“Disability Justice work is … new in the sense that we’re building the shared political framework and shared language, so it’s also a very exciting time.” – Mia Mingus
Disability Justice deals with the oppression of disability, but at the same time deals with other systems of oppression and injustice – it is a ‘multi-issue politic.’ It moves beyond rights- and equality-based approaches, beyond access and inclusion in unjust systems, instead working towards collective justice and liberation, towards transforming society as a whole.
This interview with Mia Mingus, one of the leading articulators of what Disability Justice is about, was done recently in Ottawa, where she gave two talks on ‘Beyond Access: An Introduction to Disability Justice.’ The outline of the talk consisted of:
- a moment for grounding;
- the framework of disability justice;
- definitions of disability and ableism;
- medical and social models of disability;
- different approaches: services-, rights- or justice-based;
- the centering of disability in various systems of oppression;
- how justice goes beyond simply access;
- the anchors of disability justice;
- the Medical Industrial Complex;
- question-and-answer period.
Beyond Access: Mia Mingus on Disability Justice
I’m Mia Mingus and I’m a Disability Justice activist. I am a writer and I do a lot of political organizing as well.
Q: Yeah, and you’re here in Ottawa to talk about Disability Justice – you were just giving an address to us all. How do you find people come to the topic of Disability Justice, whether they’re coming from an experience of identifying with disability, or also if they’re coming from a space of recognizing the interconnections with other forms of oppression – how do people find Disability Justice, and what’s their reaction when they learn about it?
A: I think people find Disability Justice in all kinds of ways, I think a lot of disabled people come through their own process of coming to terms with being a disabled person, or coming out as being a disabled person, maybe to themselves or you know, a lot of people have been living very disabled lives but have never really thought of themselves as disabled.
And I think a lot of other people also come to Disability Justice through social justice work, through an intersectional, multi-issue framework and a place where, I think a lot of folks who are doing intersectional work are, a lot of our work overlaps because we’re trying to build multi-issue politics, we’re trying to build work that’s not just single-issue. And so I think a lot of people come to disability who are already involved in that type of work because, because fundamentally too, justice work and justice frameworks are, or is that notion of like right, it’s really important that we all move together, that it’s important to talk about different systems of oppression and different forms of violence, no matter what work you’re doing.
So I feel people come in all different ways, a lot of disabled people come to Disability Justice because they didn’t see themselves reflected, or don’t see themselves reflected, in the more mainstream disability rights movement. Yeah, there’s lots of different reasons I think why people come to Disability Justice work. And Disability Justice work is still very, I mean it’s new in the sense of, that we’re building the shared political framework and shared language, so it’s also a very exciting time. So a lot of people I think haven’t even necessarily heard of it, or are still just receiving – not notice, but receiving – information about it.
Q: Yeah, and why would you say it is so important? In your view, why is Disability Justice vital work for people to acknowledge, participate in, to center?
A: Oh, so many reasons, so many reasons. I mean there’s so many reasons why I think Disability Justice work is so important and one of them is that disabled people are everywhere, and we are part of any community. Whatever, any community that you’re doing work with, you’re doing work with disabled people, you may not even know it, you may not know it yet, they may not be out to you, they might have a hidden disability or a non-visible disability.
But I think also in the culture and society that we live in right now, where we live in a society of just relentless violence and intense amounts of oppression and discrimination. And in a society where there’s so much violence and oppression, I don’t know how we could not talk about disability, because people are becoming disabled through violence, they’re becoming disabled through trauma, or not having access to resources. And so even people who are not necessarily born with their disability, the disabled population as a whole, our group is growing. And we are one of the largest oppressed groups in the world.
And the other piece why I think it’s so important is that disability is one of those, it’s a very unique, it’s a different identity or political experience than a lot of the other work that we do, in the sense that we’re all becoming more and more disabled, just simply as we age. We are all, could become disabled at any point in time. And that feels very different to me than a lot of other political experiences or systems of oppression or identities that we work on, and I feel like it is inevitably something that we’re going to have to confront, and politically, and we can keep pushing it away, we can keep pushing it around on our plates so to speak, but eventually we’re going to have to recognize and come face-to-face with what do we do with disability and how are we going to think about it politically as social movements who are trying to build a just world. And what does justice and liberation look like for disabled peoples and our communities?
Because the thing about disability also, is that I think most people have a lot of experiences with disability, and intimate experiences with disability. They may not be thinking about it as disability, but most people know someone who is disabled, most people have an aunt or an uncle or an elder in their life who is disabled, most people – so many people have disabilities, or different types of abilities, in their life, in themselves, that maybe they haven’t come to terms with. So I also feel like it’s important because, it’s already there.
