PERSPECTIVES | Disability and Intersectionality: Why are people staring?

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017
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The intersection of identities — gender, racial, ethnic, sexual, religious — or “intersectionality” creates complications for people with disabilities when seeking full inclusion. Sometimes it is hard to know why people stare — or discriminate. Is it because you are disabled, or queer, or Muslim, or a woman?

The challenges of being a part of a group which is being discriminated can intensify when an individual faces multiple biases simultaneously. In these instances, being disabled may not be the biggest barrier to community inclusion. Religious or gender affiliation may elicit more negative reactions, including violence, than a person’s disability.

Disability pride can be tested when a person is seeking to honor and balance all the identities that make him or her a unique individual. Some identities create barriers to disability services, while others further exacerbate exclusion and misidentification of people with disabilities. Undocumented immigrants with disabilities, for example, may not be eligible for all of the services they need, and family supports are often required to supplement care even when disability stigma exists within the family or culture.

While having an invisible identity may seem like a privilege, it can lead to a person being defined by what is most visible, even though this may not be how he or she personally identifies. Invisible identities can also perpetuate the notion of a hierarchy, with visible disabilities or identifications considered more significant than invisible ones.

The Sandra Bland Act in 2015 was named for a black woman with a mental illness who hanged herself in a Texas jail after being stopped on a simple traffic violation. While it will protect those with mental health issues who are arrested in Texas, Sandra’s family and others have criticized the Act for its narrow focus on mental health, and not also on race, gender, and class that may have contributed to Sandra’s arrest.

Personal identity is complex and evolves during one’s lifetime. Respect for the diversity of identities that exist within each of us is essential to building a vibrant, inclusive community for everyone.