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FWD/Forward blogger on ableism, online advocacy, and the shortcomings of mainstream feminism

Anna, a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, is a contributor at FWD/Forward, a group blog created by writers who identify themselves as feminists with disabilities. She often contributes “Recommended Reading” posts, collecting links to various news items, narratives, and relevant discussions from Canada and internationally, as well as personal perspectives examining disability and feminism. She writes under a pseudonym due to concerns about employment discrimination based on disabilities.

The McGill Daily: Can you talk about the motivation behind the creation of Feminists with Disabilities? What led you to join it? 
Anna: It’s actually a bit complicated.  The short discussion is that a few women I knew with disabilities who were active in the Feminist blogosphere and I were talking about our general frustration with how disability-related issues tended to be treated there – as in, hardly at all.  Even though some of the members of FWD often blogged about disability & gender on their feminist-focused blogs – for example, Lauredhel at Hoyden About Town and Amandaw at Three Rivers Fog, as well as myself – we found that these posts were often poorly received. Things came to a very serious head when Amandaw spent some time guest-posting at popular feminist blog Feministe.  The comment threads were often full of hateful comments, including things like “once you’ve identified yourself as a person with disabilities (PWD), you’re part of a privileged group that excludes others” and people accusing Amandaw of being a  pill-popping addict who wanted nothing more than her drug fix. 
Fun times!
This had been going on for some time when meloukhia of This Ain’t Living wrote an open letter to popular feminist blog Feministing.  You can read it here.

I don’t quite know how this became the final catalyst, but those of us who had been talking back and forth about everything finally came together and said “Let’s just do this blogging thing explicitly. We’re feminists with disabilities, we approach disability with a feminist lens, and feminism with a disability lens.”  And thus, we did.

The Feministing Thing is, I think, often perceived as what “caused” FWD/Forward, but it’s more like what finally made us realize that we were basically out here on our own, and we could do better work as a group. 

MD: The contributors at FWD seem to be fairly geographically spread out, with members in at least three continents – how did you get in touch with your co-founders? 
A: It more just jelled that way.  I knew Lauredhel & Annaham & Amandaw from before.  I was aware of Chally, but hadn’t really interacted with her.  K0 was, I am sad to admit, right off my radar, as were meloukhia & abby jean & OuyangDan.  meloukhia contacted me after her letter went up and got linked all over the blogosphere because she was made aware of my issues about the feminist blogosphere & disability. 

MD: FWD seems at least partly a response to a dissatisfaction with current resources. What do you feel FWD uniquely provides in terms of reshaping feminist- or disability-only activism? 
A: I think what we provide is a variety of viewpoints in one place.  Not all viewpoints by any stretch, but a lot. 
I think there’s a misconception on the Internet that there are very few feminists with disabilities that are writing online, and one of the things we wanted to do is make it clear that this is not so.  This is why we try to have an updated blogroll – to make it clear we’re certainly not the only women with disabilities writing – and do recommended reading posts on weekdays. 
Miss Crip Chick & Wheelchair Dancer are writing very powerful stuff, and have been since before it even occurred to me to write about disability & feminism.  Amanda here as well. Also BFP at flipfloppingjoy and Renee at womanist-musings, both of whom write explicitly from a womanist POV. 
MD: Does anything in particular make your web site accessible? 
A:We worked to find a screen-reader accessible wordpress layout, and have various ways people can access the site through RSS or email so they don’t have to depend on it.  We transcribe all videos that go up on the site, often with full descriptive transcripts.  We describe all images on the site.  We provide links to “jump” from content to content.  We use descriptive links as our link-text (so a link would be “read more about underwater basket weaving at McGill” instead of “click here”).

The most important is that, when someone brings to our attention that something isn’t working for them from an accessibility standpoint, we work with them to try and fix the problem.  Ideally we’d never have any problems, of course, but we all hope that working with others can fix any that come up. 

MD: Do you decide together how to balance your content – like the balance of collecting news links with original commentary with personal narratives? Is there any editorial process involved? 
A: No. Well, kind of.  We discuss content a lot, and how much is too much, and we often bounce posts off each other before they go up.  I’ve got something I’m still working on right now that’s about parenting & disability that I’ve run past a few people because I am not a parent. But overall we stay out of each other’s stuff unless asked. 

