What We Are Reading: March 2023

Written by María Wong, Senior Strategic Partnerships Advisor

1 in 5 women have a disability and over one billion people are currently living with disabilities.  People with disabilities (PWD) face a number of challenges in their daily lives, including systemic discrimination and higher rates of chronic poverty and violence. These challenges are exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and disproportionately affect women and girls. For instance, 25% of women and girls with disabilities are likely to experience sexual abuse; 6% are likely to have been forcibly sterilized; and the overall literacy rate for women and girls with disabilities is 1%

At the Equality Fund, we know that when we move together, we move the world. And moving together means we need to be fiercely intersectional in our collective pursuit of gender equality. This month, we highlight three Disability Justice resources by Purposeful, the African feminist movement building hub for girls and their allies, and one by Northwest Health Foundation. They challenge us to name ableism as a core injustice and intersecting system of oppression that marginalizes, exploits, stigmatizes, and controls our bodies –  and remind us that dismantling ableism is central to shifting power and realizing our collective liberation. Lastly, they provide organizations with practical tools and considerations for their own Disability Justice journeys. 

This report shares Purposeful’s learnings as they began integrating a Disability Justice lens throughout their organization, as well as ones offered by their partners, MADRE and Disability Rights Fund (D.R.F). It begins with an introduction to Disability Justice, a framework co-created by activists of colour with disabilities, namely queer women of colour, in progressive and radical movements that did not systematically address ableism. Disability Justice dismantles intersecting oppressions experienced by PWD.  

The report gives a timely reminder of the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that deeply and negatively affect people with disabilities and women in particular. For example, people with disabilities are at greater risk of death and they have decreased access to education and employment. However, the pandemic is not an isolated crisis; it demonstrates how existing inequalities and discrimination place people with disabilities in increasingly vulnerable conditions. For those working in the development, humanitarian, and peace and security sectors, it is especially important to understand how people with disabilities are “disproportionately affected by risks in situations of conflict and humanitarian emergencies. They face greater risks of being caught in conflict, left behind, have their rights violated, and their well-being and lives deprioritised. And in the face of climate change, PWD are also disproportionately impacted due to the systematic failure in centring Disability Rights in climate change efforts and emergency and humanitarian responses” (pg 18). 

MADRE shares how they’re integrating a Disability Justice lens into all aspects of their organization, including how they’re supporting grantee partners to make their programs accessible to people with disabilities and directly supporting the leadership of women and girls with disabilities.  Lastly, the D.R.F. invites us to see disability rights and inclusion as a central and power-shifting tenet of our work rather than as optional:

When it comes to disability inclusion, most foundations will tell the… (D.R.F.) that “disability inclusion is so important, but that disability is not our target population.”  These same foundations and adjacent movements are working to advance the rights of women, LGBTQIA+ communities, Indigenous Peoples, and/or other marginalized groups. We have news for those foundations, people within those populations do indeed have disabilities. Dialogue must happen…we have to spark a dialogue. Foundations that say they do not work on disability issues are, either consciously or unconsciously, pausing the dialogue right there. But a dialogue must happen. There can be no true advance in social justice if foundations exclude one billion people (pg 43).

This report outlines the steps Purposeful took to bring a Disability Justice Framework to their Girls’ Circle Collectives programme in Sierra Leone, reflects on the transformation that can happen when this framework is applied to girls’ programming, and shares what they would do differently in the future. 

The Collectives bring together over 15,000 out-of-school adolescent girls to analyze the roots of their oppression, strategize for individual and social change, and access resources and assets to bring their strategies to life. Out-of-school girls already face entrenched negative attitudes and those with disabilities experience “an increased risk of violence and abuse, limited socio-economic opportunities, including access to health, education, and social isolation” (pg 2). 

Purposeful knew it had to be very intentional to reach out-of-school girls with disabilities and it is not enough to put a general call out for this demographic. Instead, they worked with partners and young women mentors, who themselves have disabilities, on a house-to-house recruitment model. As a result, “6% – or 900 – of the total number of girls enrolled in the program identified as disabled.”

Other key learnings are: 

  • Listen to girls with disabilities as the experts of their lived experience
  • Give girls with disabilities the platform to share their own stories
  • Consider how girls with disabilities can be more than program participants
  • Meet the need for assistive devices
  • Tailor training to be inclusive of people with disabilities
  • Programming must go hand in hand with advocacy

Collection of Stories: Our Resistance: Stories of Disability Rights Activists, Purposeful, (December 2022)

Stories of people with disabilities are often ignored, or told by others. People with disabilities are also often tokenized and their stories told using a deficiency lens. This collection tells the stories of nine female disability rights activists from Africa and Latin America, documenting their stories of resistance as a political act. 

The rich stories and colourful artwork weave threads together, including the theme of imposed limitations  –  by well-meaning family members, teachers, and the wider society. The activists, who identify as youth, mothers, and Indigenous with intersecting identities and diverse disabilities, share their stories of breaking free from these imposed limitations. These stories demonstrate that disability is not a monolith and dispel the myth of a strict binary of “disabled and non-disabled.”

Northwest Health Foundation improves health by partnering with community-led organizations that focus on changing policies and systems in the United States. Their Disability Justice audit tool was developed for Black, Indigenous, and POC-led organizations, whose primary focus is not disability and who seek to assess and strengthen their understanding of Disability Justice and anti-ableism. The BIPOC focus is intentional, as many disability-centred resources and trainings lack an intersectional analysis and come from a white disability rights perspective. However, this intersectional analysis ensures that non-BIPOC-led organizations will still greatly benefit from this toolkit. 

The toolkit includes thought-provoking reflection questions on thinking about and integrating Disability Justice into your work, stories of the concrete steps organizations took including attitudes and policies changed, as well as practical tools and guidance. It reminds us that “Disability Justice is about more than adding access. It is also about shifting power” (pg 15). Organizations need to ask important questions, including: 

  • How is Disability Justice influencing our politics and practices?
  • How are we thinking about people with disabilities and issues as we do our work? Are we thinking about disability from the beginning or going “oops” and remembering it at the end?
  • Are we thinking of people with disabilities as leaders and members of our organization, or just as clients to be served?
  • How are we addressing and mending histories of ableism in our organization and building with disability communities and organizations?

Lastly, the toolkit makes clear the link between Disability Justice (DJ) and feminist notions of radical love: “DJ really means, I love you! How can I show you I love you? But it’s slow to build because the world isn’t set up that way”.

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