Disability Justice & Its Significance For Empowerment: A Q&A with Sebastian Margaret

Disability Justice & Its Significance For Empowerment: A Q&A with Sebastian Margaret

It’s been 27 years since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet people living with disabilities are still relegated to the cracks and shadows of most service provision and social justice movements. Why is this still true? Keynote speaker Sebastian Margaret will examine the deep and historic connections between the lived experience of disability and ableism to racism, misogyny, anti-poor sentiment, eugenics, xenophobia and the state control of bodies.

Co-founder of the Disability Justice Collective and long-term disability LGBTQ activist and service provider, Sebastian is a community educator, parent, and “a disabled trans queer immigrant.” Currently, Sebastian delivers resiliency and experiential self-advocacy/self-defense classes for disability community members with Resolve in Santa Fe. Sebastian has worked to insert and reveal disability justice and anti-ableism issues within progressive movements, while supporting multi-issue capacity and vibrancy in disability communities for decades. Sebastian can be frequently glimpsed clutching tight to a good cup o’ tea and inventing fanciful names for Sebastian’s assistance dog. Sebastian will also present during the Friday breakout session, “Beyond Ramps: Disability Justice & its Significance for Empowerment.”

To prepare for Sebastian’s keynote and breakout, come ready to re-imagine your perception of disability away from heroic tragedy or inspirational burden, and instead address the fear of imperfection to lean closer to an understanding that anti-ableism is a critical necessity for our service provision, social justice movement, and our lives.

In this Q&A, please note that Sebastian’s disability affects Sebastian’s speech, specifically the inverting of word order, or syllables, and the use of  “me” rather than “I.” Some of these have been changed for the sake of readability while others remain true to Sebastian’s disability dialect.

Q: What is one of the biggest questions facing the people you seek to be in service of?

A: Why is it that as a society overall we still accept with little resistance powerful cultural norms and bias that devalue the very humanity and literal credibility of people with disabled bodies and minds? How is this still true? Even if this is happening unwittingly, it is critical to ask what are the systems in play that allow ableism to remain unacknowledged? As disabled and ill folks, we have long known that no supremacy system ever operates solo and as a community we fiercely expect you to consider that ableism is absolutely rooted in supremacy. A force that operates with such insidious effectiveness displaces disabled communities and exiles us outside of the sightlines of your everyday life. A disability activist my entire adult life, me ask is this unwitting or  an unwillingness to address uncomfortable truths? As a community, we need to ask you all – unwitting or unwilling? Either way, the impact is so extreme we are existing within segregated spaces. Segregated is a term that me do not use lightly, given the history of colonizer violence, racial segregation, the ongoing reality of white supremacy, my white privilege and the state-sanctioned violence, brutality and policing of black communities in this country and across the world. Yet, segregated describes with chilling accuracy the lived experiences of people with disabilities, across the lines of race, gender and sexuality, beginning as early as pre-k schooling on up, and beyond. The isolation that cloaks our very beings is not accidental, yet is as absolute as is the erosion of self-determination that so frequently accompanies it. Unless you have close proximity to folks with disabilities, you’re not likely to fully standunder the breadth and magnitude of this isolation and the power it has to devour self-esteem and dilute entire lifetimes of resistance. We’re not a special needs people. We have particular bodies and minds who come with specific but not “special” needs. Me feel wearied and patronized by this narrative and language. It  needs to shift. There’s special nothing about the desire to learn. There’s special nothing about yearning for friendship, relationships, partners, children, the need and right to safety, and community. There’s special nothing about expectations for work that provides economic stability, growth and participation. Nor is it special when we demand recognition as the leaders we are, to be counted as people whose contributions weighted are as vital and stoodunder as crucial. This is resistance!  A resolute proclamation that we are ourselves enough. Not victors over tragic pitiable circumstances, not despite our disabled bodies and minds, but because of them and the lives, history, culture, community and analysis we built have. Me invite you all to deeply this consider. Not just because it is accurate, and morally or ethically sound, rather because without this perspective, critical nuanced learning about the mechanisms of oppression are missed. You also just simply lose out; not only on us knowing, but on your own capacity to fully know yourselves. At risk for non-disabled folks when ableist bias and narratives prevail is that your humanity is lessened — not ours.

