By Lee (they/them), teacher and settler on the unceded, ancestral, and stolen territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations
In December I attended a workshop as a member of the Disability Justice Action Group with the BCTF Committee for Action on Social Justice. At the workshop the phrases “accessibility confidence” and “disability confidence” were repeated as goals to strive for. These phrases are about assessing the degree to which an institution has embedded equity and inclusion into the fabric of their organization.
This raises several questions; most importantly, are BCTF structures disability confident? How does the nature of our work change when we consider disability and access as inherent to our organizing, rather than a one-off accommodation? Which aspects of our disability and inclusion work place the onus for accommodation on the individual with disabilities? Which hold ableist notions of deficiency? How are accessibility requirements siloed into individual needs or medical issues, and what does this say about the public and private nature of the movement for justice?
The workshop helped me challenge the way I have come to understand disability, accessibility, and inclusion, and, with this article, I hope to encourage readers to do the same.
Any one of us can be born or become disabled. A collective, proactive response to health and wellness should be our goal, as it represents a social and decolonial approach that recognizes the fluid and intersectional nature of disability. It’s time to expand the scope of what we formally understand as barriers and look to a broader definition of disability.
According to the Accessible Canada Act, barriers are defined as anything physical, architectural, technological, or attitudinal that limits the participation of impaired persons, including those with a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication, or sensory impairment or functional limitation.1
These lists are important because they challenge notions that privilege disabilities that are easily seen, which are often physical disabilities. It is a reminder to examine the structures and contexts that not only fail to create inclusive spaces, but also enforce barriers and blame individuals for structural challenges.
Intersectionality of disability
Social determinants of health include racism, intimate partner violence, colonization, poverty, ableism, environmental trauma, trans and queerphobia, and other intersections of oppression that further exponentially affect health and wellness.2 As our understanding of anti-oppression and intersectionality expand, why has disability justice persisted as an individual issue? And what are the implications for that analysis on how we seek to solve the problems of accessibility and inclusion?
When we see disability and accommodation as a matter of individual need, it can result in the deficit model of disability awareness and play into problematic notions of individual resilience, recovery, or narratives of overcoming adversity.
In our union, the work of equity and inclusion has most often fallen on workers who are the most marginalized. Organizations, including the BCTF, that are seeking out and prioritizing the voices of marginalized people for leadership often fall short of responding with institutional change that acknowledges and accepts responsibility for full equity and inclusion. For example, how does anti-Indigenous or anti-Black racism create systemic barriers that further amplify ableism and health inequities? How do militarized violence on Indigenous land protectors and climate crises (including flooding, wildfires, heat domes, and the poisoning of water and air) affect health, illness, and disability?
It’s essential that employers recognize and accommodate the spectrum of disabilities in the workplace. It is equally important that our unions reflect an analysis of disability that does not seek to homogenize or individualize, but rather to create climates that are accessibility and disability confident—accommodating members’ disabilities through the structures and paradigms we use to do our work. However, human value is not just about our work identity. Ensuring our union and workplace value collective health and well-being, and work to eradicate ableism, racism, white supremacy, cis-heteronormativity, poverty, and all oppressions is the way forward.
Impact of work on health outcomes
We have some work to do as a profession when it comes to the way that we imagine and implement accessibility, and some of it includes an analysis of how our working conditions are part and parcel of the same struggle. Valourizing the long hours and highlighting the sacrifices of teachers not only hides the impact of this work on our wellness, but also reinforces ideologies of selflessness and unwavering commitment as inherent to the work. This conflates disability or medical need with failure.
In the December workshop, I saw many overlaps between the experiences of front-line workers in health care and public education, including the idea that workplace contexts are not considered to be contributing factors to health and wellness. How does workplace stress, including pandemic-related stress, increase demands on workers? And how is this compounded by the defunding of public health and public education, and increased privatization and corporatization?
In this neoliberal framework, individuals are stigmatized for the stress, anxiety, and poor health outcomes that arise from workplace-caused stressors. We need only look to class size and composition, and supports for teachers and students, to see examples of workplace stressors that have adverse outcomes on health and well-being. How does neoliberalism in union and workplace structures advantage and disadvantage members based on social location?
Through this conference, I saw a model of inclusion, equity, and access that was inspiring and met the goal of accessibility and disability confidence. As a QTIBIPOC settler, I was impressed to see presenters identifying their social location through land acknowledgments, pronouns, and the universal provision of ASL and CART (closed captioning). It was inspiring to see how simple and effective inclusion and equity can be when woven into baseline structures that commit to decolonization, accessibility, and anti-oppression.
Without a universal and structural approach to inclusion, reactionary and patchwork accommodations, inadequate public strategy, and individualism isolates, impoverishes, and stigmatizes disability. The goal for unions and workplaces is to be accessibility confident, to create universal programming and policy that make our structures accessible by design, and to comply with the BC Human Rights Code in all aspects of work and in all experiences of disability.
An important component of moving toward disability confidence is an accessibility audit to evaluate the accessibility of union spaces. An accessibility audit includes examining lights, sounds, and stimulation that can be barriers to member participation, and considering the rationale for the status quo and the cost of not interrogating the accessibility of our organization. An accessibility audit is required in order to create confidence in our structure, dignify our process, and reduce barriers to participation.
As with any efforts toward inclusion, this too needs to be led by members with disabilities. However, as with all anti-oppression work, we need to move away from the deficit understanding of disability justice and toward true inclusion, recognizing that accessibility benefits all members.
We have tremendous opportunity to lead the way in accessibility, inclusion, equity, and justice. Democracy depends on full and equal opportunities for member participation, and unions are tasked with representing and protecting all members. Let’s work together to eliminate attitudinal and systemic barriers that harm all workers. Let’s commit to making BCTF structures foundationally just and disability confident.
1 Government of Canada, “Summary of the Accessible Care Act,” tinyurl.com/43pu8h77.
2 Government of Canada, “Social determinants of health and health inequalities,” tinyurl.com/y7urjgz2.