Caucus, the Women’s March on Washington national team has publicly recognized the omission of disability rights from their platform. They have begun to make positive changes to reflect disability inclusion.