This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2020

Disability justice now

Youth-led Ontario organization looks to transform discussions around disability

K. J. Aiello

Photo courtesy of Disability Justice Network of Ontario

When it comes to disability, the majority of conversations centre around accessibility and inclusion. Ensuring workplaces are barrier-free, the ongoing fight for a living wage, and equal treatment are among the primary focus. And this makes sense—how can disabled people navigate a world that is structurally ableist?

That’s exactly what the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO) is working to dismantle. Highlighting systemic issues around disability narratives: gaps in education, bodily autonomy, intersectionality in all disability-related conversations, and understanding the abuses that Canadian policies have inflicted. And all of this is disabled youth-led.

When co-founder Sarah Jama, 26, was in university, she started questioning why conversations around disability were primarily inclusion-based. “I started to wonder, well, if we’re not burdens on the state but we’re being told that we are,
how do you … unpack that and undo that?”

In September 2018, with co-founders Shanthiya Baheerathan and Eminet Dagnachew, the DJNO was born. Upon receipt of the Youth Opportunities Fund grant, an Ontario Trillium Foundation fund that invests in community-based, youth-led initiatives, the DJNO focused on their main purpose: to politicize young people with disabilities more broadly and, Jama says, to teach youth that, “you can actually interrogate the systems that are causing you problems.” This is the same system that puts the onus on disabled people to demand space in all facets of society.

Shortly after their founding, the Youth Action Council branch was formed, made up of eight young disabled people from around Ontario who have spearheaded programs such as snow removal campaigns last winter, and care-mongering which provides groceries to disabled people. Starting with just a handful of volunteers, the DJNO now has over 200 volunteers of all ages and demographics, from regions across Ontario.

“Disabled people are taught that we’re burdens because of capitalism,” Jama says.

Currently, when inclusivity conversations are had, they focus around the “us” (disabled) versus “they” (abled), and that disabled worth is only measured on the ability to produce in a capitalist world, regardless of whether or not disabled people are included in these conversations.

Educating and demanding a place in the conversations around disability and ableism within institutional structures, governments, and other advocacy groups is a sphere DJNO works within. Weaving disability justice for Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ2S+ marginalized groups against the carceral system needs to be a foundation of all disability conversations, politically and socially.

Earlier this year, Jama and her colleagues partnered with Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden to address the clawback of funding for assistive devices for disabled folks during the pandemic. This reduction in funding includes life-saving assistive devices such as wheelchairs, prosthetics, hearing aids, and the ability to safely monitor illnesses such as diabetes. Motion 86 to reform the Assistive Devices Program “to better meet the needs of people with disabilities, including mandating, funding and enforcing timely access to assistive devices,” was supported by the Ontario NDP caucus.

At the heart of the DJNO is restructuring a system that has restricted disability justice to accessibility, not inclusion, a way to move away from the onus of the disabled to prove disability and more towards underscoring the right for disabled folks to exist. That includes reworking the social model of inability and equitable worth to reconstruct a system where disabled folks have autonomy and a right to exist in different communities, without external dictation of identity.

“Disability justice is stuck in the ’90s in the sense that people are still coming around to understanding very basic concepts and separating [the] value of people with disabilities outside of consumerism,” Jama says. That includes all facets from perceptions of disabled as incapable to policing and “killing of people with disabilities,” Jama continues. It’s a novel perspective, and one that the DJNO is using to spearhead the deconstruction of disability justice from the inside out.

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