Disability in the Movement: Including the Invisible

We’re thrilled to post this excellent article at OAH. This piece first appeared in Slingshot #109, Spring 2012. It is reprinted here with permission of the author, Comrade Canary.

by Comrade Canary

The politics of inclusion have always been at the core of the disability rights movement, and activists with disabilities are speaking up at General Assemblies about how to make occupations more accessible. People with disabilities are used to obstacles, and activism comes natural to many of us, because we frequently find ourselves thrust upon a soapbox simply to demand our right to access public places. But disability rights are not merely about ramps and zero threshold, the willingness to provide sign language interpreters and resources in alternative formats, or making seats available to those who need them. Building an inclusive movement means becoming aware of all of our comrades’ needs, be they obvious or invisible, and feeling the empathy necessary for true solidarity. Reclaiming the commons for all is not about tolerating each other, but accepting and embracing our differences. It’s not about accommodation, but about community. “An Injury to One, is An Injury to All” is not an empty slogan, but describes real people, with real injuries.

People with disabilities have been called the largest minority in the world, one that each and every person can become part of at any given moment, and without warning. If you’re lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, you most likely will end up with some measure of disability. Direct action activists who stand up to the police state are especially at risk of disabling injury, but are often unprepared for the difficult realities people with disabilities face. Disability rights are currently under heavy attack by the austerity measures of the 1%. Already living in poverty, we have seen deep cuts to the social services that keep many of us alive. SSI has been reduced several times over the last couple of years. Medicaid has been stripped so bare, that street medics at many occupations have more to offer someone in need of medical care. In-home supportive services are being decimated, and as a result many people with disabilities are in danger of losing their independence and of being institutionalized.

The more complex our own individual struggle for immediate survival, the less likely we are able to help in the struggle for revolutionary change, unless the movement makes room for our needs. Many people with disabilities cannot participate fully in the Occupy movement, but desperately want to. Among the invisible 99% are comrades who are isolated by disabling illnesses, that are caused by the industrial civilization of the 1%. As synthetic chemicals and other toxic substances have become a constant in our lives, some of us have reached toxic loads that are no longer manageable. For us there are no ‘small’ exposures. Every exposure is another drop in a barrel that’s already overflowing. Because the toxic substances that make us sick are so commonly used, many of us can rarely leave whatever controlled home environments we can create, and we become housebound, because every outing is a physical assault on our health. We are essentially barred from participation in the community, and are in effect invisible. When we do venture out, some of us have to wear masks to help minimize exposure, and stay at a distance to avoid perfumed smokers, keeping us further alienated from our comrades.

There are a few things that occupiers can do to help make it safer for comrades with toxic injuries to participate: As individuals you can choose to use fragrance-free laundry and personal products. Synthetic fragrances are made with petrochemicals, and a slew of other hazardous chemicals. Even essential oils are often extracted with toxic chemicals, and can make people ill. Occupations could explicitly discourage smoking in the crowds, and set up comfortable smoking areas. A very large segment of the population has asthma and other lung diseases, which are aggravated by second hand smoke, including from incense and burning sage. Any ceremonial burning could be planned for specific times that can be avoided by those of us who must. For comrades injured by electromagnetic radiation, which often overlaps with chemical injuries, it would be helpful to set up an area as far from any cell towers as possible, where cell phones and other wireless gadgets must be turned off.

Why should occupations do any of this? Out of solidarity, as well as self-preservation. Because there are millions of people who are injured and sensitized by chemicals and electromagnetic radiation, many who are pushed to the margins of society by the toxic industries of the 1%. There are millions of people with chemically-induced asthma and other respiratory diseases, of which thousands die each year. Every cell phone transmission puts an increasing number of people who live near cell towers at risk of cancer. In a society where the use of chemicals and wireless technology runs rampant, such injuries can happen to anyone. It can happen to you or someone you love. Like the canaries in the coal mines who alerted miners to deadly fumes, those of us who have been poisoned already, are often able to recognize toxicity sooner than those who are still healthy. Some among us were first injured by teargas on previous actions, and have vital information and skills to contribute to the movement, but we can’t approach you when your cologne is impairing our central nervous system and making it hard to breathe.

Of course people with toxic injuries are unlikely to forget that the cozy villages that are being built by the Occupy movement are also direct actions with inherent risks not everyone will be able to take. Chemically injured people cannot afford to stick around when the cops put on their gas masks. The threat of chemical weapons precludes our involvement in certain actions. But that is not to say that we should be excluded from history because of our limitations. The disability rights movement has been involved in civil disobedience from the start, challenging the misconceptions of helplessness, and continuing today with groups like ADAPT. People with disabilities are participating in occupations throughout the world. Even as comrades with toxic injuries are housebound, they find creative ways to support the occupations from where they are, like the folks who Occupy At Home and organize online. But we shouldn’t have to stay at home, isolated from our communities at large. A movement that unites the 99% should make explicit efforts to make occupations accessible for all in whatever way we can take part. This is our revolutionary moment too, and we’re entitled to participate and fight our own battles against the abuses of the 1%.

* * *

Comrade Canary is a chemically injured revolutionary in the San Francisco Bay Area, who organizes resistance against toxic industry, in the labor, environmental, and disability rights movements.

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About Sharon Wachsler

Sharon Wachsler divides her time between writing, activism, and dog training — passions that overlap. Sharon has been a freelance writer and editor of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for two decades, focusing primarily on lesbian erotica, disability rights and culture, humor, and service dogs and their training.
This entry was posted in Ableism, Accessibility, Disability rights, Hidden disability, MCS/multiple chemical sensitivity, Occupy Movement, Right to Public Assembly, Wireless/EMF. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Disability in the Movement: Including the Invisible

  1. linda says:

    Thank you Comrade Canary.

    There is a great PDF chart of products that are made from oil, gas and coal derived petrochemicals at this link: http://www.afpm.org/petrochemicals/

    If we can reduce our use of products and materials that are toxic, everyone’s health will improve.

    There’s no good reason for everyday laundry and personal care products to have toxic chemicals in them. No good reason at all.

    Many of the products in the chart have life cycle problems as well as emit dangerous VOC’s into the air we all breathe. And if you take any pharmaceuticals, you might want to ask why there are oil, gas or tar ingredients in them.

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