As we begin the conversations about decolonization – dismantling the influence of capitalist-imperialist colonizers who have forced assimilation of marginalized people and erased cultural narratives outside the dominant one for centuries – there is one group we often forget to mention: the minority that “anyone can become a part of, any time.” Disabled folks. Every other marginalized group has disabled folks, and even those who experience privilege in other areas still face unique challenges that need to be addressed if we are ever going to have true liberation for everyone.
The policies and social constructs put into place by those with a personal interest in keeping marginalized people that way are the same ones that frame disabled people as useless and disposable, and simultaneously frame making the world accessible to us as an imposition that’s not worth anyone’s time.
When we talk about decolonization, there are usually two meanings: physical decolonization, and decolonization of the mind. When we talk about the physical dismantling of inequitable systems of power, we can’t have that conversation without talking about accessibility. Not just in terms of physical space, although this is always going to be the first step: people can’t participate equally if they can’t get in the door. But beyond that, a truly equitable society demands access needs be met – whatever they may – for everyone to be able to participate. That applies to the obvious things like buildings that are accessible to people with limited mobility as well as things we don’t talk about as often, like accommodating sensory needs or working around people who can’t meet a traditional schedule. For everyone to have the same opportunities, we have to make sure that they can physically access them.
Changing the Narrative About ‘Normal’
But the systems of power that need to be dismantled go way beyond the basics of accessibility. We talk about changing the default narrative: the stories centered in our collective culture cannot continue to assume that the viewpoint defaults to white, to straight, to cisgender, especially cis male. Still, we rarely think to address the fact that we also cannot allow the central narrative to default to abled. So much of what we are socialized to think of as a universal human experience is actually viewed through a distinctly abled lens; what is normal for a disabled person might be radically different. We’ve started collectively examining who controls dominant culture narratives in other areas already, but the idea that an abled perspective isn’t a relatable one for everyone is still an alien idea to a lot of people.
That matters more than you might think. Without representation, there isn’t awareness, without which there isn’t understanding, without which there isn’t an invested effort to improve access in all areas of society. Controlling the cultural narrative is one of the biggest ways of maintaining the status quo in a power imbalance, and in the case of disabled folks, when abled folks control the narrative, it seems like disabled experiences are such a rare and exceptional thing that it doesn’t feel worth giving them space in the bigger “human” story.
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What Happens When We Can’t Be Productive
When we’re talking about a decolonization in the physical sense, dismantling the tangible structures that uphold oppression, there’s another reason we need to think about disabled people. Rethinking the way we assign value to individual contributions is important for everyone, but it’s especially important to people who don’t have the ability to meet conventional productivity standards, as many of us in the disability community don’t. If we’re talking about tearing down the whole system and building something new, something that recognizes and celebrates all of our differences and meets all of our unique needs, we need to make sure that the new model has a way of making sure that disabled people can have life and livelihood. As it stands now, we often fall through the cracks as policies are legislated that weaken equal-access laws and strip away the right to medical care, but I hear too many people talking about how we should just let the whole system fail so we can have a revolution without considering that, if we don’t create some kind of safety net first, disabled people will die while we rebuild from the ground up. Some of us don’t have the option of going without care and support in the time in between; something has to be set up for us before we let the old systems die.
Sometimes this need might come across as a lack of commitment. I’ve seen this play out in so many conversations when myself or other disabled people were criticized for seeming complacent when we were speaking from a place of genuine fear for our survival. Speaking on behalf of myself as well as a lot of other disabled people I know and love, we are willing and prepared to fight. We just need to know that we won’t be placed directly in the line of fire by having our protections sacrificed first.
More Radical Reads: But You Look Fine to Me: Invisible Disability and Flying
Making Sure That Disabled Folks are Heard
A lot of this plays back into the second type of decolonization, the mental kind: unlearning all of the ways we’ve been taught to value one narrative over all others. We as disabled people are still working at believing that we deserve to be seen and represented; to live in a world where making both physical things (like buildings) and less tangible things (like leadership positions) are done by design and not as an afterthought; to take up space in the world even if we aren’t able to contribute to it in ways that are profitable. If we are trying to undo the social constructs that have held marginalized people back in our society for too long, we have to recognize both that disabled people are marginalized by those same constructs, and that in every other group that has been confined by them, you will find disabled people. We are woven into the fabric of every community. But so often, we are invisible to the people fighting for those same communities to be heard.
How can we make sure that disabled voices are heard – even those of us who do not use verbal communication – in the struggles for justice in all of the communities we belong to? How can we make sure to consider us, and our specific needs, in the visions for an equitable world we want to build? It begins with everyone, not just disabled people, learning how to identify and dismantle the ideologies about us that are so ingrained that most people don’t notice them anymore. For everyone, not just disabled people, to recognize that disabled people not only have a right to life, safety, and security within the greater culture of our society but that we can and do contribute to it in ways that are meaningful and valuable if only the rest of the people in our communities could learn to see and recognize them. Not only is there room for us in a world without the harmful constructs of dominating cultural narratives, there is a need for us. We can’t move forward into a future free of oppressive systems and ways of thinking if we leave anyone behind.
[Featured Image: A gray scale photo of a person whose face is in profile. They have short dark hair and tattoos along their neck and hands. The have a beard and their head is leaning against their clasped hands. Source: pexels.com]