Disability is already around us, and ableism is already a huge system of oppression that gets leveraged all the time. And I would say, that gets leveraged all the time in service of the very things that we claim to be fighting. It gets leveraged in service of white supremacy, it gets used as a tool to help maintain and perpetuate patriarchy and male supremacy, transphobia, I’m thinking about class and capitalism, like all of those things. And if we are for, for example, racial justice, we have to talk about ableism because there are very deep roots to ableism and racism that we, that we have to look at and that will help us to understand more pieces of racism and white supremacy that we haven’t otherwise known. And hopefully to expand our movements to be one that includes disabled people of color, in this example. And I could say the same thing around gender, I could say the same thing around immigration, I could say the same thing around lots of our other struggles that we have.
Q: And you were talking in the presentation about how, about the importance of centering Disability Justice, and there were a lot of things you talked about, but just where you mentioned that in these other social movements it’s often an afterthought, if even if that. So it seems that centering is one of the principles that you touched on, but there were a number of principles – where would you like to start in helping people understand what Disability Justice actually is?
A: Well there’s so much that we cover, so much that I cover in the Introduction, I mean I talk a lot about access and about how to me, a very central piece of Disability Justice that separates it from other work around disability is that we’re not just talking about access by itself, we’re talking about moving beyond just access. And to me, I think access is one of those things that, any work you’re going to do around disability, you will have to confront access, you will have to do work around access, there is no choice in that matter because we live, the nature of the ableist world that we live in, is that things are incredibly inaccessible for all disabled people.
And, I think that an important piece of Disability Justice is that we’re not just doing access for the sake of access, that we’re not just doing access for assimilation, and we’re not just fighting to get access to the horrible system, current system that we have, but that we’re doing access that moves us beyond just access towards the world that we actually want – access for the sake of justice and liberation, access for the sake of deeper connection and breaking isolation. To me, that is what is so liberatory about a Disability Justice framework, and that we use access as a tool to help us get to the world that we want. And I think that the way that I have grown up understanding access, as a disabled person who’s been disabled since I was six months old, I’ve known it, I grew up with it, done as a form of charity, most often, or a form of guilt, or as sometimes even as this kind of reluctant obligation type of feeling to it. Or I’ve known it as assimilation, or as a way for people to get more privileges, to not necessarily build a just world but so that a few privileged disabled people can get a few more privilege crumbs to subsist on. And I think that with Disability Justice, we’re really saying, no actually, we want a different way and we don’t want access just for the sake of access – we don’t want disabled people only to have access to the same crappy system that everybody else has, we want to actually think about how we move towards what a just world would look like for us all, and what liberation really looks like. So that’s one core concept.
I think another big concept, at least that I talk about in Disability Justice work, is interdependency and thinking about how do we build relationships and how do we build in such a way that really pushes back against the myth of independence and this myth that we can and should be able to do everything on our own. Or even this myth that that’s what everybody wants to do, that that’s what everybody desires, is to be independent. And I think interdependency is really asking, what does it mean to move from a place of where we need each other, what does it mean to not move from a place of like, oh you’re dependent on me and I’m a benevolent oppressor, and I’m going to give you pity and help you do this thing so that I can feel better. But what does it mean to actually move from a place of interdependency, like we both are bringing things to the table, we both have things to offer, and where we really value everybody. It’s like, in some ways it’s such a simple concept, and I feel it’s such a hard practice, and I think a lot of Disability Justice activists are really grappling with what does interdependency look like and mean.
Q: I know one thing I think that helps people with, you were explaining there’s a medical model and there’s a social model of disability, and how much of a leap forward it was to go to understanding disability from a social perspective, but then you were talking Disability Justice wants to be more complex and bring back some of the, looking at the bodies, our bodies themselves.
A: Yeah, I mean I think with Disability Justice, part of what we’re saying is we can’t get away from our bodies either, we can’t just talk about socially-constructed this and that, or we just can’t talk about things being the way that everything is … One of the things that we say, one of the simplified ways, I’ll call it the quick and dirty ways that we explain the social model and the medical model, is under the medical model for example, you hear messages like, the body is wrong, like my body is wrong, and it needs to be fixed, whereas under the social model you might hear messages that are similar to, no maybe my body’s not wrong, maybe there’s something wrong with the world, and maybe the world is where we need to fix or make changes happen. And I think that we can’t lose our bodies completely, and I feel like yeah, we need a little bit more complex understanding because, you know I always joke, I don’t want to be wearing my I-heart-disability sandwich board and ringing my bell all day long, there are real hard things about disability and about bodies that we just can’t get away from. We can swing on a vine all day long yelling ‘socially-constructed’ but eventually I think we would hit a brick wall and I think that brick wall is our bodies. Like, what do we do with chronic pain, what do we do with days where, I wake up and it’s really hard to be disabled. It doesn’t mean that I want to be dead instead, but it means that I want to have a complex framework and a place where I can talk about how hard it is, and what chronic pain feels like, for example. So in that sense, we’re looking for a more, I think something beyond just the medical model or the social model, and I hope that Disability Justice will be part of creating a framework that can hold all the complexities of what our bodies have.
