Intersectionality and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Global Development

Intersectionality and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Global Development
A female doctor holds an ear trumpet to the stomach of a pregnant woman lying on an examination table at a clinic in Somalia. Intersectionality prompts us to ask if all clinics, facilities, and equipment like this examination table are accessible to women with varying levels of physical mobility.

by Julianne Acker-Verney, Pamela Johnson, and Susan Manning

 Intersectionality is a tool that can guide researchers, policy makers, and practitioners to learn about and respond to the diverse experiences of women and men, girls and boys with disabilities and the social structures and systems that often exclude and silence them. Persons with disabilities are often pictured as the recipients of support and the beneficiaries of social programs rather than recognized as experts essential to the development of inclusive programs and policies. Even when consultation with these experts occurs, the implementation of programs and policy may miss the mark. The authentic representation of complex experience, the influence of intersecting social factors like gender, age, sexuality, and culture, and the true extent of the inaccessibility of resources and opportunities are most often still missing. Using intersectionality results in practices and processes that are progressive, more socially just, and consistent with Canada’s commitments to a gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) approach to foreign policy development and the implementation of the UNCRPD. So, how can Intersectionality assist in inclusive policy and program development?

Use intersectionality to ask critical questions: Intersectionality makes room for differences, complicated realities, and voices that are rarely heard. When attempting to identify the maternal health care supports available to women, for example, we might use an intersectional lens to ask questions like these: Can women — including those with multiple disabilities — easily get to the physical location of the service? Are there affordable and appropriate transportation options? Are examination tables, washroom fixtures, and registration desks accessible to women from the sitting position? Are registration and other forms readable for women who are blind or require plain language? Intersectionality encourages us to focus on the personal experiences associated with disability rather than on conceptualizing disability as a singular experience within a homogenous population.

Ask people who know, not people who think they know: Researchers, policy makers, and program planners often rely on medical professionals and on dominant Western social perceptions of persons with disabilities to guide their decision-making. Women, men, girls, and boys with disabilities are the experts in their own lives and social experiences of disability. Want to know what women with disabilities need in particular communities? Want to be respectful of local customs and capacity? Ask us, listen to our answers, clarify as necessary, and work with us to develop relevant and culturally appropriate services and supports.

Invite diverse and divergent voices to the table: Consult widely with people who reflect the diversity of the population you are trying to support. Remember that such things as social services need to include people from different cultural backgrounds, those who access information through Braille and sign language interpreters, those with varying levels of education and literacy, and those who identify as queer, transgendered, or bisexual. No one person understands and reflects the experiences and diversity of all. However, many disabled persons’ organizations (DPOs) within Canada and internationally can assist by providing information and links to members of disability communities.

Become aware of your own biases and assumptions: It is difficult to recognize deeply embedded biases and assumptions that manifest through our thoughts and behaviours. Imagine that you are told there is a group of people on the dock by the water. What comes immediately to mind? What ages and genders are the people you imagine? Do they include women with their guide dogs or white canes? Are there people with prosthetic limbs about to launch a boat? How are they dressed and what languages are they speaking? It may be surprising to learn that not everyone imagines this scene the same way. Someone who is blind may imagine sounds and embodied feeling rather than visuals. This is contrary to commonly held assumptions about imagination in our sight-reliant society.

We each bring our own understandings, assumptions, and values to research, policy development, and program planning. Intersectionality helps us move beyond the limits of our own worldviews to a broader, deeper understanding of how social experiences intersect with such things as gender, disability, and sexual orientation to exclude people. Using intersectionality to inform our questions, practices, and processes can result in benchmarks and outcomes that reflect the diversity and complexity experienced by individuals with disabilities. The UNCRPD framework is intended to transform the lives of persons with disabilities around the world. Intersectionality can be instrumental in its implementation, and Canada can lead the way.

Julianne Acker-Verney is a Master of Arts candidate in Women and Gender Studies at Saint Mary’s University.

Pamela Johnson is the Program Officer for the International Centre for Women’s Leadership at the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University.

Susan Manning is graduating with a Master of Arts in Women and Gender Studies from Mount Saint Vincent University.

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