Intersectional Talks with Mira Thompson and Judith de Hont from Feminists Against Ableism
On the 29th of April, Wonda Women hosted another edition of our Intersectional Talks. This time, we approached the themes of ableism, saneism, and audism in the feminist movement, and during the current public health emergency in the Netherlands. Accordingly, this was also the first online Intersectional Talks that Wonda Women organised, and it allowed us to think of accessibility and ableism both online and offline. Our honorary guests were Mira Thompson and Judith de Hont, members of Feminists Against Ableism. Feminists Against Ableism, FAA, is a collective of disabled feminists. They fight against ableism, saneism, and audism. The collective proudly claims its rightful place in activist spaces.
Photos taken by Johanneke Kessler (left) and Tessa Wiegerinck (right)
We started the evening by presenting Feminists Against Ableism, discussing some of the main issues within the Dutch feminist movement when it comes to disabilities, and some of the work carried on by FAA. We talked about the main problems of an abled feminism when it comes to including disability activism, and Mira and Judith made us think about how often disability is spoken of without actually including disabled activists in the conversation, pretending to argue for them instead of with them from a place of ‘protection of their vulnerabilities’. Furthermore, disabled people are often desexualised or fethisized. Both very problematic and both happening very often. Feminists Against Ableism is working to make the feminist community more inclusive, and this means to talk about intersectionality and accessibility while organising communities in an accessible way. They made the example with their weekly, online book club. And they showed the strength of their claims during the past editions of the Women’s March on Amsterdam on International Women's Day, by accompanying their street presence with the Online Disability March. People were posting live on social media as the march was live-streamed, a great possibility for those who cannot physically attend to make their voices heard.
But as inaccessible an offline space can be, as it usually happens with the majority of street manifestations and workplaces in the Netherlands, going online does not mean accessibility is guaranteed. Light, sound, and the multi-tasking required in participating in digital platforms can be overwhelming to people who are sensitive to stimuli, and the space could become inaccessible due to lack of accessible language or lack of subtitles or a sign interpreter.
As important as it is to recognise that certain groups will always be cut out, and that it is impossible to speak for everyone, the aim is to be as inclusive as possible. And this is often tackled by starting with two single steps: making clear when an event is not accessible and how it is not, and asking possible participants what they might need. In this way, instead of talking about accessibility without really being able to bring into practice what it means, and instead of speaking for groups without talking with them, event-organisers will have the possibility to try to offer the accessibility that is needed, and disabled people will have the opportunity to make the choice whether to attend or not.
In short, when organising events here are some concrete things that can be done to start thinking about ableism, saneism, and audism, and how to approach accessibility both online and offline:
Be clear about how accessible an event will be (think about f.e. toilets, stairs, and podiums) and let people know about the state of sound, lightning, and other possible stimuli.
Ask possible participants what might they need.
Invest in language translation and/or transcription/subtitling.
For online events, record the meeting and offer transcripts.
Reach out to the community
Ask yourself, or ask the place you work/study in: how inclusive do you want to be? Do you want to be there for as many people as possible? Or only for certain groups?
As we discussed also the role of technology companies in rendering, for example, subtitling or transcribing softwares less accessible due to their difficult interface or the high prices, we could not avoid to acknowledge how abled and ableist the social structure is. This, in fact, has become even more visible during the current public health emergency. While we witnessed abled people being distressed due to social isolation after just one week after the measures were put in place, it was worth noticing how certain accessibility measures - like working from home - were suddenly feasible. Disability activists have been asking for years to improve accessibility in education, workplaces, etc., but there has always been the underlying ableist understanding that accessibility was only for a minority and therefore it was deemed not really necessary. The fact that things have now suddenly become available or were made accessible is only because it is now needed by everyone, and in order to keep the economy going.
