For people dealing with the intersectionality of ableism and racism we face layers of barriers. Often invisible to both ourselves and others, these isms are hidden in the decisions of gatekeepers within institutions and organisations.
How does this come to be? Decisions which are made every day in small incremental ways – like tiny raindrops gathering together to create an overpowering storm which we fight our way through….
A person creating a website decides not to use a person of colour on their home page to avoid turning away those who may be offended by this image – enables racism. An organisation which makes decisions which enable the majority but disable a minority – such as school uniform policies which physically hurt and distress touch sensitive children. These are the small decisions which break us down daily.
A mother to an autistic child, recently told me of her experiences in a local school where she became a Special Needs Liaison. For five years she swam against a tide of pervasive ableism and racism . As part of her role, she was to teach children about the meaning of inclusion. She was allocated a pot of money but was actively discouraged from using this money for specific inclusion resources or directly teaching the children about inclusion. She was told that the subject was covered in antibullying week and that it was woven into the curriculum and encouraged to spend the money on teacher lunches. This double standard was confusing and degrading and seemed at odds with what she had been tasked with.
However, she was determined, even with so many walls going up. She used her own money to put together projects which taught the word inclusion – during inclusive school weeks. She also begged for years to arrange an event on inclusion – finally being allowed – she delivered this event to highlight differences covering; autism, sensory processing, ADHD, fine motor differences and much more. But in the same year she saw a policy implemented which removed special needs children from main classrooms, relocating them to trailers. A move she saw as obviously exclusionary. Against an ableist backdrop she continued to remind the school each year about April being Autism month and fight for her voice to be heard.
But it was her lived experiences which brought home to her how institutions shut down minorities. Her autistic child of colour experienced physical and mental bullying in the school while she worked there. Her child was singled out by other children due to her autistic differences alongside her appearance-based differences. The Mother contacted the PTA expressing the need for an event which would present parents with the issues of inclusion and appearance-based racism. Far from supporting her, she was again shutdown. The parents of a white, non-autistic child stated, ‘but my child gets teased for being short – sure we have some privilege, but all children experience issues.’ In other words, why should we highlight this issue to the majority of parents just for the benefit of a minority of children?
This amazing human who fought so hard for inclusion, continues to raise awareness through her social media. She ended by telling me she endured for so long – but eventually was forced to leave her role : ‘I was treated like the pet brown person’. There is only so much personal pain we can each allow during this journey towards equity for minorities.
She is not alone – there are so many stories of isms being swept under the carpet in order to keep them from judgemental eyes. One issue here is empathy. How can a person who has not experienced discrimination ever truly understand the pain and exclusion minorities experience? The only way to instigate real change is to elevate the voices of minorities, to ensure they are part of the gatekeeping process. Tokenism will not do; we will not stand by and allow others to tell our stories. We are swimming against the tide, but we will get there – be brave – join us.