The homework for the second disability justice training session was simple: come with a question. Simple, but for me, harder than I thought.

As a person committed to social justice and with many layers of privilege, I’m not a total stranger to the work of seeing and understanding those layers, and trying to move beyond them.  But seeing PeoplesHub’s description of the workshops - about “understanding for the ways that ableism impedes collective liberation” and “analyzing how a disability justice framework can be applied” - I knew it was going to be new for me. So new that even after the first session - literally half way through the training series - the best question I could come up with boiled down to this: what is a disability?

Of course I tried to phrase it to be as smart-sounding as possible. In what ways is it useful or not useful to think and talk about disability as something everyone has to some degree? If someone carries trauma that makes it difficult or impossible for them to do something - ride in a car, maybe, or trust a romantic partner - can it be helpful to think about that as a disability?  Or is it harmful to use the same language for my moderate anxiety that someone else uses for their physical inability to walk or talk?  How does other people’s perception of the “disability” matter?

In spite of my own self-consciousness that my question was too unsophisticated for an in-depth training, it turned out to lead to a useful conversation. And I want to convey my deep gratitude to our facilitators at PeoplesHub, Dustin Gibson and Cheyenna Webber, for creating the supportive, thoughtful, and candid space for us to talk about it. It wasn’t any specific answer to any specific question that was so valuable, but the insights that arose. For example, assuming that only “people with disabilities” have access needs is othering and hinders solidarity.  On the other hand, solidarity shouldn’t have to rely on the idea that everyone has a disability or access needs. Dustin dropped that wisdom in a way that I wrote down word for word: “you shouldn't have to see someone as the same as you in order to recognize their humanity.” (See here how PeoplesHub frames disability justice and their approach to building "access-centered cultures.'')

But more than just discussing the questions we brought, I want to thank our facilitators, and my PBP coworkers in the session with me, for helping me ask better, or at least more, questions. Questions that focus not on disability, but on ableism, like: what needs is a given setting designed to meet, and which needs is it not?  (Check out the definition of ableism we worked from, which was written by our facilitator Dustin and his fellow disability justice advocate Talila A. Lewis.)  Questions that challenge us at PBP, like: Is it ableist to have a deadline? Or to interview people as part of a hiring process? And questions that challenge me and how I personally move through the world, like: What counts as a need?  What am I allowed to ask for? The training gave me the visceral understanding that asking these questions can be liberating for me, too.

Again, it wasn’t so much about the answers.  It was about what questions to ask, and when, and how. Coming up with an accessibility plan in the abstract only gets you so far - we need to ask and answer these questions within specific situations and within specific relationships.

Blog author Jane DeRonne
Blog author Jane DeRonne

We need to shift our mindset from making an accessibility checklist to asking questions with openness about things we don’t know and listening well to the answers. There will still be uncertainty, discomfort, and failures. But if we focus on solidarity and turn to each other - if we ask our questions in the context of real human connection, the answers may get us all closer to justice.