Even more worrying is the social darwinism that has emerged clearly in media talk, public declarations, and policies since the emergency was declared. From herd immunity strategies to medical protocols on ICU bed priority, underlying ideas of who deserves a chance to live and how a population should look like are now being undeniably shown. And if ICU priority protocols are a paradigmatic yet exacerbated example, the inherent ableism of society at large cannot be denied when thinking of ‘post-corona’ measures. When social distancing measures will be relaxed, the majority will have the possibility to ‘return to normal’, but for many the risk of going outside will be extended further, probably until a vaccine or a very effective treatment is distributed. Therefore, as Mira and Judith pointed out, the term ‘post-corona’ is in itself ableist, because there is no such thing until a vaccine or very effective treatment is made available for everyone. Furthermore, we are running the risk of seeing the suddenly available accessibility will be taken away because, again, the majority won’t need it anymore. This despite the fact that many people will still have to remain home, and the probable huge addition to the disabled community as a result of the chronic physical and mental conditions that Covid-19 and ICU treatment cause. This also brings us to a point that disabled people have been making forever when the minority/majority issue is brought up: The disabled community is a minority, but it is always growing. Everybody can become disabled or chronically ill and will then need access to all those things that the disabled community has been asking access to. So accessibility is not ‘just for the minority’: it is for everyone.
Understandably, many within the disabled community are experiencing anxiety, anger, and fear. For the threat of oneself or loved ones falling ill, but also due to the recognition that certain lives are seen as less valuable than others, and that their quality of life will probably be reduced when social distancing measures will be lifted. When talking about what can help relieve these feelings of anxiety, we discussed the importance of talking to others about what you are experiencing and this brought us to the topic of community-care. Actively looking up your community and organising a community together is so important, because you can often feel alone or isolated, but you are rarely the only one struggling with certain things. Therefore organising a community together, whether it is about an activist topic or not, is always a very activist thing to do. The risk is to remain isolated, so just to feel connected to others within a community (online or offline) can be really helpful, whether it is to talk about personal and collective trauma, or to forget the situation for a while by spending time together reading a book or watching a movie or just chatting with each other.
Finally, as we do what we can to care for ourselves and others, we are invited to think of our own privileges. How, also within the disabled community, some do have more access to care than others, and how these realities cannot be separated from the intersection of race, class, legal status, etc. Mira and Judith gave us a list of suggestions to learn and remain informed about the community of disabled people of colour, which is underrepresented within disability activism. So that acknowledging our own privileges can be done from an intersectional point of view. Here are some social media accounts that they strongly recommend:
Feminists Against Ableism (@feministsagainstableism on Instagram)
Jeanette Chedda (@jeanettechedda on Instagram and Twitter)
Sky Cubacub (@rebirthgarments on Instagram and Twitter)
Hazar Chaouni (@haz.cha on Instagram, @PREClOUSBEAN on Twitter (nb: the I is a small letter L))
Vilissa Thompson, who started the hashtag #DisabilitySoWhite (@vilissathompson on Instagram and Twitter)
Alice Wong (@disability_visibility on Instagram, @DisVisibility on Twitter) Also check her podcast Disability Visibility Project at disabilityvisibilityproject.com!
Mira and Judith also recommended some readings. First of all Sick Woman Theory, an essay by Johanna Hedva, in which they argue that the most radical protest against capitalism is to care for yourself and for others. The second book that Judith and Mira recommend, Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, isn’t necessarily about disability activism, but it is about something that we all particularly need right now: hope and activism.
And last but not least, the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is a must-watch documentary that you can stream on Netflix!
We would like to thank Mira Thompson and Judith de Hont for being our honorary guests for the evening and for sharing their insights and experiences with us. At Wonda Women we strive for a more intersectional and more inclusive feminist community and this conversation has taught us a lot. About how society and the feminist community can do better, but also about how we can do better ourselves in becoming more inclusive and more accessible in the future. We would also like to thank our participants for being there and for actively participating in the discussion! We hope to see you again at one of our (online) events!