Disability and the Global South: time for some double discrimination

Good news today in disability and development: welcome to Disability and the Global South, an open-access journal that has released its first edition. Browsing through a couple of the articles, I found…

A couple of articles that made points on intersectionality. In her voices from the field piece, Myroslava Tatryn illustrates how on the one hand development programs ignore disabled people –

“Everyone is coming in to do HIV now, but no one will come to us. What? They think that we’re not also at risk? Don’t they see we also have children? How do they think that happens?”

and on the other hand how the disability movement doesn’t address these issues either –

“In South Africa, we know of the epidemic of rape rampant throughout the country. But how many disabled peoples organisations or disability-focused agencies are doing anything about sexual violence?

This is a sadly familiar tale. We’ve heard it before when organisations representing women with disabilities. They form when they find that neither women’s movements nor disabled people’s movements are working for women with disabilities.

Except that this isn’t just an HIV/AIDs issue, or a gender issue… the article by Meyers, Karr and Pineda on youth with disabilities in law and civil society points out that the same thing happens when we look at different groups.

The separation is created by the organisations, legislation and theories that work with and form the different identities. Part of the reason for this is the way the disability movement itself was formed. As Meyers, Karr and Pineda write:

The disability movement and disability legislation have participated in these dynamics by presenting persons with disabilities as a singular group. While both have made significant efforts in the recent past to acknowledge women with disabilities and children with disabilities as objects of ‘double discrimination,’ many other subgroups, such as youth, have largely been ignored. This imagined homogeneity amongst persons with disabilities has roots in both disability organizing theory and practice. The social model of disability conceives of disability as the result of societal discrimination against all persons with disabilities, regardless of the type, severity, or circumstances of impairment share.

A downside to the unification of the disability movement is that voices get left out:

Unfortunately, the goal of a unified voice often meant that specific needs that vary with gender, age, class, and disability type have been ignored, effectively silencing women, youth, and the poor with disabilities and marginalizing the specific needs of the deaf, people with intellectual impairments, and other disability groups.

Both articles refer to the stratified or hierarchical nature of disabled people and groups. Young people with disabilities are both rich and poor; some are experiencing institutionalisation, some are well-integrated into society. Disabled organisations themselves reproduce some of these differences. As Tatryn retells an anecdote from Nora Groce heard from disabled people’s organisations:

“Yes, we may have some problems but we’re not stupid…” and then soon after she’d find herself in a meeting of people with learning disabilities and they’d say “Sure, we may have trouble understanding things sometimes but we’re not crazy…”

So what do we do in the disability movement? Here are some options –

  • Let’s get intersectional. “Your work on disability isn’t gender friendly.” “Your work on gender in youth isn’t disability sensitive.” “Your work on young disabled women doesn’t include people with intellectual disabilities.” “This programme for young disabled women with intellectual disabilities doesn’t work on the poor”. for the next workshop, etcetera
  • Hope for the best. We can hope that the measures that we are recommending because of our work on disability – universal design, reasonable accommodation, consultation in decision-making, etc. – make things better for all people, and all the varieties expressed within people with disabilities.
  • Some combination of the above two – taking into account diverse nature of experiences and vulnerabilities and constantly pushing ourselves to try to slightly better represent our very broad church.

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