The accessibility symbol of a person in a chair painted on the side of a brown wall.

Disability Justice, Explainer

Today we’re diving into disability justice, a movement created by historically excluded and marginalized disabled people to advocate for their rights and dismantle ableism’s role in systemic oppression.

What is disability justice?

Disability justice is a movement-building framework that recognizes how ableism and disability are interconnected with other systems of oppression and identities, including race, class, and gender, informing how we function in society. 

About 1 out of 4 U.S. adults have a disability (CDC). Yet, disability has historically been viewed through a medical lens as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed” within a person to achieve normalcy. This model is often rooted in eugenics and white supremacy, emphasizing what the ideal body looks like, creating stigma, exclusion, and erasure of disabled people (NPR).


• Support organizations like Sins InvalidNAMED AdvocatesNew Disabled SouthDetroit Disability PowerStimpunks, and Chainless Change.

• Learn more about disability justice and the movement, including reading the 10 Principles of Disability Justice, watching the “No Body Is Disposable” series, and other introductory resources curated by Project LETS.

• Utilize the Disability Justice Audit Tool to see if your organization is aligned with the disability justice framework. 

It states how societal, cultural, and political views that covet and emphasize nondisabled bodies stem from heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. And when we examine these connections, we can see how “the same oppressive systems that inflicted violence upon Black and brown communities for 500+ years also inflicted 500+ years of violence on bodies and minds deemed outside the norm and therefore ‘dangerous'” (Sins Invalid).

Through the lens of disability justice, we can properly dismantle these oppressive systems and create an inclusive and equitable society where everyone—especially marginalized disabled communities—can thrive.

“If I’m in a place where my access needs are being met, then my impairment isn’t so significant.” – Stacey Perk Milbern, a disability justice activist and co-founder of the disability justice movement.

How is it different from disability rights?

The disability rights movement established and protected basic human rights for disabled people who were historically shut out and denied. It also gave legal recourse for discrimination that denied such access, equal opportunity, inclusion, and full participation. 
But like other movements (civil rights and women’s rights), it failed to represent and address the issues of all the intersectional identities cushioned within the disability rights movement (Sins Invalid). 

“[What] kinds of disabled work, culture, issues, needs, are not spoken to by a civil rights framework focused on laws and policy/legal changes? What happens when the ways we think of disability and disability issues are Black and brown ways? What if disability is your chronic pain from cleaning houses, my father’s PTSD, your community’s history of being medically experimented on, disabled wounds from colonial invasions, police violence, and living in jail? How does that flip everything?” 

 – Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, writer and disability and transformative justice movement activist (YES Magazine).

Disabled queers and people of color, Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, Leroy Moore, Stacey Milbern, Eli Clare, and Sebastian Margaret created the disability justice framework to address these unresolved “cliff-hangers” from the movement (Sins Invalid):

• The lack of intersectionality from focusing on a single-issue identity, disability, despite disabled people existing in the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, age, immigration status, religion, etc., with unique issues.

• Unaddressed white privilege from the more platformed white leadership and the centering of white experiences.

• Treating accessibility as a monolith, focusing on physical accessibility and mobility impairments, thus marginalizing other forms.

“At its core, the disability rights framework centers people who can achieve status, power and access through a legal or rights-based framework, which we know is not possible for many disabled people, or appropriate for all situations […] Rights-based strategies often address the symptoms of inequity but not the root. The root of disability oppression is ableism and we must work to understand it, combat it, and create alternative practices rooted in justice.”

– Patty Berne and Sins Invalid, “What is Disability Justice?”

What is ableism? Why is it considered a system of oppression?

Ableism is prejudice, bias, or discrimination toward disabled people in the form of limited or lack of accessibility or regard that leads to exclusion, isolation, shame, or erasure. 

It requires folks to fit into a narrow ideal of what it means to be productive members of society in order to be accepted, based on societal norms and perceptions of “normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness” (Stimpunks). It’s informed by racism, classism, misogyny, gender binary, colonialism, heteronormativity, white supremacy, capitalism, and more. 

Though ableism largely affects disabled people, it also affects others who are perceived or labeled to be “other.” 

“Not only is all oppression rooted in and dependent on ableism,” said Talila A. Lewis, an abolitionist community lawyer and organizer (Truthout). “Ableism plays a leading role in how we frame, understand, construct and respond to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, criminal status, disability, and countless other identities. Meaning, not only is ableism central to the construction of what people think disability is, but ableism frames every other marginalized identity as well.”

What are some issues that disability justice addresses?

These examples are some of the efforts by BIPOC-led organizations that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha found in the 2020 Disability Justice Audit:

• “Police violence and murder of disabled and Deaf BIPOC, and prison justice for disabled and Deaf imprisoned BIPOC
• Climate justice, surviving climate catastrophe and fighting for the rights of disabled, elder and medically vulnerable people to survive climate events, in and outside institutions
• Fighting immigration laws like Trump’s public charge law that excludes disabled people from being able to migrate
• Equal access to education for BIPOC disabled youth and adults, ending the special-ed-to-prison pipeline” (NAMED Advocates).

How can I apply a disability justice framework to my own allyship?

First, understand that:

•“All bodies are unique and essential.
•All bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. 
•We are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. 
•All bodies are confined by ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation, state, religion, and more, and we cannot separate them.”

Learn the 10 principles of disability justice, which are intersectionality, leadership of those most impacted, anti-capitalism, cross-movement organizing, recognizing wholeness, sustainability, cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation. Read the detailed explanation of each here

Recognize that this work was created by disabled queer women of color “trying to find language for a movement-building framework that centered disabled queers of color, that wasn’t “arguing for our mere right to exist, but instead assumed that we are whole beings” (The Body is Not an Apology).

If you benefit from but aren’t challenging white supremacy, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and/or any other oppressive systems, “then you’re not doing disability justice.”

1200 800 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture. She has written and edited for several outlets, including Brooklyn Magazine, The Tempest, and the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Dominique was the managing editor for a women’s health magazine called Sidepiece Magazine.

All stories by : Dominique Stewart
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