The good thing about having a disability

Accepting I was disabled was the first step in becoming a force for change for others, as a feminist, trade unionist and equality campaigner. Part of Transformation's liberation series

Huma Munshi
28 May 2014

Returning to hear Professor Crenshaw speak was like coming back a different person. Credit: Youtube.

Accepting and disclosing that you are disabled carries a huge stigma. Perhaps it is harder if your disability is not immediately obvious. I am high functioning despite my significant mental health problem. 

I experience acute periods of depression which can feel like a colossal weight of shame and self-loathing crushing me; I have huge anxiety about abandonment, having been subjected to a forced marriage. There have also been bouts of self-harm and self-destructive behaviour.

For a long time did not have to face my demons. I learnt to suppress the pain and mental anguish I felt. And I made damn sure that my mask never slipped in public.

Until very recently, the mental health services I came into contact with thought me too “articulate”, “self-aware”, “independent” and “functioning” to require any significant intervention. I struggled to accept that I met the definition of “disabled”.

In the UK, the legal definition of disabled is having “a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.” There is a huge stigma of having a mental illness: it is harder to access help or say you are disabled. All this compounds the isolation a person may experience.

But accepting my disability and how it intersects with my feminism has allowed me to campaign for the disability equality movement, through writing for disability equality charities. It has also informed my feminist activism and trade unionism. 

These movements have given me the opportunity not only for recovery, but to be a force for transformation for others.

The term intersectional feminism was coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the multiple forms of inequality black women face. The disadvantage they experience as women is compounded by racism. I saw her speak at the LSE recently: the university I studied for my undergraduate degree.

Returning to hear Crenshaw speak was like coming back a different person. My engagement with what she said was not just academic. It felt palpably different.

As Crenshaw evidenced, in all spheres of life, black women face higher levels of disadvantage than their white female and black male counterparts, including the higher gender pay gap for black women relative to their black male counterparts and their white female counterparts; the disproportionately higher levels of income poverty; the comparable rates of school exclusion for young black girls similar to young black boys; the higher rates of incarceration of black women; and the near invisibility of black women in positions of power within the media and politics.

Last year I became an active campaigner, volunteering for the Iranian Kurdish Women’s Right’s Organisation, a women’s charity campaigning to end honour based violence including forced marriage, child marriage and FGM. I delivered training to young female activists on the importance of social media as a means to develop networks, increase solidarity and be part of larger movements for change.

Online forums provide a unique opportunity for global campaigns. Throughout the training I was able to draw on my own experiences of writing and blogging as an act of catharsis and solidarity. I wanted to provide avenues for other women of colour to recover from a culture that teaches shame and where the dignity of the individual is subservient to family honour. I hoped to inspire others in a way that I had been inspired by others before me.

Many of the young women noted how the workshop opened their eyes to the idea of activism via social media and writing as a tool of consciousness raising. They had previously campaigned locally on issues such as individual cases of racism, but the possibilities of global solidarity through campaigning were new and important for them. 

Becoming an activist in these situations takes away the feeling of being a voiceless bystander. When the alignment of personal values with political movements takes place, legitimate power replaces feelings of disempowerment.

As a trade unionist, I represent disabled and other employees from different equality groups in cases against a management consumed by corporate targets to the detriment of the most vulnerable staff. My cases have included: representing a woman of colour who would have been made redundant in a restructure where she was the only member of staff affected; an older disabled man of colour struggling to come into work without appropriate reasonable adjustments in place; and a woman of colour bullied and victimised by management.

All of these things would fall by the wayside if there wasn’t activism and a fight-back against injustice. This is the power of social movements.

One of the events I held as part of International Women’s Day, in my role as the Women’s Officer of the union, was an event on equal pay. We screened the film Made in Dagenham, which depicts the fight by the seamstresses at the Ford Dagenham factory for equal pay. The women trade unionists not only fought the institutionally sexist management, but also had to fight a sexist trade union hierarchy to give voice to the equal pay movement. 

It is individual acts within larger movements that have the potential to bring about political change. Sometimes we can fight for justice as part of a larger movement but we must also challenge oppressive and discriminatory views within these very same groups. Without doing this, movements for justice can become irrelevant to the very people they should represent.

Where once I was silenced in the face of my own oppression, as a trade unionist I fight for justice and the rights of others. In some ways the seeds for my activism were always in place. It was not a young woman removed from me who walked out on her family and her forced marriage: it was me.

Being part of movements for justice, I have a found a place, politically and personally, to continue my own personal transformation and to try to be an instrument of change for others.

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