Activism Limited by Disregard for Disability

Auden Granger, Production Staff Member

Engagement in activism is a key facet of life and education for many Oberlin students. But what does it mean when you can’t access these types of activism? What does it mean when you’re excluded by default from the performances, speeches and workshops that define most students’ social and political work?

Oberlin has a massive issue with accessibility. To put it more explicitly, Oberlin has a massive issue with acknowledging and incorporating disability at all. Disability is rarely considered in student activism and in the work that Oberlin student organizations do, despite the fact that disability intersects with every social inequality we work toward addressing. Ability status intersects with race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, immigration status, employment and education. The activism we do surrounding different axes of privilege and oppression is limited when we disregard the way that disability shapes each axis.

An important way to address disability as an element of activism is to include disabled students in the activist work that we do. Activist work becomes irrelevant and faulty when the marginalization disabled people experience is discussed without the involvement of any disabled people. As activists, we need to consider disability in everything we do — and this means that we have to make our activist spaces and work we do more accessible.

So how do we ensure that when we organize and create communities on campus, we are doing so in a way that is as inclusive and accessible as possible? What does that look like? What does it even mean?

Disability encompasses a wide variety of people, conditions and experiences. In fact, disability — like race, gender and class — is socially constructed. There is no inherent category of disability; it’s defined in opposition to how we define normative bodies, brains, needs and skills. This makes accessibility work more difficult in practicality, because as activists, we are faced with a dilemma: With such a wide range of experiences and access needs before us, how do we respond effectively with the limited resources given to us as student organizers and activists?

The first step is research. Learning how to respond to the various access needs of, say, people with sensory processing disorders, blind and visually impaired people, people with disabilities that impact various elements of mobility, people with learning disabilities, and d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, requires hard work, research and communication. Many resources are available from disability advocacy groups on campus and online that describe practical methods of improving the accessibility of various types of spaces. One example is the Healing Justice Lending Library, which I co-run, and which provides informational resources and physical healing tools to community members who are unable to access those tools elsewhere. Other resources include the JAN Workplace Accommodation Toolkit, the Radical Access Mapping Project and toolkits and documents from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, all of which can be found online.

Our activism becomes stronger as it becomes more intersectional. Disability is a key facet of structures of privilege and oppression, but so much of the work that activists do only furthers ableism and inaccessibility. Disabled people are some of the primary victims of respectability politics, in which marginalized groups attempt to appear as similar to priviliged groups as possible, as the standards that define respectability are so often deeply embedded in understandings of ability and neurotypicality. We must address and combat this and other facets of ableism in our society, and we can not do that until we open up our activist spaces and work to include disabled participants and voices. The disability advocacy community has a longstanding motto: “Nothing about us without us.” Since ability status touches every set of experiences, as activists and organizers, we must work to break down access barriers in all the work we do.