Identity beyond Disability

12th April 2019 by Raphaele von Koettlitz

Intersectional Approaches to Disability

People are complex and multi-faceted, with many interwoven attributes making up their identity. Disability is just one part of a person’s identity, that may shape but not define them.

Illustration showing intersectional characteristics

The term intersectionality first came about to describe the dialogue between feminism and women of colour, highlighting the different barriers women face dependent on the colour of their skin. This movement called for better inclusion and understanding of the different issues, such as racism, women of colour face in seeking gender equality.

Since then, the term intersectionality has broadened to include all protected characteristics, such as class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability and gender. It’s the idea that these layers do not exist separately from each other but intersect to form a person’s identity, and can magnify the discrimination and marginalisation they might experience. To fully understand to what extent, it’s crucial to look at the whole picture of someone’s identity.

Sarah (left), Eve (right) — two wheelchair users.

To illustrate, Eve, a black wheelchair user who is also a lesbian, transgender and Muslim will have a different lived experience to Sarah who is a white, heterosexual woman who uses a wheelchair. There’s every possibility that Eve will have to navigate misogyny, racism, Islamaphobia, homophobia and ableism on any given day. Different parts of her identity might be focussed on dependent on the audience, which means she might experience discrimination for one or many aspects of her identity either simultaneously or in isolation. This oppression is multi-layered, deeply complex and no doubt very tiring…Jay and Kym AKA ‘The Triple Cripples’ address this issue beautifully (watch below):

Intersectionality and Disability

Language is central to disability politics; negative language can reinforce oppression and discrimination. Using positive language and the social model is vital to achieving an intersectional approach in building enabling and inclusive support services for disabled people. The social model is founded on the idea that our environment and societal barriers disable us, not a fault with the person. Seeing the whole person beyond their disability makes a huge difference in understanding disclosure rates, prevalence rates and engagement with services.

For example, according to a study conducted by the NHS, black British women are the most likely to experience poor mental health at 29.3%, but the least likely to seek support at 6.2%. The most pronounced inequalities in uptake of support relate to age, sex and ethnic group. People with common mental health issues who are Black, Asian, non-British White, or of mixed or other ethnicity are less likely to obtain treatment than those in the white British group. This raises many questions around culturally informed attitudes and biases relating to disability. Also, whether health care services are shaped to cater to a broad range of people or if we’re using exclusionary euro-centric models that don’t translate to other understandings of health.

Recognising when an Intersectional Approach is Needed

ALWAYS! Evaluating whether a system or service is fit for purpose can be complex, but it helps to start by asking questions like:

  • Which communities are served and which aren’t? Why?
  • Who gets to participate and who doesn’t? Why?
  • Who has access to resources and support and who doesn’t? Why?
  • Who’s voices get heard and who’s don’t? Why?

This will help highlight points of exclusion and guide a more inclusive, intersectional approach.

Lived Experience and Representation

At Diversity and Ability (D&A) it’s our view that support is only effective if it takes into account the reality of that person’s lived experience. For example, we would be mindful of how someone’s cultural background might feed into their perceptions of disability or mental health and what kind of treatment systems are familiar or acceptable to them.

D&A is a disabled-led organisation, with a diverse team who reflect the lived experiences of the people we work with. Lack of representation can affect emotional well-being, as well as societal outcomes in health, education, employment and relationships. Representation is important in helping people feel they belong. Delivering peer-to-peer support with inherent empathy and understanding can create solutions that are genuinely relevant and enabling.

Inclusive Support

As well as tailored one-to-one support, many of D&A’s services are focussed more broadly around inclusion. We provide support that is on some level useful to a wide range of people, without singling out particular communities.

For example, in universities, we provide group ‘inclusive technology’ training sessions that are open to anyone who would like to learn new study skills and how technology may assist them in their studies. Many technologies developed to support people with learning differences actually benefit a broad cross-section of people, with or without diagnosed learning differences. This change in narrative opens up support avenues for students who may not have defined themselves as disabled due to culturally reinforced shame, class-based access, eligibility rules around nationality etc. Initiatives like these have the power to:

  • Positively impact on widening participation goals
  • Boost productivity, wellbeing and mental health
  • Increase attainment & retention
  • Create a positive culture shift towards increased acceptance of diverse learning styles, resulting in improved accessibility and inclusion
See beyond the disability!

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