Intersectionality and Ableism (@theTable: Intersectionality & Political Action)
By Andrea Smith.
The concept of intersectionality has often focused on identity, particularly that of women of color. In other words, how does race and gender intersect in the lives of women of color? While this analysis is helpful, it is also important to focus on the intersectionality of logics of domination as they structure the world for everyone. In other words, how do the logics and structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and able-bodied supremacy create not only the world we live in, but the belief systems by which we understand the world? In doing so, we see that everyone in the world has an investment in dismantling these logics because they negatively impact everyone.
To illustrate, I will briefly explore how the logics of ableism intersect with other forms of oppression. Generally, discussions about ableism focus on accessibility for people with disabilities. These discussions are important. However, ableism also intersects with other forms of oppression in a manner that negatively impacts everyone.
In Johnson v. McIntosh, the Supreme Court held that, while indigenous people had a right to occupancy, they could not hold title to land on the basis of the doctrine of discovery. The European nation that “discovered” land had the right to legal title. Native peoples were disqualified from being “discoverers” because they did not properly work. “[T]he tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country a wilderness.” Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543, 590.
Interestingly, Native peoples are often described as having the same legal status as peoples with disabilities. In state laws that deprived Native peoples the right to vote even after the passage of the American Indian Citizenship Act, the rationale was that Native peoples were under the same category as people deemed “insane” or “incompetent.” One court described the very legal status of Indians as that of being “under disability.” Lowe v. United States, 37 Ct. Cl. 413, 417 (1902).
Similarly, peoples with disabilities, like Native peoples, are often legally understood as those who do not work. An example of this ideology can be seen in the development of the legal standards around “sheltered workshops” and “work activity centers” for people with disabilities. This legal history of sheltered workshops is premised on this same logic that peoples with disabilities are non-workers. The concept of the “sheltered workshop” has been in existence for over a century. But with the development of a minimum wage, sheltered workshops allowed companies to pay peoples with disabilities sub-minimum wages based on their presumed lack of productivity. During certain periods, federal regulations had no floor for how low wages could be. In the 1969 Code of Federal Regulations, a “sheltered workshop” was defined as “ charitable organization or institution conducted not for profit, but for the purpose of carrying out a recognized program of rehabilitation for handicapped workers, and/or providing such individuals with remunerative employment or other occupational rehabilitating activity of an educational or therapeutic nature.” CFR §525.2(b) 1969. Similarly, a “work activities center is defined as one in which the workers with disabilities are considered to have “inconsequential” productive capacity and hence “work or production is not the main purpose” of the center. CFR §525.2(b) 1969. Thus, labor exploitation simply does not exist because this work does not count as work but as rehabilitation. In fact, when workers at Goodwill Industries attempted to unionize only to find Goodwill refusing to recognize their union, a California court found that they did not qualify as workers that could be protected under labor protection laws. Goodwill was “under no duty to bargain because the unit in question was comprised of workers who did not qualify as ‘employees’ under the Act . . .because they were in a primarily rehabilitative relationship with Goodwill. Davis Mem’l Goodwill Indus., Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 108 F.3d 406, 409 (D.C. Cir. 1997).
The Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the sheltered workshops in Oregon and found that these services did not provide any skills training that would enable them to pursue other opportunities. In fact, the average participant stayed in a workshop for 11.72 years – many as long 30 years. It found that participants were given highly repetitive tasks and were given no choice in which tasks they could perform. The majority earned less than $3 per hour, with many only earning a few cents per hour (Oregon’s minimum wage being $8.80). Sheltered workshops were highly institutionalized, resembling prisons” (U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, 2012). However, this kind of labor exploitation is not seen as such because peoples with disabilities are supposed to be “rehabilitated” into humanity through work. However, they never gain the status of humanity that would enable them to be seen as workers suffering from labor exploitation.
These colonial and ableist logics of work and productivity then structure the world for everyone, as we can see, for instance, in academia. Why do most people go to college? To get a job. So, the point of school is to be able to work. Hence, if you’re never going to be considered a proper worker, school is not actually for you. So it is not a surprise then that those peoples that have been deemed non-workers are not encouraged to be in school and are diverted elsewhere into the school-to-prison pipeline. To give you one example, my nephew has quadriplegia, and he’s going to college at UC Riverside. He was advised to go to the Department of Rehabilitation to see if he could get some financial support. And you know what the worker said to my nephew? He said, “It looks like you’re too disabled to ever work, and hence education would be wasted on you.” Thus, if you are not a proper worker, education is not for you.
It is thus not a surprise that the suspension and expulsion rates for Native and Black students with disabilities, those who are categorically defined as non-workers, and hence non-human, are very high. In San Bernardino near where I work, the suspension rate for African American male students with a disability is 59 percent, and it is 50 percent for Native students. In Riverside, where I teach, the fully 100 percent of Native students with a disability have been suspended more than once. Nationally, about 1 in 3 Black and Native students with a disability will be suspended or expelled. And once a student is suspended once, the likelihood that s/he will either drop out of school or end up in the criminal legal system dramatically increases. As they are ontologically understood as non-workers, prison rather than school is for them.
And in the university setting, we have internalized the logic that the good student is the student who works hard. Again, ableism tells us that our bodies do not matter. We normalize the idea that we should be physically miserable by having to study all the time, stay in classes all days in uncomfortable chairs trying not to fall asleep, and go through the day drinking coffee rather than having time to eat anything nutritious. Essentially, we are training our bodies to become proper workers for capitalism – learn to be miserable in school so we will accept being miserable in our jobs. Here queer women of color analysis, particularly the words of Audre Lorde are instructive. In her “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde asks, what would our lives be like if we did not leave our bodies behind. What would academia be like if we did not leave our bodies behind. Our bodies are telling us something – that the way we are being disciplined is oppressive and that perhaps there is a different way to bring the erotic back to education so that education becomes something joyful rather than painful. If we no longer accepted a painful education process, we might demand more for our lives in our work places and our lives in general.
Thus, perhaps the bad student that does not actually want to stay up all night to study, who wants to also have fun on occasion, and who doesn’t really want to read 1000 pages in two days, is also telling us something about our educational system. What if the marks of our educational and academic success became not how hard we worked, but how much fun we had? An intersectional analysis of ableism, colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism then tells us about different possibilities for living: we could build new worlds that ultimately benefit everyone.
Back: @theTable: “Intersectionality & Political Action” and Open Call for Submissions