In the east coast, I’ve noticed the urgent need for a long-awaited shift in radical and queer spaces. People who are SDQTPOC (Sick & Disabled Queer Trans People of Color) and SDC (Sick, Disabled, & with Chronic pain) have been continuously fighting to disrupt able-bodied political space for quite some time. Simultaneously, SDQTPOC face various degrees of ableism that amplify a range of isolation, erasure, victim-blaming, and silencing. This happens at the social security office, worker’s comp office, school, work, and most obviously in hospitals/medical industrial complexes even if some of us have the privilege to seek medical care it tends to be systemically shaming & demeaning in the first place.
In real life public interactions are hard for disabled queer & trans people, especially QTPOC. For a plethora of reasons, access to real life company in the hustle and bustle of an inaccessible city can be unfathomable for some of us. What is most painfully dubious is the absence of acknowledgement of ableism in political spaces. Here, there’s opportunity to streamline practices of making spaces more accessible. If getting out of bed or having a conversation can feel like a battle, why must we strive for acknowledgement with those who (on the surface) share common values and community?
Ableism operates as a device from white supremacy and colonial capitalism. It divides us without reprieve. It devalues SDC experiences as unnatural, invalid undesirable, and inferior on a personal and institutional level. When mentioned, it is used in theoretical terms or a supplemental addition on lists of the isms to combat when seeking justice. What’s missing is the practical. People can share “No Ableism “ in their community agreements and mission statements all the damn day, and perpetually continue with little to no active examples that challenge ableism in our own queer and trans and radical social and political spaces.
Here’s an obvious question that seems to go unanswered: How can you challenge ableism if those most impacted by it cannot (due to systemic implications & challenges) be there at your event? From cultural hotbeds where art-making and protest strategy are conspired, to the chill self-care potluck to herbal healing seminars, ableism is insipid and is not something just worth mentioning to appease able-bodied guilt or meet a political knowledge quota.
I say this as a “walkie” who’s a non-black trans person of color, as someone who has been in able-bodied spaces, who’s acquired disabilities through time, where my use of a cane and chronic pain aren’t always perceived as much of a threat by “do-gooder” ableists in our movement depending on the moment. I can begrudgingly get to your meeting *sometimes* depending on access, pain, scent exposure, distance, stairs, finances. I am asked to the table and most times arrive as the token, starving for justice that isn’t there for me and my people. I do so with discomfort and in pain, and have been expected to operate in obsolete definitions of productivity and contribution by capitalist, ableist standards in some distorted sense of political martyrdom that seems to burn everyone out.
There are those of you that do not think you’re affected by the onslaught of ableism. Let me suggest that you are directly connected to ableism because you benefit from it. Passively accepting the status quo of normalcy of able-bodiedness in mind and body means you reap benefits of ableism. Ableism much like many tools based in oppression, ensures that only specific ideas, expertise, savvy, and knowledge are in the room whereby the room misses some pretty necessary incredible genius and vibrancy. I mean it’s cool simply because SDQTPOCS can (and have) create our own spaces, yet if we can create less alienation, let’s choose that direction.
More Radical Reads: Everyday Ableism and How We Can Avoid It
A phenomenon I’ve experienced by radical queer and trans people, people of color, etc. is the tactic of the “Wait & See.” If you’ve been on committees or collective planning spaces that host events, shows, exhibits, and workshops, you may have witnessed this or unfortunately mistaken this ableist tactic as a means to be more accessible in the work you do. Acknowledgement that people face barriers in oppression is a great first move and waiting to see who applies, arrives, or signs up for your event doesn’t carve out a welcoming space. It leaves ableism to be the central determining factor, it weeds people out, and again chalks up attendance to individual ability, rather than address the multiple barriers that function on oppression (such as ableism, racism, poverty, fat shaming, transmisogyny, etc.), that affect our collective growth.
