Last weekend, millions of people participated in “women’s marches” around the world. As was the case last year, gender justice was just one of the many concerns on the minds of the participants. On this week’s blog, I want to share powerful words from Caitlin Wood, a disability writer and activist who had the opportunity to address the crowd in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Caitlin teaches us about the concept of disability justice and the imperative for all justice-conscious people to consider the intersections between disability, race, class, gender, sexuality, and other identities as we work for change.
Hello. My name is Caitlin Wood. Thank y’all for coming out today. Thank you to the organizers for having me and for prioritizing the voices of those of us who live our lives on the margins. Thank you Blanca, Autumn and Olivia for ensuring our march is accessible to everyone, and for understanding access is a fundamental justice issue. Listening to our disabled sisters and recognizing the value of our expertise and what we bring to the table is a justice issue. So often, even in social justice circles and events, disabled people are excluded, ignored, or treated as an afterthought. It’s rare we’re thought of at all. It’s even more of a rarity for a disabled woman to have the opportunity to speak her truth into a microphone to a crowd as large as this one. It’s an opportunity I don’t take lightly. So in solidarity and with gratitude to everyone here today, I say thank you.
Disabled people are the largest minority group in the world. We are 15% of the entire population. We are everywhere and yet somehow invisible. We are consistently and routinely missing from conversations about equity and oppression. This is one of the many cruel injustices rendered by ableism.
Many people I talk to have never heard the term. When I speak about ableism, I’m referring to the systemic oppression of disabled people. Ableism, like all types of oppression plays out in many forms. It is overt and covert, macro and micro. It reveals itself in attitudes and beliefs, language and behaviors, and in government policies.
Ableism tells us that to be disabled is, at worst, tragic, deserving of pity, and at best, a personal flaw. That we’re defective in some way. It’s revealed in the avoidance of and heartbreakingly low expectations for disabled people. It’s the refusal to acknowledge and examine nondisabled privilege, and to validate disability as a legitimate identity, and diverse community. It’s telling me I shouldn’t refer to myself as disabled while being unaware that I use that word with precise intent and pride. It’s being taught disabled people must somehow “overcome” our disability in order to be accepted and valued. Instead of being taught to embrace and celebrate this part of ourselves, we’re supposed to hide it, diminish it; to feel shame about our minds and bodies. We are expected to stay silent about our inequities. We are expected to accept the myths of normalcy and independence as fact. We are expected to apologize for our existence. While this is true for all of us, it is especially true for disabled people of color.
Ableism is evident in the disturbingly high rates of sexual violence we experience -7x the rate of nondisabled people if you are intellectually disabled. And this doesn’t take into account those who’ve been institutionalized. There, the rate is higher. It is our erasure from history, and our erasure from the present. It’s our omission from the media and our exclusion from all social spaces. It’s barriers preventing disabled people from accessing a building, a march route or using a bathroom. It’s the callous indifference and dismissal we encounter when we bring up these inequities. It’s devastating cuts to mental health services and targeted assaults on health care. It’s the fact that If I weren’t here today speaking about this into a mic, many would go home from this incredible march never realizing anything was missing. It’s the mass incarceration of disabled people, extreme levels of police brutality and the school to prison pipeline, all of which disproportionately harm disabled people of color, particularly those with invisible disabilities and mental illness.
If you come away from this remembering only one thing, let it be this: *Ableism intersects with, and facilitates literally every oppression possible*. It is gendered, racialized and intrinsically entwined with class. It has been and is used to pathologize black and brown bodies, justify the forced sterilization of women, and classify being transgender as a psychiatric disorder by the American Psychological Association.
We can no longer exclude ableism from conversations around justice and equity. By refusing to acknowledge and validate the importance of disability identity and the divergent experiences it provides, we perpetuate oppression. We repeat our previous mistakes. We operate with an incomplete analysis and miss the opportunity for real change.
We must take an honest inventory of our ableism, with the understanding that while it’s often an uncomfortable challenge to our egos, it’s an integral component of progress.
In the words of black queer writer, Son of Baldwin, “If dismantling ableism isn’t a part of our social justice platforms, then our platforms are suspect.” It is imperative to integrate dismantling ableism into our frameworks of justice. It is essential that disabled people aren’t included simply as a token gesture, but as respected leaders, directing conversations and actions around this topic. We are the experts on our own lives. And we have been fighting for years to defeat our invisibility.
We must redefine as a culture how we view disability itself. We must take the effects of ableism and nondisabled privilege seriously. We must continue to educate ourselves and each other. There are many amazing activists to learn from, particularly disabled people of color who are leading the disability justice movement through compelling art, writing and performance. Leroy Moore and Patty Berne of Sins Invalid, Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project, and activist Mia Mingus are just several I admire.
We’re all a part of this movement. For some, marches and crowded events are simply not an accessible option. All avenues of resistance are valuable. All contributions, whether podcasts, letter writing, phone calls, protesting at politicians offices and online marches- are all part of the work. To my disabled family both known and unknown: When ableism lies to you and tries to convince you otherwise, remember: you are powerful. You are valuable. You are important. You matter. Tell your truth. The movement can’t succeed without you. Thank you.
Caitlin Wood is editor of Criptiques, an anthology of writings by disabled people. Learn more at