“Liberation Happens When We All Get Free”
Disability Justice Academia Isn’t
Ada Hubrig, September 2022
We as disabled folks can and should talk about how every social movement erases disability and ableism, but we have to clean our own house too. Disability justice means we have to hold ourselves accountable—liberation happens when we all get free.
—Lydia X.Z. Brown (p. 188, qtd. in Withers et al., 2019)
To be honest, I’m conflicted about this whole project.
Not just this volume of Spark on disability justice in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies, but I’m conflicted about the project of academia as a whole.
I’m conflicted because I am skeptical that we academics can clean this house. I’m conflicted because the structure, the goals, the epistemologies of academia seem irreconcilable with frameworks of disability justice, and I feel that no amount of writing, activism, or labor will change that. I know that no matter how academics try to address the oppression of academia, it’s still a white supremacist, colonial, cisheteropatriarchal, ableist enterprise at its core, where many of us talk big about decolonization while teaching on stolen land, brag about our antiracism while enforcing white supremacist attitudes and policies, offer pretty words about supporting disabled folks while enforcing ableist policies, and proclaim to be allies to any number of marginalized groups while too many of us ultimately do precious little to nothing to address our own deeply problematic beliefs and practices.
We can argue about the “heart” of academia all we want—and I understand that “academia” itself is not a monolith and neither is the work academics do—but the reality of the situation is that the literal bricks of many academic buildings were mortared by enslaved Black folks (Wilder, 2022) on land stolen from indigenous people (Lee and Ahtone, 2020) to disproportionately benefit white and otherwise privileged folks (Kynard, 2014). Hell, looking critically at the university that signs my paycheck, the cognitive dissonance between “higher education’s” professed values and the real landscape of the capitalist institution is stark: the university that employs me is built on stolen land, is named after a man that enslaved people, and does a great deal to bolster the prison industrial complex–and that’s just the surface level. Academia is a place that masquerades as merit-driven, but there’s those making sure the gates are damn well kept—I certainly do not work harder than the lecturers and adjuncts that are paid less than I, and a combination of white privilege and luck are the only reason I have a job and others have been pushed out of academic spaces. As Cedillo (2018) notes, “Within academic spaces, institutionalized communication permits some to enter privileged spaces at the expense of those who are pushed out.” I don’t pretend any number of “special issues” or articles or books or workshops or institutes or other staples of academic research are going to solve these problems when the oppressions are, in both literal and figurative senses, built into the bricks of our institutions.
Colonial, capitalist oppression isn’t special to academia: it’s just another brick in the wall, another capitalist institution serving a colonialist function. What I find particularly insidious is how in academia it’s the norm to encounter those who say they support marginalized people with their whole chest and a smile while they are actively harming marginalized communities. As Christina V. Cedillo, Ersula J. Ore, and Kimberly Gail Weiser (2021) write in “Diversity is not an End Game: BIPOC Futures in the Academy”:
Even as university statements and reinvigorated diversity initiatives denounce antiblack policing, claim to advance decolonization, and pledge a school’s commitment to honoring Black lives, little is done to actually address institutionalized antiblackness and other manifestations of systemic racism. Without concrete measures of accountability established by those most affected by these oppressions, diversity statements and initiatives, like toothless legislation and all-white juries, remain empty symbols of solidarity that secure an institution’s political capital through the extraction of BIPOC lives and time.
This focus on extraction of BIPOC lives and time is an important critique of academia’s “comitment” to diversity and manifests in other marginalized communities as well. Shayda Kafai (2021) reminds us that disability justice works toward “organiz[ing] without exclusion. In wholeness and in alignment with our bodyminds, our histories, and with the understanding that our identities intersect, we coordinate for a liberation that is genuine in its acknowledgement of our bodymind needs. We, in community, evolve” (p. 174). In stark contrast to these ideals of organizing in disability justice, academia casts bodies as disposable, as nonentities.
There is a recurring pattern of academics making promises to BIPOC, disabled, queer, trans, and other marginalized communities, but often marginalized communities are seen as a resource-—marginalized people are extracted from as a form of social capital, to be the academic’s next conference presentation or paper or book project. Marginalized communities are talked about, too-often without our own input, and targeted by extractive academic practices. Too-many academics have a nasty tendency to extract from marginalized communities, and I don’t want academia to be extractive of disability justice, to water down the radical, life-changing beauty of disability justice with academic jargon and university agendas.
Please don’t misinterpret my words: it is not that there aren’t those in academia who want to make a difference, who are currently engaged in deep, meaningful work in their communities or doing research that improves our lives. Of course there are. There are people from all kinds of backgrounds doing the work (Kynard, 2020)-—in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies and across other academic disciplines. I don’t mean to vilify all people who work inside academia. After all, I’m an academic. Like many other academics, I am trying to maintain access to health insurance and keep a roof over my family’s head in the most ethical ways I can in an unethical system—and do whatever I can to help others do the same. What I’m trying to say is that, in my experience within American universities and colleges, academia is deeply broken-—and my disabled friends and colleagues in other nations across the globe have shared similar experiences. Academia isn’t the solution to oppression, but another microcosm of it: a series of glorified hedge funds with credentialing systems.
