How to Bring Disability Justice to Work

Robin Burnett
June 22, 2021
“Disability justice exists every place two disabled people meet—at a kitchen table, on heating pads in bed talking to our loves. Our power and our vulnerability are often in our revolutionary obscurity and the horizontal ways of organizing that can come from it.” — Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, “Still Dreaming Wild Disability Justice Dreams”  

The Big Kitchen Table

Disability Lead has been bringing 16-20 emerging disability leaders together every year for an immersive, intensive, and transformative experience for the past six years. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in 2020, the program was conducted fully in-person, and limited to the immediate Chicago region. Fellows, staff, and service providers spent 5 days, over two sessions, together. We stayed in hotels together, we sat in training rooms together, in accessible WAVs and accessible shuttles, at dinner events listening to speakers wide and bleary-eyed after long training days. Every moment was fully accommodated and adapted for accessibility as each cohort requested and we could provide—from each meal we shared, to the bathrooms, hotel rooms, transportation, and every single individual training module. The goal was a fluid tailored, mobile, and inclusive space created by and for those who would be in it, so attendees would not be focused on ancillary experiences—such as trying to find the right entrance, restrooms, listening to low volume speakers and presentations for long periods of time, and on and on—and could instead be focused on building community:. Ultimately, it was a space where moments of bonding, connection, and real conversations could and would happen.

When the yearlong program shifted to becoming fully virtual in 2021, the same tailored and custom approaches applied and were informed by months of learnings. All in answer to the question, how to create a container where people who do not know each other, but share a passion for change, can have the space and time to authentically connect.

Every Place Two Disabled People Meet

When talented, passionate people come together little is needed to ignite ideas. There is an insatiable appetite fed with big questions, resources provided to answer, and the space and time to share and process. So, as part of the virtual iteration for 2021, in addition to half day sessions and evening events, Fellows were assigned into work groups to tackle big questions. The first question asked Fellows to answer the question, based on personal experiences: How do you bring Disability Justice to work (as you define work)?

Over 2 months, groups worked together outside of the monthly half-day sessions and prepared brief presentations synthesizing what was shared.

The day these groups were to share their findings, an email arrived early morning from one of the groups. Worried there may have been a problem, I was elated that it turned out his group was providing their tagged slide deck in PDF and plain text versions, for distribution to the rest of the cohort. Neither requested nor suggested, when a surprise accessible document shows up you know the day is off to a great start!

Each group shared their work from the brave conversations they conducted while still getting to know each other in the space they created between the virtual spaces we hosted.

As Fellows presented, the virtual room changed. The once invisible energy of the offline work grew into the center of the space in the Zoom room. The collective imagining and outlining of practice and action of surfaced and set a new foundation for how the entire group would move forward in relation to themselves and to each other.

Instead of attempting to encapsulate the results, you can see below images of the Fellows’ work here (with their permission and tagged)!

Content below credited to (alphabetical order): Kyle Adams, Sergio Alfaro, Alana Clark, Megan Doherty, Lindsay Drexler, Ashley Eisenmenger, Ericca Glasgow, Stephen Hiatt-Leonard, Earl Jordan, Daniella Mazzio, Brianna Morgan, Kirstin Safakas, Daniel Tun, Amanda Zagloba.

Screenshot of powerpoint slide with white background, black text, and red accents.
Slide 1

Slide 1

First things first: "Work" is much more than our profession

  • What is our mission? What is our purpose? What do we want to achieve or change?
  • Ultimately what we are doing, paycheck or not, is creating change for the benefit of others.
  • Our work in this community is to speak up, share resources, and own our disability experience.
  • Sometimes, it feels like endless "work" just to exist in an unjust world that is not built for us.
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Slide 2

Slide 2

Theme 1: Help Wanted: Allies Needed!

  • Creating, educating, and building allies is essential to providing support to ensure that said workplace is suitable for all.
  • Encourage asking for and accepting accommodations
  • Removing stigma from the conversation and eliminating implicit bias over what "having a disability" means.
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Slide 3

Slide 3

Theme 2: Rejecting Capitalistic Norms

  • Capitalism is contingent upon viewing human beings as commodities for financial gain not conducive to building a better world.
  • Need for productivity can lead to barriers for those who have had to do more with less.
  • Leadership is a skill, not a qualifier; no better than anyone else.
  • Instead, we are the assemblers of abilities and ideas—giving power to everyone on our team.
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Slide 4

Slide 4

Theme 3: Intersectionality

  • Disability Justice is an extolling of the humanity and imperfections present in everyone.
  • Deep desire to be validated and "seen"
  • Accepting said disability as part of our identity.
  • Grabbing hold of our collective power: "Nothing about us, without us."
  • Teaching = knowledge = understanding = empathy!
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Slide 5

Slide 5

Themes and Bullet Points

Inspiration porn—what is it? Why do people do this?

  • "Fluff" pieces using disabled people so non-disabled people can feel positive emotions; usually infantalizing/patronizing in some way.
  • Easier for non-disabled people to focus on the "feel good" to shield themselves from discomfort.
  • Examples from Twitter about how Helen Keller was used inspiration porn, rather than discuss her life of activism:

Representation in news/media, movies, plays, etc.

  • Too few disabled reporters and editors
  • Relation between lack of disabled writers/editors in newsrooms and how "inspiration porn" stories wind up getting published.

Screenshot of powerpoint slide with white background, black text, and blue and pink accents.
Slide 6

Slide 6

Our Individual "Disability Justice Work"

  • Continue writing articles about health/medicine/chronic illness
  • Advocate for digital accessibility (websites, social media). Reaching out to inaccessible apps/sites/etc and asking about their accessibility plans.
  • "If you see something, say something." Advocate in a way that gets results.
  • Humanizing ourselves, putting ourselves out there, making sure others stop seeing disability as a vague concept.
  • See us, hear us.
  • Expose and educate individuals, with and without disability, and the community as a whole about adaptive sports and recreation.
  • Let others know it's OK to talk about mental health, we need to create conversation to disable the stigma.
  • National Disability Employment Awareness Month: presentations and speakers.

What’s Next—Building Power

Fellows have already begun the work of disability justice through intentional and vulnerable conversations. As they continue to connect with each other and connect with their mentors, the framework of building power shifts from “me” to “we”.

What is ahead for Fellows is digging deep into their networks and asking themselves: Why are networks important to disability justice and movement building?