Article: What Does Disability Justice Mean to Me?
This article was written by Harmony Bongat, and originally appeared in DABC’s Transition magazine on Disability Justice (Spring 2022). Read the issue here.
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I was introduced to Disability Justice through a friend a few years ago. I had just received a diagnosis of fibromyalgia and my visual impairments were worsening, as were my mental health issues.
I was stuck in a medical system that left me feeling hopeless. My circle of non-disabled friends didn’t understand what I was going through. My family minimized my anguish, inundating me with toxic positivity, telling me “I’d get through it” or “I’ll get better.” Everyone around me offered unsolicited advice. I felt confused, scared and lonely — I wasn’t being comforted or supported.
One day, I started attending a group support meeting called Chronically Queer and was introduced to the Disability Justice movement. To me, Disability Justice means: compassion, kindness, resilience and community.
An ableist society says, “You are not welcome.” Disability Justice says, “We want you here.”
Disability Justice understands that, as a disabled, queer, Filipino, solo parent, living in poverty, my experience as a person with a disability is different from the experiences of many other people with disabilities.
Within the medical system, for example, female, queer, people of colour are just not given the same standard of care as white, straight, cisgender men.
I minimize my emotions and mask or hide my queerness. I‘m often asked inappropriate questions or not taken seriously.
And, worst of all, I have no choice but to be entangled within this system. It’s disheartening and exhausting, and wears away at my dignity and self-worth.
But, within the Disability Justice movement, I am given back what the health system and other systems of care have taken away. It sees my lived experience as a wealth of knowledge that I can share knowing it will be valued.
Furthermore, people with disabilities who are not able to “sustain gainful employment” (their words), like myself, must undergo scrutiny in applying for financial assistance. I must show just how disabled I am by divulging details I know will be scrutinized without the compassion and empathy I need–all this, despite having doctors’ diagnoses of chronic conditions I will have for the rest of my life.
People with disabilities know that disability labels come with negative stigma, perpetuated by systems of oppression that all of us are living under. But in a room of people with disabilities, there is joy and comfort and excitement! Other people with disabilities just get it (get US), understand and sympathize. There is an air of excitement and community. We can work together for social change, and, at the same time, talk about everyday life.
We talk about movies where a character with a disability is a well-rounded person, not one that exists for the benefit of someone else. We play board games where everyone can participate, regardless of their level of functioning.
We try to meet everyone’s lighting, seating, scent and sound needs. We offer food or go to restaurants where everyone can eat, regardless of dietary restrictions, paying attention to how much meals cost. We know a lot of us have been through trauma, so we use content and trigger warnings before talking about difficult subjects.
Creating inclusion can be as easy as asking someone if they have what they need and, if they don’t, working with them to see how you can help — and giving that help in a way that doesn’t infantilize, shame or “other” them.
Within the Disability Justice movement, we purposefully engage with others and share what we learn about our conditions, symptom management techniques, self-care treatments, mental health resources and self-advocacy measures.
Disability Justice reminds us to take care of ourselves first. I am reminded that I don’t need to be at the front lines to be part of the movement. I want to know that I can make a difference and that I contribute whatever I can to fight ableism. Just existing each day as a person with a disability means that I’m doing enough.
Right now, one of my contributions is my story. I share it in the hope that it will be listened to and — right now — that is enough.
Chronically Queer is a support group for anyone who is 2SLGBTQIA+?; and who has a disability, chronic condition and/or mental health issue. Come and join us: https://www.canbc.org/queer/chronically-queer/.
Harmony Bongat is a disability justice advocate and educator through Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods (CAN), as well as a researcher of 2SLGBTQIA+ history.