What is Disability Justice?

Last updated: October 12, 2022, at 4:04 p.m. PT

Originally published: October 7, 2022, at 2:05 p.m. PT

A graphic banner that says “#Disability Justice ‘A world in which every body and mind is known as beautiful.’ -- Patty Berne, Sins Invalid” next to a graphic of three people holding up signs that say, “Disability Rights are Civil Rights” and have graphics icons representing a wheelchair and a DNA strand.

Disability justice is not yet a broad-based popular movement. Disability justice is a vision and practice of what is yet-to-be, a map that we create with our ancestors and our great-grandchildren onward, in the width and depth of our multiplicities and histories, a movement towards a world in which every body and mind is known as beautiful.” ~ Patty Berne, Sins Invalid 

As part of our ongoing commitment to equity and justice for all, we recognize the gap between law and justice and strive to light pathways where we, as a community, can help bridge that gap. So, in recognition of Disability History Month, we are raising awareness of disability justice. 

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. This was a crucial milestone in our community, especially for youth and families with disabilities, and one worth celebrating. Though it did not bring about justice for all, nor did the Civil Rights Act upon which it was based, progress was made. By being rooted in what is “normal” and aimed at increasing worker productivity, the ADA narrowly defined “ableism,” focusing on physical disability and benefiting those already able to access legal, medical, housing, and employment resources. 

In response, disabled activists of color formed Sins Invalid. They outlined a framework of disability justice through an intersectional lens by addressing communities that face societal challenges and inequities outside of their disability, such as being houseless, a person of color, part of the LGBTQIAA+ community, or being formerly incarcerated. 

Among their ten guiding principles is a commitment to cross-disability solidarity, such as with those with invisible disabilities (people who do not use assistive devices, like a wheelchair or cane, and who make up 74% of Americans with disabilities). Though it is only human to base our opinions of people on what we see, it can be dehumanizing. We may assume people are capable when they are not or incapable when they are. 

The pandemic disproportionately impacted disabled populations. Now that COVID is becoming endemic and many of us have been able to return to much of life as we knew it, we may not realize that this trend continues.  

As many disabled people rely on group living settings, they are more likely to be exposed to COVID and other communicable diseases. They are also more likely to be immunocompromised and face a higher risk of serious complications and hospitalization, despite being vaccinated. Even if they have funds to pay for in-home care, the pandemic worsened our shortage of home healthcare and education system support workers, therapists, and other individualized supports they rely on. 

The ongoing COVID crisis exacerbates these long-endured injustices. Consider the already challenging experience of many people of color accessing our healthcare system or incarcerated persons attempting to gain employment after release. Now, imagine these same individuals navigating these challenges with a disability.  

By elevating our understanding of “disability justice,” empowering our community by volunteering, and sharing in our learning, we can be better and grow stronger together. 

In community and gratitude,   

Loria Yeadon   

President and CEO    

YMCA of Greater Seattle