Q: How have you experienced discrimination and injustice in your own life? How did that make you feel and how did you deal with it?
A: There have been many times when me have been, even within white privilege, tailed by security in shops, profiled for extra scrutiny by TSA and assaulted by police. Me have a degree of body differences that is visible and security or police frequently perceive me as drunk or high, a threat of mental instability or any combination of these combined. These are far, far too frequently their default go-to options. Disability politics highlights that a particular cluster of policing and brutality happens to folks who already are impacted by systemic oppression, when they too have disabilities that present bodies and minds that don’t fit an able-bodied norm. Here we often are viewed as particularly worthy of suspicion and cast as unpredictable. If we have a twitch or stutter, drool or slur, perhaps have inconsistent eye contact, if we move a certain way, are erratic in gait, glorious in our swaying, we are automatically considered suspicious, unstable or potentially volatile. At these times we are in harm’s way and that’s an all too common experience. Me certainly have had plenty of interactions with security forces, and many of those have not gone well. Me have been harassed and physically assaulted by police. These incidents always are triggered by presumptions of me as both dangerous and inconsequential, and the police’s response emboldened by the knowledge of an impunity that societal ableism will and does afford them at these times. This me share acknowledging that this describes black, brown and indigenous people’s everyday experience with police and security in all its forms, regardless of disability. That this reality is something as white folks, we must never forget or away from turn couldn’t be truer. We cannot neglect the responsibility to act to dismantle and disinvest from white supremacy if claiming to work for justice of any form. Yet there is also a piercing need for all to be vigorous about ableism, to examine and reveal what else (additional to racism and misogyny) is in motion in the policing and control of disabled and ill lives. On the streets for sure,  yet also more keenly in nursing homes and paratransit services, in our family’s back rooms, or group homes, in the special-ed classrooms and sheltered workplaces we pass time in, the prisons, detention centers and psychiatric wards we are incarcerated in.

Q: What what are the little things that you see going on right now that give you hope for the future?
A: As a community, we continue to see people come to spaces where disability is talked about through an anti-oppression frame with interest and curiosity. We continue to unapologetically resist the insidious pull to give in and internalize ableism or shame; we persist resplendent in our imperfect brilliance. We bring this very rich and resonant standundering of what it means to embrace our own flawed selves with brazen honesty, the mortality and fragility of life — not that by any means we are fragile. We embrace what is often a place of fear and disconnect for able-bodied people. We will continue to advocate for our right to exist irrespective of a price tag that’s been attached to the support systems we need and are entitled to. But we cannot, like all marginalized people, do it alone. A lot of the hope that we feel resides within our whip-smart common sense and our capacity to do amazing things with duct tape or twine and our numerous assistive devices. Me draw hope from the richness of my disability communities and that they exist in all diverse places; across gender, race, class, caste, sexuality, citizenship and ethnicity. Me find hope and excitement when in the company of people with disabilities always; me get giddy when we are doing resiliency work, abuse prevention work, cultural connection work, community and political education to build our collective power and connection. Me have hope when we watch that slow, small, yet incremental shift towards identity and connection to disability as self, as whole, as worthy, as enough, period.

When we can meet the aspirations, desires and the needs of a disabled female child, say, with a cognitive disability, whose family is undocumented, living close to the poverty line, whose first language isn’t English and rightfully are cautious about the state. If we are able to meet that girl with best practices, with humanity, with efficient service provision that promotes personal efficacy and determination. If we’re able to do that, we likely will have the humility, discipline, tools, skills, staff, political standundering and alignment acquired to better living our solidarity every day, we will have taken care of so many other people automatically. Addressing white supremacy — we’ll be taking care of that head on; reduce the way the police and state mistreat folks with mental health illnesses — we’re going to be taking care of that; dealing with toxic masculinity, homophobia and transphobia is all right here. When we keep our center of gravity fundamentally always closest to the poorest folks with disabilities, a lot of social justice issues, as folks living those realities will tell us, are inextricably wrapped up tightly, too.

Q: What can we do to make a difference in our work and in our personal lives to change the way that we view people who have physical and mental health challenges?

A: Other than, obviously, a lengthy reading list of resources and blogs useful for you in this moment, none of us know what we don’t know until we realize we didn’t know it. Where are the 60-million-plus folks with disabilities in this country? Why is it a rare event to see an array of folks with disabilities out, at restaurants, or food trucks, gas stations or coffee shops, or more tellingly, at work in your non-profits? The question is how do you move yourself into action, into being an advocate and accomplice? Positioning ourselves in solidarity begins with intentionally engaging with curiosity and a desire to examine what is the state of the lives of folks with disabilities around you. We literally need you to locate us. In that locating you will come to know more specific questions, like, “What’s the best way for me to approach somebody and self-introduce when someone is nonverbal, or maybe uses an automated speech device? What’s the appropriate etiquette that does not offend?” You must recognize we’re likely going to be awkward because that’s humanity. You can embrace our discomfort as being an indicator that we’re stretching and growing and creating a moment of possibility. Approach the person, make eye-contact and say, “Hi, me see you here frequently and realize we’ve never self-introduced, but my name is …” Me have trust you’ll figure it all out from there!  

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