MD: I know at FWD’s beginning, it ran a series of “Ableist Word Profiles.” How do you feel that language can intersect with advocacy? 

A:For me, personally, talking about ableist language is a way of reminding people that we’re here.  “Please don’t use lame to mean bad.  My husband is lame.  That particular thing is irritating, asinine or useless.”  People like to counter this with “No one uses lame to mean 
disabled people!”  Which I guess means all the time people have referred to my husband as that retarded lame-o in the wheelchair are meant ironically or something. 
I don’t always agree with the words that have been talked about as ableist – I don’t mind crazy the way many of my friends and co-bloggers do, for example, and I know lots of PWD who don’t care about lame but do care about r#tarded.  (that # there on purpose, not a typo.)  PWD do not all agree on the same things or have the same goals or outcomes or concerns.  But I do like to remind people that we’re here, and we are reading your stuff, and you can probably improve as a writer if you try and keep that in mind. 

MD: Has your experience at FWD in particular informed your engagement in disability advocacy in Canada? Can you reconcile the international nature of FWD with Canadian politics in particular? 
A: I see myself as a community member now instead of a lone voice in the wilderness occasionally ranting at friends.  The past year or so has been about making connections and community with other people with disabilities, and discussing our experiences, our work, and what happens to us.  It wasn’t until I talked to people in the US living with the ADA that I learned that it is not as awesome as I had hoped it would be – people are still struggling for employment equity. 
Also, through FWD I’ve found a lot of Canadians that I can chat with about issues that are going on in our areas.  Disability activism in Nova Scotia isn’t the same as disability activism in Ontario, where you have the awesome-sounding new act coming in, or in Alberta where 
I’ve found funding issues are entirely different. 
MD: What would you say are the biggest challenges remaining for feminists with disabilities in Canada? 

A: Oh gosh.  We could be here all day.  So, just a short list. 

– According to a Diabetes Attitudes, Wishes, and Needs study that’s something like 20 years old, over 80 per cent of people with disabilities in any form of care program are abused, often sexually, while in care.  Sixty per cent of their abusers are their caregivers.  One of the reasons given for forced-sterilization of women with disabilities is to prevent them from getting pregnant – and they are getting pregnant because they are being raped in care centers.  HEY FEMINIST MOVEMENT.  THIS WOULD BE AN ISSUE. 

– Underfunded women’s shelters often can’t afford to make renovations to be accessible.  And yet, women with disabilities are abused at higher rates than their non-disabled counterparts. 
-I think it’s awesome that there is increased funding for school programs and support for families who have children with disabilities.  Can we also start increasing support programs for adults with disabilities?  Because I would really like more people to acknowledge there are autistic adults, adults with Down’s Syndrome, adults with cancer, et cetera. 

– You know what would be awesome? If the political parties in Canada would stop acting like PWD do not exist, do not access their web sites or spaces, and do not vote.  Seriously.  I swear, I send more emails out to the Liberals, the Conservatives, the NDP, and the Greens about their web sites and press releases and activities than I do anything else.  And they never get answered or even acknowledged.  So, the Liberals are doing this big Canada150 event that will not be captioned, because I guess Deaf people do not exist.  That whole “YouTalk” event for the PM?  The questions could not be accessed by blind Canadians, and it was not captioned either.  Just for two examples. 
– It would thrill me if all feminist writers everywhere would assume that “women” includes “women with disabilities”, and stop acting like they’re doing us a favour by letting us talk about our “pet issues”. Disability crosses race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, political view, etc.  If you’re currently non-disabled and reading this, an accident or illness could have you wondering why your city has no bloody curbcuts and discussing the out-of-pocket costs of medications for “catastrophic illnesses.”  Your child, your lover, your parent, your best friend, your teacher, your favourite actor all could end up in the same boat. 
MD: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 
A: Being disabled shouldn’t mean living in poverty.  And yet, it often does.  Why are our poorest neighbourhoods also the ones that are horrible for accessibility? It’s almost like everyone wants PWD to never leave their homes.