Disability Justice holds a vision born out of collective struggle, drawing upon the legacies of cultural and spiritual resistance within a thousand underground paths, igniting small persistent fires of rebellion in everyday life. Disabled people of the global majority — black and brown people — share common ground confronting and subverting colonial powers in our struggle for life and justice.Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of Sins Invalid, a disability justice-based performance project
Note on disability language from the authors: The disability community is evolving to using identity-first language (disabled person) in place of person-first language (person with a disability) (American Progress). At United Way we encourage dialog and centering the voices of folks most connected to the language we use. Our DEI team is using identity-first language in this piece because of our own internal dialogues, where our disabled staff and community members expressed this preference.
Disability can affect any person at any time in their life. In the United States, one in four adults, or about 61 million people, have a disability. There are many types of disabilities. Some examples include mobility and physical, chronic illness, developmental, intellectual and emotional.
If you were to Google, “disability definition” or “types of disability,” you would likely find an extensive list of terms, definitions and lists created by governments, institutions and businesses. Many times, these definitions are limited. They are often created by people without disabilities and don’t account for the rich diversity and lived experiences that exist within the disability community.
There is a definition of disability set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure protections for all disabled people in the United States. The ADA defines disability as “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
In the ADA’s definition, there is a lot of emphasis on the individual person and their responsibility to track or prove a history with their disability. The definition does not account for the ways our society excludes disabled people or how a disability can intersect with other social identities which can create multiple layers of oppression based on a person’s race, age, gender, socioeconomic status and more. The definition only provides a narrow view of disability.
When deepening our understanding of disability, we must account for the ways in which ableism shows up.
In a working definition of ableism by Talila Lewis, Ableism is: “A system of assigning value to people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence and fitness. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”
Ableism creates discrimination and prejudice against disabled people, it reinforces the idea that people without disabilities are the default, and places higher value on people’s lives and experiences that don’t have disabilities.
When looking beyond the ADA’s definition of disability, we can better understand how ableism and systematic oppression create the conditions that disabled people experiences each day.
Disability Justice is a framework that recognizes how ableism is connected to other forms of oppression and centers the voices of disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queer people with disabilities, trans and gender non-conforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities who are houseless, people with disabilities who are incarcerated, people with disabilities who have had their ancestral lands stolen, amongst others.
Today we will expand on the definition of disability, understand several types of disabilities and learn more about disability justice. As you engage in today’s content, we encourage you to reflect on the importance of listening to the voices and lived experiences of disabled people and center people most impacted by multiple forms of oppression to work toward a more just society for us all.