The University of Alabama Feminist Caucus hosted a panel discussion called “Deconstructing [Dis]Ability” on Wednesday, Jan. 27, at 7:15 p.m. in Ferguson Student Center Room 3107.
The panel specifically focused on the topic of ability and ableism, while remaining in the realm of feminism.
The panelists included Frances Isbell, disability rights activist and law student; Dr. Nirmala Erevelles, UA professor of social and cultural studies in education; Judy Thorpe, Director of the Office of Disability Services at UA and Beth Overland, Deaf Support Specialist at the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services. Susan Gordon interpreted for Overland. Lindsay Macher, coordinator for the UAFC, moderated the discussion.
Macher began by asking the panel how they defined ableism and how have they experienced, witnessed or understood it.
“There’s so many different aspects to ableism,” Isbell said. “There are kind of blatant examples where people with disabilities are murdered, they’re segregated, they’re abused, they’re neglected. You have eugenics still. You have institutionalization of people with disabilities.”
Isbell went on to say there’s another side of ableism where people “mean well, but they don’t always treat people with disabilities the way that they should.”
She said this comes from the general idea that people with disabilities are less likely to participate in society. She said she has experienced this form of ableism before as she is confined to a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy.
Erevelles stated specific examples of ableism including when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
“A really significant example of how ableism works as we saw this happening in a way that we were shocked about was during Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “The largest number of people who died were the elderly and those who were disabled, frankly, because New Orleans is actually a very inaccessible town.”
Next, Macher asked the panel how they would say that some of the common language and rhetoric that’s used in everyday society might contribute to violence against people with disabilities.
“If we really start thinking about the language that we use, it’s not policing, but if you’re conscious about the language that you use, you really see the ways in which disability becomes not just the experience, but also an organizing way of belittling people who don’t fit into the norms,” Erevelles said.
Macher then went on to a more specific question concerning misconceptions about people who are deaf.
“Hearing people, they look at the deaf like ‘you can’t,’” said Overland, who is deaf. “We can’t do anything, we can’t do it because we can’t hear. That’s what they think. You know, like you want to become involved in sports, football, volleyball, basketball and they’re telling you ‘no you can’t, you’re deaf.’”
Overland said she doesn’t “look at herself as having a disability.”
“I look at myself as ‘I can do whatever I want,’” she said. “I have my own home. I have a child. I have a job. I bought my own car. I’m the same as you.”
As the discussion came to the final question, Macher said she wanted to end it on a good note, so she asked the panel what are some sources for empowerment of people with disabilities, whether it be on campus, in the state or in the nation.
Erevelles said much of it has to do with social media. She said that she thinks social media has been one of the spaces where people with disabilities can connect to others. The panel echoed the same sentiment.
Isbell said that there are of course organizations and non-profits that help advocate for people with disability, but that they’re scattered across the country, and not many are in Alabama.
“I think that social media is the best way to bridge those gaps,” she said.