Q: You started off your talk with a framework of how to think about, or the approach of, Disability Justice. So can you just give a brief overview of what that entails.
A: Yeah there’s like three main pieces I feel like to Disability Justice that I think are important right now. One is that it’s a multi-issue politic, which is just a fancy way of saying that it’s not single-issue, it’s not just talking about disability, it’s talking about, we’re including class, we’re including race, we’re including gender, citizenship, I’m thinking about colonization, thinking about war and militarization, like all of those things. It is a multi-issue politic, that it’s not just about ableism and disability, that it’s also about other systems of oppression, institutions and forms of violence, because disabled people aren’t just disabled people, we are also mothers and fathers and women and trans people and queer people and young people and old people, we are so many things and there’s so many things that impact for example my life, it’s not just ableism, that I also need to be able to talk about and think through.
The other piece is that it is moving away from just a rights-based and equality model. So it’s not just about, how do we expand the ranks of the privileged to include a few more people, it’s actually saying, no we don’t want to just expand the ranks of the privileged and just, what usually happens is just to add a few more people who had privileges and were at the top of that group anyways, who was getting included. But it’s actually saying, questioning that whole system and that why some people are constantly and perpetually at the bottom, right, and who never get included into that expanded ranks. It’s talking about redistribution. It’s also saying, we don’t necessarily believe that – what am I trying to say – that that approach is necessarily going to work anyways, like we haven’t, there’s nothing that has shown us that simply expanding the ranks of the privileged to add a few more people has actually led us to a more just world.
And then the last piece of it is, is that it’s really talking about what justice and liberation would look like, not just equality which is very different than justice, but what justice and liberation would look like for disabled people and our communities. So again, not just disability, and not just, I think for me, like what liberation would look like for me is not just liberation for my disabled communities that I’m a part of, but also for the queer and trans people of color communities that I’m a part of, also the Korean communities that I’m a part of, also the radical women of color communities that I’m a part of. So it’s also talking about connecting disabled people to our communities, which I think is so important, especially in a society, moment in history, and a history, a legacy of people who have been doing, where it’s been so individualized, our notions of justice are so individualized in terms of, oh you sue somebody and you get a settlement and that’s justice. Or, oh you send that person who hurt you to jail and that’s justice. No, we’re talking about a much more collective form of what justice would look like, and hopefully deeper form.
Q: And you were talking about liberatory practice as, one part of that being the building connections and breaking down isolation, and so you seem to find that important.
A: I think it’s hugely important because isolation is such a huge theme within most disabled people’s lives, and I know from my own life has been a huge theme as well, because things are so inaccessible, and isolation gets used as such a tool to deny disabled people access, particularly to things like community, to relationships, to love, to human connection even, and to access as well. I mean, isolation gets used as a tool across the board, against so many people, but it’s also something I think that colors so many disabled people’s lives.
Q: Can you talk a bit about, you mentioned you do building alternatives as a main focus of your work, can you mention what you’ve learned from that, what might help others to think about building alternatives.
A: I think we need more people doing building alternatives work, and helping to build, hopefully build the things that will be alternatives to the current systems that we have, cause right now, one of the things that helps to maintain the current horrible systems that we have is that they consistently are, pretty much one of the only main viable alternatives. So, I do a lot of work around community responses to violence, particularly transformative justice and community accountability work around violence, and that’s definitely true around responses to violence, particularly I’m thinking about intimate violence. That right now, calling the police, locking somebody up in jail, that’s pretty much one of the main viable options that we have out there for people. And we don’t necessarily have viable alternatives of what community accountability would look like, or what alternatives to calling the criminal legal system into your life looks like, to respond to violence. And so, that’s part of the work that I’m involved in, and I feel really excited about that. Whatever work that you’re involved in, whether you’re doing Disability Justice work around what care collectives could look like, or what community care for disabled people could look like, so that as we get disabled people out of abusive and horrible and horribly violent group homes, we can say and our communities are actually a better place to be, because right now, that’s actually not necessarily always the case – we can’t guarantee that our communities will be safer, necessarily, than say a group home. So hopefully, we can build those alternatives so that that could be an option and that we could offer to people.
Q: Alright, well, thank you
A: You’re welcome. Thank you
Mia Mingus’ website is LeavingEvidence.wordpress.com