A note on language

Before we begin our study of disability justice, let’s take a moment to think about the language we are using. It is crucial that you know the difference between person-first language, and what it means to use the term “disabled”.

Person-first language:  The person-first language of “persons with disabilities” is contested.  As you will learn in this module, critical, social, and radical approaches to disability see person-first language as problematic for the way it emphasizes the person or the person’s body as the site of the ‘problem’.  Yet, some people, policies, and organizations use person-first language. For example, the Government of Canada’s Employment Equity Act defines persons with disabilities as “persons who have a long-term or recurring physical, mental, sensory, psychiatric or learning impairment”.  Like person-first language, the language of ‘impairment’ and ‘limitations’ is controversial because of the ways it treats disabled people as inherently less ‘whole’ than able-bodied people.  Importantly, for example, Deaf communities reject the person-first language of “persons with disabilities”, instead asserting their status as Deaf people with distinct linguistic and cultural practices.  This approach shifts the emphasis from treating so-called “hearing impairments” as medical conditions or problems in need of fixing, towards sign language as a unique and significant form of communication. The capital ‘D’ Deaf represents the cultural, linguistic, and political community of Deaf speakers and listeners. From this perspective, sign language is another mode of communication as opposed to a limitation. Before you move on, check out this video by Dr. Flavia Fleischer, Professor of Deaf Studies at California State University explaining Deaf culture.

“What is Deaf Culture?” by Flavia
View Time: 4:48 Minutes

Disabled: the term “disabled” shifts our focus from people’s bodies as problems in need of solutions, and instead identifies the source of the problem as the policies, attitudes, spaces, practices, and structures that disable certain individuals, actively imposing barriers to inclusion and equity. For example, from this perspective stairs to enter a building are dis-abling. The problem is in the structure, not the person’s body. Critical, radical, and social approaches to disability recognize that all individuals have access or accessibility needs, though some individuals’ needs are met automatically by the policies and practices that structure people’s lives. Can you think of other examples of ways institutions can actively dis-able or present barriers?

LESSON: Disability Activism in Canada

LISTEN: “Disability Activism in Canada”
Listening Time: 16:28 Minutes

Before you move on to the next lesson, listen to Stella Young explain why she doesn’t want to be an inspiration. Reflect on this ‘inspirational’ model as you learn about the other models of disability.

“I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much” by Stella Young
View Time: 9:16 minutes

LESSON: Distinct Approaches to Studying Disability

Studies of disability employ distinct approaches.  Think of these as lenses through which scholars view disability.  Each approach is like putting on a different set of glasses, impacting what we see or don’t see.  A.J. Withers, a Canadian disability politics activist and scholar, outlines the following 6 models: the eugenics model, the medical model, the charity model, the rights model, the social model, and the radical model. These approaches define disability in different ways and thus prescribe particular ways of treating, managing, and viewing disability at a societal and individual level. These models are not always distinct from each other, meaning they can overlap, reinforce, challenge, or enhance each other.  For example, a medical approach to disability gives rise to an emphasis on charity, whereas the social model of disability enables us to think about the ways that a medical view can be limiting.  This lesson outlines distinct models.  As you study this lesson, think about which model you find the most persuasive and why.  

LISTEN: “Approaches to Studying Disability” by Sabrina Mussieux
Listening Time: 8:43 Minutes

BIG IDEA: Disability Justice

Disability justice is a framework that challenges and aims to dismantle the social privilege attached to “able” bodies.  Fundamentally, a disability justice approach critiques the dualism of “abled” versus “disabled” and the hierarchy that privileges able bodies over disabled bodies. In this hierarchical dualism, being able-bodied means being better, being more capable, being more whole. According to this binary, a person is either “able bodied” or “disabled”, and this tends to erase people whose experiences of disability may not be obvious or ‘visible’, presenting disability as a homogenous category. But, people have all kinds of experiences of disability.  

A disability justice approach makes the Black femininist concept of intersectionality a priority, acknowledging that disabled people are not just impacted by ableism, but also by racism, class inequality, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and colonialism.  In fact, a critique of capitalism, which views all people as valuable to the extent that they are productive, independent, and self-sufficient, is a fundamental part of a disability justice approach.  Therefore, a disability justice approach views people as inherently valuable no matter their “productivity”, efficiency, or labour outputs. A disability justice approach acknowledges that people are always interdependent: a person’s ability to be self-sufficient is not what makes them valuable.  From a disability justice perspective, disabled people must be able to have their voices heard in social justice movements in order to create meaningful alliances across differences. Sins Invalid, a group of queer, racialized, and disabled artists outlines “10 Principles of Disability Justice”:

“10 Principles of Disability Justice” authored by Sins Invalid

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