Perspectives on COVID19 from Disability Justice Activists

The Inner Activist
May 25, 2020

Many people, progressive organizations, businesses, and governments have stepped in and stepped up to provide support in these unsettling times. One of The Inner Activist’s areas of learning these days is disability justice. We are having more conversations and reflections on this with the intention to start taking action and making changes at The Inner Activist.  As a result, we became particularly interested in the culture of accommodation and access that emerged in several communities through mutual aid networks, working from home, taking events online, and creative engagement opportunities despite social distancing. We noticed that disability justice activists and disabled people are pointing out that the new normal of access and accommodation is using a lot of practices and ideas that have been created by the disability justice community and has largely been ignored or gone without credit. 

We reached out to Heather McCain from Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods and Vivian Ly from Autistics United Canada, both live in Metro Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territory. Both Heather and Vivian spoke to the history of disability justice and its roots in QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) communities emphasizing how these communities rely on each other in the face of systems that actively marginalize and harm them. Vivian highlights, “Disabled communities have made collective access & mutual aid an explicit and intentional practice. We talk of collective survival; we dream of collective liberation. No one left behind. That is the foundation of disability justice.” 

Heather explains how people with disabilities are treated as a “special interest group” despite being the largest minority in Canada, composing a quarter of the  population. This narrative frames the hard-won support and access experienced by people with disabilities as an accommodation rather than a human right. This pandemic has demonstrated how quickly governments are able to mobilize resources to help abled people maintain their lifestyles. This is in stark contrast to the activism and organizing that has always been required of disabled people to gain access to the support that they need. Heather argues that this contrast is deeply rooted in capitalism. Abled people are being supported to continue their work, access emergency funding, and maintain their businesses, in order to sustain their engagement with a capitalist system in spite of the pandemic. People with disabilities are not seen as productive players in the story of capitalism and therefore their economic and financial needs don’t get prioritized. “It's super frustrating to see change only come when barriers are created for abled people. The reality of disabled people's everyday lives is that we were already struggling. For example, there was a $300 bump (In British Columbia) to disability benefit rates, but it's still not even 75% of the poverty line. The measures taken for the pandemic still wouldn't have been enough to care for and support the survival of the most vulnerable in pre-pandemic conditions. That is how big the inequality of care is. I think recognition of that would go a long way.” says Vivian.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

When asked about the post-pandemic world, Vivian urges us to connect our feelings of struggles with social isolation and confinement with the unjust and forced confinement of incarcerated people, homebound disabled people, and disabled people in institutions. Heather explains the importance of maintaining the culture of access and inclusion that has emerged within community spaces. “People with disabilities will remember the accommodations that were made possible for abled people during the pandemic and we will not let them forget.” 


As an initial step, we invite you to join us in learning and reflecting on these 10 Principles of Disability Justice

About Vivian Ly and Heather McCain 

Vivian Ly is a co-founder of Autistics United Canada, the first national self-advocacy organization by and for Autistic people. With the Vancouver-Coast Salish Territory chapter, Vivian is part of an Autistic collective that facilitates outreach workshops, hosts community events, maintains a mobile neurodiversity library, and engages in policy advocacy at the local, provincial, and national level. While studying and conducting research in Behavioural Neuroscience at Simon Fraser University, Vivian creates campus-wide change with SFU Autistics United and the Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance. Vivian believes in a world where no one is left behind, where radical resilience and survival is nurtured and celebrated, where collective access is the norm, and where disabled, sick, Mad, Deaf, and neurodivergent people are free.

Heather McCain is Executive Director of Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods, a non-profit they founded in 2005​, and a ​Crip Doula, a Disability Justice term for someone who helps disabled people​ with intersecting identities​ navigate our complex systems​, build community, provid​e ​and share ​resources​ and ​support. Heather’s own experiences with multiple types of disabilities, inaccessibility, and ableism led them to become a well-known and respected advocate, speaker, educator, and activist​. Heather is committed to centering decolonialization, using an intersectional lens, and engaging in cross-movement organizing. Heather strives to challenge ways of thinking and fundamentally shift the way we organize and fight for social change.

Vivian Ly and Heather McCain discuss how COVID19 accommodations are highlighting what disability justice activists have been fighting for all along.
written by
The Inner Activist

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