Ableism and intersectionality

Ableism and intersectionality

To be catapulted into the category of “disabled” from one day to the next, which is what happened to me, is a special and strange experience. Without any prior knowledge of this new identity which is suddenly attached to us, the only frame of reference one has for understanding it is that of the able-bodied man or Woman* one has been up until then. Thus the disability is perceived from the outset as a tragedy that can only lead to an unhappy life; as for the body, it is objectified as being less valuable and having less value. However, there are some people—among whom I include myself—who lovingly reappropriate their body. They change the mainstream interpretation of the experience of disability to see it above all as a set of discrimination, exclusion and oppression experiences.

Although I was aware of the systematic discriminations and oppressions, as I was of the similarity of my experience with those of other marginalised groups, it took me a long time to realise that there was a concept that gave a name to my personal experience. This concept— ableism—provided me with a lens that explained both the dislove of disabled bodies, and the violence of all kinds that they are made to suffer. It was through reading texts by English-speaking activists that I encountered this term, and it was in the same way that I first heard about Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. This came to complete the framework needed to analyse my essential experience as a disabled Woman* from a point of view 32 that was less reductionist than the single approach-angle of ableism.

I am currently an activist in Collectif Lutte et Handicaps pour l’Égalité et l’Émancipation (CLHEE), a young action group of disabled men and Women*, which seeks precisely to interpret and explain our realities in terms of ableism, while placing this in an intersectional context.

In France, the main organisations representing disabled people cannot be regarded as anti-ableism campaigners. In fact their discourses often support ableist ideology. But beyond their discourses, in practice, their main activity is to manage institutions, and in this regard it is useful to remember that institutionalisation has been condemned by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

As for French feminist movements, they mention disabled Women* still too infrequently, often anecdotally, and in almost total ignorance of the specifics of their realities, naming them without managing to make them visible. Some mention them while adopting a clearly ableist perspective. Moreover, there is just one single organisation that exists for the defence of disabled Women*. However well it takes account of the double discrimination they suffer, it does not claim to represent intersectional feminism.

As for French feminist movements, they mention disabled Women* still too infrequently, often anecdotally, and in almost total ignorance of the specifics of their realities, naming them without managing to make them visible. Some mention them while adopting a clearly ableist perspective. Moreover, there is just one single organisation that exists for the defence of disabled Women*. However well it takes account of the double discrimination they suffer, it does not claim to represent intersectional feminism.

However, if we take a look for example at two recent measures by the current government, we can see the extent to which the plasticity of the concept created by Kimberlé Crenshaw enables a fine-tuned and necessary analysis of the impacts of policies which concern us.

The government of La République en Marche recently passed a law known as the loi Elan, which relates back to 33 an obligation imposed in the so-called 2005 law stating that all newly built homes situated on the ground floor or served by a lift have to meet accessibility standards. With the passing of the loi Elan, only 20% of new-build apartments will be accessible. Some disabled people’s organisations have criticised the discriminatory effects of this law: the difficulty of finding an accessible apartment will force many of them to live in institutions. Yet the consequences resulting from the interaction between class, gender and disability have not been sufficiently pointed out. The poorest disabled men and Women*, those who are unable to pay for the work needed to make a home accessible, much less buy a plot of land to build a house on, will often have only the (non-)choice of living in an institution. There are those who defend institutions, in their own interests, as places of protection. But actually because of their closed nature and the inadequacy of external controls, they are places that encourage abuse, including sexual abuse, as is regularly revealed by the media. And this mainly affects Women*.

Apart from the loi Elan, it has just been decided that the spouses’ income will continue to be taken into account in order to reduce or even stop benefit payments to disabled adults. Financial dependency on spouses, which is often coupled with physical dependency, also will not affect all disabled people in the same way. It will put the most dependent among them at risk, and particularly Women*, who are almost twice as likely to be subjected to physical and sexual violence by their partner as able-bodied Women*. Moreover, they are less well provided for—reasons include the accessibility of shelters for victims.

Though this illustration is only brief, it demonstrates the advantage of an intersectional approach in highlighting the different effects of the same measure within our community (discriminations within discriminations). It also shows how the vulnerability of disabled Women* is politically constructed, while commonly presented as something inherent in their condition.

So the concept of intersectionality seems to me to be an interpretative framework that rightly takes account of the specific features that arise from the intersection of discriminatory situations, and sheds light on ways of combatting them. But above all, in my view, because of its porosity, it is a valuable tool for breaking down boundaries in social struggles, and is likely to encourage empathy and convergence that is of benefit to all.

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