• Sat. Feb 24th, 2024

History Months: organise to stop tokenising the marginalised

ByShin Woo Kim

Nov 10, 2020

CW: ableism, anti-Blackness

As Disabilities History Month is upon us, it’s important to remember that disabilities justice isn’t just a single month’s thought but an ongoing process where one must challenge wider institutions, including the University of Edinburgh, to stop allowing ableism to be normalised and ingrained in our society.

From day-to-day terminology such as ‘lame,’ ‘tone-deaf,’ ‘blind to’ and ‘stupid’ (which are words commonly used in a derogatory way towards people with mobility disability or processing disorders, or that equate being ‘deaf’ or ‘blind’ to negative connotations), to institutional accommodations or lack thereof for disabled people, ableism is everywhere.

Take Black History Month, which was just last month. Even if it has ended, we must not stop thinking about justice for Black people. After all, anti-Blackness exists in all communities including the disabled community. Disabilities History Month if anything, should continue doing the work of Black History Month to amplify voices of Black disabled people, given that they have it systemically harder than white people and non-Black people of colour who have the same disability.

Another thing to remember is that the disabled community is not just monolithic in terms of race (it’s never just white disabled people), but there’s also differences in the types of disabilities that people have, and that even people with the same disability can experience it differently, and cope differently.

To give the most basic example (as it is impossible to sum up the diversity of the autistic community in just a few sentences), an autistic white cis man is more likely to be diagnosed as autistic and him going non-verbal’s interpreted as him being shy, whereas an autistic Black cis woman, who faces deeply ingrained misogynoir stereotypes of being aggressive intimidators, experiences barriers to a diagnosis or accommodation, or whose non-verbalness may never be interpreted as shy, but instead as being ‘rude’ or ‘arrogant’. Medical institutions have a history of misogynoir: for example, they have experimented on Black women for the ‘advancement’ of gynaecology that now largely benefits white cis abled middle-class women. This begs the question, can historically racist (especially anti-Black) and ableist institutions ever be ‘saved’?

Perhaps this explains why, although not justify, everything that institutions do in the name of ‘inclusion’ ends up being performative events that employ one, or if lucky, a few, marginalised people to do all the work; events that they capitalise on by crediting themselves on that work. How long must disabled people be tokenised before there’s any material change?  In other words, how do we stop disabled people from becoming tokens to ‘celebrate’ for just one month? How do we actively challenge the institutions that don’t give us the material changes that make it possible for us to live, and push them to confront and dismantle the system that kills disabled people?

I’d say disabled people and ‘allies’ need to build collective power by organising. And organise locally, outside of the university, to work towards material and structural change. To name a few, IWW for any working person, Living Rent for any tenants and Mutual Aid Trans Edinburgh (MATE) for trans people…. It’s essential that we advocate for disabled trans people.

For example, members of the Student-Staff Solidarity Network (SSSN), a University of Edinburgh student community established to show solidarity to striking staff, have set up ‘Accountability @ Edi Uni’ (@solidarity4kez on Twitter), a petition to help Kerry Rush, a disabled non-binary student at the university. The petition calls for change within the university in the way they punish disabled and chronically ill students with more work if they take time off, and to have Kerry’s bill for the year removed. Even within the disabled trans community, we must remember trans women, especially disabled Black trans women. How do we go about doing this?

Organise, but ensure that your deciding committee has disabled people, Black people, and/or trans women, and that you structure the organisation and set safe space policies so that everyone is held accountable for any abuse and aggression. Accessibility policies are needed to ensure that the space is accessible for EVERYONE. Spaces for events and meetings should be wheelchair-accessible, BSL provided, less jargon used, and there needs to be break rooms, and regular breaks between planning meetings. If the meetings are so long that so many breaks are needed, then maybe cut the meetings down. Make your presentations, papers or websites more reader- and user-friendly (e.g. not too much colour, use contrasting colours).

All organisations should commit to being as accessible as possible. There’s always something to improve on in terms of accessibility. As for the university, putting the weight of representation of all disabled students on a single disabed student’s officer is a lot.

Another point of consideration is that certain tutors refuse to record their lectures even when there are students who have processing disorders, or physically disabled students who can’t always attend the lectures in person. Covid-induced online lectures mean that there are now more recordings, but this should have been done pre-Covid. 

I think it’s also interesting speaking to other disabled people about Covid, because there are many disabled people (those of whom I spoke to were people with chronic pain, or those who use mobility aids or wheelchairs) who, pre-Covid, were already used to being indoors, or making online orders. Conversely, Covid has also changed the lives of disabled people, but not in the way that most people expect.

Yes, Covid has impacted people’s mental health negatively, but it’s also changed disabled people’s lives in ways that make them one of the most vulnerable groups of people.

For example, there are people who for health reasons or because they are autistic, can’t wear masks. No, I’m not advocating against the usage of masks, just that these are points to consider in implementing plans for accessibility.

Although I work alongside other disabled people for disabilities justice, it’s not one we can do alone, and everyone, especially those in power, must work towards disabilities justice as well.

To summarise: organise, organise in an actively anti-ableist, anti-racist and anti-transphobic way, hold everyone accountable, and hold everyone responsible to the various needs of different disabled people.

Illustration: Katie Moore

By Shin Woo Kim

Editor-in-Chief Shinwoo (they/them) is a former News Editor. They identify as a Marxist-Leninist, and have written for Voices, News and Opinion and more recently for TV & Film.