Three Ways to Center Disability Justice in Your Activism

| Reproaction

By: Caitlin Blunnie

The reproductive rights and broader progressive movements have long fallen short in acknowledging the lived experiences and needs of people with disabilities. People with disabilities make up a quarter of the U.S. population, and to exclude them from movement work is not only harmful, but ignores that we share intertwining struggles. [1]

Reproductive justice, a framework created by Black women, is defined as the right to bodily autonomy and the right to have children, not have children, and the ability to raise families in safe and healthy communities. [2] The framework shares many of the same values with disability justice, which as defined by writer Naomi Ortiz, is the, “cross-disability (sensory, intellectual, mental health or psychiatric, neurodiversity, physical/mobility, learning, etc.) framework that values access, self-determination and an expectation of difference.” [3]

Both movements reject the idea that certain bodies are inherently more valuable than others, and both take issue with the medical-industrial complex and its eugenics. Our movements are deeply intertwined and to win, we must work together for autonomy, dignity, and justice.

Here are three ways you can start to center disability justice in your work:

1. Challenge ableism

Ableism most often shows up in movement spaces in the form of stereotypes and ableist language. Both negative stereotypes – which may cast people with disabilities as ‘helpless’ – and ‘positive’ stereotypes, which label people with disabilities as ‘inspiring’ or ‘brave,’ are ultimately dehumanizing. These stereotypes reinforce the idea that disability is a monolith and ignores the complexities of the lives of people with disabilities.

Further, it’s important to check in with yourself and language you may be using. Words like ‘cripple,’ ‘defect,’ ‘spastic,’ ‘lame’ and ‘crazy’ have long been used to demean and oppress people with disabilities. While some people with disabilities have reclaimed words like ‘crip,’ this language is still not appropriate for able-bodied people to use. In addition, the preferred language is ‘people with disabilities’ and language such as ‘differently abled’ or ‘special needs’ implies having a disability is something that should be hidden. [4]

When ableist language shows up in movement spaces, it’s on allies to call it in and use it as an opportunity to educate. A call in can be as simple as “When you use that word, it’s hurtful to people with disabilities.” Being able to acknowledge harm and grow from it is essential for movement building.

2. Center people with disabilities

People with disabilities are experts of their own lives and know what works best for them. It’s essential for allies to listen, and not try to assume or speak on behalf of someone else’s needs.

Having a disability doesn’t make someone’s life inherently more inspiring or extraordinary than anybody else’s, and assuming so is a stereotype. Every person is different and has different needs. For example, to be an ally to people with chronic illness, you may want to read The Spoon Theory to better understand what living with their condition is like. [5] You should avoid asking intrusive questions, however well-intentioned, about someone’s condition. Not all disabilities are visible, and it’s not your place to ask someone what someone’s disability is or why they may need an accommodation.

Being a good ally is knowing that while you won’t always understand what a person with disabilities is going through, it is never your place to try to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ them. Instead, embrace people with disabilities regardless of how they show up, and do not talk down or patronize those who communicate in different ways.

As activist Nomy Lamm puts it best, “Disability justice challenges the idea that our worth as individuals has to do with our ability to perform as productive members of society. It insists that our worth is inherent and tied to the liberation of all beings.” [6]

3. Prioritize accessibility in activist spaces

Creating an accessible space is more than just ramps and elevators (though those are important!). There is no single accommodation that works for all people with disabilities though it’s important to note that increased access benefits everyone. Accessibility isn’t simply checking a few boxes; it’s about creating a space that is welcoming and values well-being and safety.

Here are a few things you can do when planning an in-person meeting or event:

  • Ensure that participants have access to a bathroom (ideally gender neutral!).
  • Be mindful of any potential sensory triggers, including but not limited to scented products or heavy perfumes, fluorescent or strobe lighting, smoke, and harsh noises.
  • Provide sign language interpreters or real time closed captioning when possible.
  • Host events and meetings near public transportation.
  • Record or live-stream live events for people unable to be physically present. Activists aren’t less ‘valuable’ just because they aren’t physically there. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we have the technology and ability to get work done remotely.

Too often, disability rights are only considered in opposition to abortion access. Make no mistake, despite what abortion opponents want us to believe, reproductive justice is disability justice. The ‘pro-life’ movement cannot argue that it cares about people with disabilities when it comes to abortion and then do absolutely nothing to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Further, it ignores that people with disabilities also need access to reproductive health care and that they too are fighting for the right to personal and bodily autonomy.

We must work collectively to dismantle all systems of oppression. Ensuring inclusion is essential in creating movements that represent and ultimately liberate all of us.








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