I’ve asked various Sick, Disabled, Queer, and Trans people to express their initial ideas on the “Wait & See” method. They shared needed perspectives and agree that the issue with making individual accommodations or “waiting to see who applies/shows up,” then making access information based on that news for an event, demonstrates:
1) The idea that ableism is on the onus of the Disabled/Sick/Chronically ill.
This fails to address the core reality that ableism is everywhere, and everyone including the non-disabled normies are impacted.
As Galadriel Mozee-Legare states: “To me a mentality of “Wait and see” = wait until it’s too late to make proactive choices that center SDC in a real way, appear as though your event is considering folks as individuals but really it is neglecting to address systemic obstacles that SDC people have already put tons of work into defining and offering solutions for.
1.5) It doesn’t address interdependence, how we’re all connected.
This actually perpetuates the harsh reality of isolation of Sick & Disabled people. * Please note Sins Invalid’s definition of the term.
Poet, an activist, and an academic, Ashley Volion, makes the point: It doesn’t see our whole humanity and it doesn’t signify and welcome all of us. It forces us to identify and puts the burden and work back on us.
2) It fails to address how political, artistic, and everyday spaces aren’t aware or accessible to people.
Arrianna Planey says,”Wait and see’ is basically ‘we don’t really care to be proactive in facilitating PWD* being able to ‘show up. ”
3) “Wait & see” assumes that organizers aren’t willing to be transparent about their lack of knowledge.
Sick, Disabled, & Chronically Ill people are again, an afterthought as far contributors, leaders, colleagues, experts, peers.
Alice Wong: “It presumes that access benefits a small number of people rather than all the conference participants, by not building in some of the basic accessibility accommodations from the outset, they’re actually doing things ass-backward.”
4) It engages in the assumption that SDC people feel welcome despite the invisibility or lack of naming access of the space.
However, that assumption is dangerous, according to Yumi Tomsha: “Wait and see” treats SDC folks as if we are extras who may show up to the set, rather than centering us as (or as potential) leaders, participants whose presence is necessary and valuable. Also, the implication of ‘wait and see’ is that it’s a lot of work, inconvenient, etc. for organizers to make events accessible and communicate clearly about access. It creates an environment in which SDC folks may feel it’s a lot to ask, almost like we are asking a great personal favor. Ableism tells us we are the problem.”
5)It doesn’t center people to make an educated decision based on their needs and access, but prioritizes non-disabled willingness to share space/opportunities.
As Oliver Baez Bendorf shares, “It makes SDC folks put themselves out there before knowing how and whether they/their needs will be received and accommodated, which can be a scary or stressful thing to do and may often (they MUST know this) result in folks deciding not even to reach out or apply; keeps it an isolated process (“we’ll be accessible if people need us to be”) vs a public ethic (“we’ll be transparent about our accessibility because it’s the right thing to do”); fails to communicate, “you are welcome here, we want you here, we are ready.”
Defeated by abled lack of efforts, frequently SDQTPOC & SDC community pick up the slack while being unwelcomed and eventually are forced to self-advocate yet again. Brianne Moore shares this relentless pattern, “It’s hard to know who’ll show up. That’s the risk of planning events. I think access needs should be the ultimate priority regardless of who shows up. Are you having an event with low registration? The wait and see seems counterintuitive… I spam [the organizers] with my access questions and hopefully expect a few people respond to my spamming.”
For solutions on how to make your program/event/gathering more accessible visit: Nuts & Bolts of Accessibility by SURJ (Showing up for Racial Justice). Much of these words are made possible & stem from the praxis of Sins Invalid. For more resources on Disability Justice, it’s roots/legacies/applications, please visit: Disability Justice – a working draft by Patty Berne
*PWD: People with Disabilities.
Kay Ulanday Barrett is a poet, performer, and educator, navigating life as a disabled pilipinx-amerikan transgender queer in the U.S. with struggle, resistance, and laughter. Follow them on social media @brownroundboi.
[Feature Image: Black and white image of three people standing indoors as they all look out of a floor to ceiling window out to a city view. Pexels.com]