I was really excited about closing out Women’s History Month this year by developing and delivering an interactive workshop, “Building Your Organization’s Capacity to Ally With Girls Who Have Disabilities: Principles to Practices” for fellow (sister?) Alliance for Girls members, as part of my work at DREDF. (To the members who attended — you were GREAT participants!) Based on issues I’d recently written about, I wanted to call it “The Crip Sense or ‘I See Women and Girls With Disabilities. In Your Organizations.’” (Scroll down for 3 “posters” of workshop content.)
I said that part of having The Crip Sense is seeing things that are painful:
- Disability human and civil rights violations. Way too many of them.
- Violence against disabled children and adults – especially people of color (PoC) with invisible disabilities — even by caregivers, school personnel, and law enforcement officers, and that such violence at home, in school, and on the street is excused or rationalized.
- Girls who have internalized stigma that makes it feel “normal” to disown, downplay, or deny having a disability.
- Girls who hear – even from some disabled people – that “initiative” and “personal responsibility” can defeat systemic barriers born of — and well-maintained by — prejudice, and that they’ve failed if they’re defeated by rigged systems.
Why This Workshop, Why Now
In 2017, an inclusive movement includes cross-disability civil rights organizations, as a given.
Or, rather, it should be a given. But in even in the most progressive communities we’re part of, women and girls with disabilities are still often invisible or forgotten, excluded – however unintentionally — and sometimes exploited. This last problem, with its accompanying erasure, very much exists within the cross-disability rights community, as well, in how it treats disabled women of color leaders, many of whom have invisible disabilities. Their invisibility and tokenism extends even into when they ARE included, when their labor, expertise, and guidance are either sought but not compensated, as if the mere fact of having their knowledge used is payment enough, or used without permission or with inappropriate credit.
In my particular line of work — fundraising — I have the “challenge” of making the case for funding cross-disability civil rights work from institutional funders who are still predominately stuck in the disability = tragedy trope. I need allies from outside the cross-disability communities because that’s how philanthropy — and everything else — works: it’s who you have relationships with, who you can ask for help, give help to.
What’s Really In It For Me:
I work for a cross-disabilty rights organization that is mobilizing against new assaults to healthcare and education rights while also keeping on with our “Key Issues:”
In our work at DREDF we deal with hundreds of girls who are in the school to prison pipeline or as we often say, the school to the street pipeline, who have undiagnosed or unaddressed disabilities. ”The system” – be it foster care, juvenile justice, or penal – is where we find a disproportionate number of girls who have disabilities and/or acquire them.
Disabilities like PTSD (or more accurately pervasive stress disorder), learning disabilities, and ADHD are too often seen by the schools and others as defiance or a bad attitude. The result is low self-esteem, shame, and school failure. These severe ramifications will determine the life trajectory of these girls.
We need more allies more than ever. We need civil rights organizations, the philanthropic sector, and advocacy coalitions to keep putting their values of disability inclusion and fairness into organizational practice, more and more. To include cross-disability civil rights in their priority issues, their portfolios/grantmaking areas, their memberships.
This will set the stage for breaking the cycle of exclusion. Together.
A lack of disability inclusion practices creates a self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion:
This workshop was intended to make disability civil rights “stickier” within other, seemingly non-disability-related, organizations. The first-level objective sounds simple but is not: Make it more possible for me and my organization to be the kind of ally we want to have ourselves. The reason this is hard?
Organizations that are great prospective allies have access barriers, big and small, and this is what I’ve observed in 20 years of working within such organizations and 5+ years at DREDF…
- Virtually every organization employs and is serving people with disabilities.
- Many individual employees are trying to advance disability inclusion within their organizations but are dissatisfied with their results.
- Organizations typically believe in and support the values of disability inclusion and equal access, in principle.
- All of the above do not necessarily translate into inclusive practices organizationally.
- While it’s relatively easy for individual or organizational disability advocates to make connections with like-minded individuals inside an organization, it’s more difficult for “outsiders” — including allies — to change organizational practices.
- When the organization doesn’t practice inclusion and doesn’t dismantle access barriers, it makes it harder for people inside the organization to involve knowledgeable outsider disability advocates. The workshop is about helping them.
- Given that organizations are prone to finding “outside experts” more credible than inside staff, and combined with practices that effectively limit access to outside experts, an organization is set up to not learn that a serious problem even exists.
- Individuals and organizations remain stalled at the “good will” stage where they have principles in common but practices keep them apart.
- Whatever respective increased power, improved services we might have had remains largely unrealized.
An Inside Job
Moving organizations forward on disability inclusion practices is an inside job. It has to happen from the inside out. Not from someone like me, coming in from the outside, to tell my story, present my data, make you “aware” of disability.
What an inside job approach looks like:
- Key individuals make a space within their respective organizations where they can begin relating the issues the organization is already working on to those “other” issues they think of as “disability.” I help by giving them simple exercises and tools to use.
- Once the organization associates “disability inclusion” with “better services for our current population” they are more likely to prioritize the practical work required to practice inclusion.
- Inclusive practices are more likely to continue and deepen over time because – to be blunt – the organizations will have the support and input of more and better cross-disability advocate allies when those allies recognize an organization that is worth their time. Not an organization that invites them to meetings where there are barriers. Not an organization that asks them to cross-promote inaccessible materials – or fix them. Not an organization that stays silent when women and girls with disability-related issues are missing from agendas, data, and projects.
Building a Cross-Disability Civil Rights Coalition Using a Community Development Approach: Building From the Inside Out
A long time ago, in a career far, far away (the 90s and not really) I worked in grassroots women’s health in a small, funky clinic called the Women’s Needs Center in San Francisco. After completing the year-long Women’s Health Leadership (WHL) program and my project (creating and delivering an in-service titled “The Politics of Disability” to several different groups of medical providers) in 1997, the WHL directors invited me to become one of California’s Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) faculty. ABCD is a different model of community organizing from the Alinsky model; in the ABCD model, communities change from “from the inside out” rather than as a result of outside “experts” coming in to “fix” a community. Also – as you may have guessed – it is based on assets or gifts, and the principle that every member of every community has something of value that they bring to their community. Including all people with disabilities.
The ABCD model also points out that much of people’s actual getting by in life is not so much about “official” people in official positions as it is about having…friends. Or “informal associations.” Like allies! And: a community’s institutions are valuable because many of their gifts are resources that are unavailable to individuals.
If you’re cut off from developing those supportive associations, if your community is thwarted from offering environments where connections can grow, if your institutions are disconnected from the neighborhood – it’s hard to intentionally develop a great community. Or a great cross-disability civil rights coalition – which I maintain includes people and organizations that share the values of inclusion, fairness, and equality. Just being a person with a disability isn’t enough; I feel a stronger sense of solidarity with a non-disabled person who embraces interdependence and practices inclusion than a bootstrap-professing disabled person with a “I got mine,” attitude.