The activists and organizers taking on meaningful disability justice work in their own contexts and communities don’t need a bunch of academics with fancy titles to theorize disability justice for them: disability justice came from disabled QTBIPOC folks, centering “the lives, needs, and organizing strategies of disabled queer and trans and/or Black and brown people marginalized from mainstream disability rights organizing’s white-dominated, single-issue focus” (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018a, p. 15). Multiply marginalized disabled people are already dreaming up new disabled futures (see Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018b, and Sins Invalid, 2019—please read these works). I’m not interested in disability justice because it’s “academic.” And I’m not interested in trying to “fix” academia—and I’m not convinced such a thing is possible. I am interested in disability justice because it speaks back to academia, pushes back against the white supremacy, ableism, and cisheteropatriarchy central to academic ideologies, that too-many academics have gone out of their way to protect while celebrating abusers and predators, reinforcing deeply troubling power dynamics and harmful structures.
I’m interested in disability justice because I want to do what I can to clean this house and disability justice holds us accountable. As disabled oracle Alice Wong (2022) argues, “I want to believe that the future is not just mine but ours. When one of us falls through the cracks, we all suffer and lose something” (p. 270). Disability justice highlights how we can make a future of academia that isn’t just for a few, but open to all, challenging us to confront how our collective ableist and white supremacist and cisheteropatriachial and other problematic academic agendas are making academic institutions unsurvivable for disabled and other marginalized people. Disability justice reminds us that we are forced to compete for resources under manufactured scarcity, that marginalized students are harmed under the guise of meritocracy, that those trying to do the work of making these spaces better are often punished or pushed out. Disability justice doesn’t need academia. Academia is in dire need of disability justice.
For me, disability justice holds me as a white, queer, nonbinary, disabled academic accountable and keeps me grounded in my communities. While “community is not a magic unicorn,” (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018a, p. 35), community accountability moves us forward. And, as editor of this volume of Spark, I see the authors of this volume engaging in this work of accountability and cleaning house in their corners of writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. We kid ourselves if we pretend universities are places of radical action and not part of the capitalist-colonialist machine that needs to be dismantled, but we can find scholars engaging in radical work and helping others survive. Disability justice is done across contexts, and in our own spaces (Sins Invalid, 2019).
While imperfect and not enough to address the interlocking systems of oppression in academia, I am grateful to have found disabled community in academia [as I (2021) have written about in “On ‘Crip Doulas’”], and I am inspired by the contributors of this volume as they share how they are learning from disability justice frameworks to make their classrooms, programs, and field more survivable for disabled and other marginalized people, and how they are applying their academic skills to challenge oppression in their communities outside academia.
Tending to Disability Justice on Campus
The first several works in this special issue deal with anti-ableist practices in academia itself, challenging us to reimagine our classroom practices, program organization, and values of the field of writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. These works ask us to think about who is pushed out of academia and celebrate the support networks of marginalized scholars.
In inviting us to think about our disability justice in our classroom spaces, sarah madoka currie asks us to more critically question the goals of writing classes. In “beyond the ability tradition: conjuring community-first syllabi in apocalypse time,” currie centers community building rather than traditional productivity-based approaches, asking students to consider their rhetoricity currie pushes us to reimagine what the content of a writing class is, imagining a more student-centered, holistic approach to writing curriculum. currie offers a “relentless hopefulness” and community-focused approach that prompts writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies to be more radically inclusive.
While universities often position themselves as benevolent arbiters of mental health resources, Amy Gaeta underscores how university mental health centers police disability. Gaeta’s “There Is No ‘Good Student’: The Role of Mental Health Services in the University” powerfully argues how university mental health centers harm disabled people through academic ableism, in favor of university agendas.
Just as tending to disability justice in academic settings means addressing our classrooms and campus resources, this work of cleaning house means more attentively listening to disabled graduate students. In Millie Hizer, Meredith Persin, and Megan Bronson’s “Storytelling as Anti-Ableist Activism: Using Disabled Graduate Student Narratives to Reimagine Accessibility in Higher Education,” three disabled graduate students offer their experiences of discrimination, advocating for the importance of disabled storytelling. In “Releasing Rigidity and Choosing Love: A Disability Justice Praxis,” through disabled storytelling of her own, Andréa Stella recounts ableism encountered through a graduate fellowship. Stella’s insights highlight the importance of community building as necessary praxis to survive and thrive in spite of ableist practices and policies.
Examining institutional practices at the intersections of disability, madness, and trans identity, Cavar’s “Toward transMad Epistemologies: a working text,” pushes writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies (and academia more broadly) to reconsider epistemology in light of transMad ways of knowing, doing, and being. Their manifesto offers more equitable citational practices, inspired in part by the Cite Black Women Collective and trans/Mad scholars.
Finally, Cody Jackson’s “How Does it Mean to Move? Accessibility And/As Disability Justice” considers the future of writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies in terms of disability justice organizing. Originally published on Medium, Jackson reminds us in his article of the importance of centering those who the oppressive logics of the academy have harmed in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies: “Returning to my original question—’how does it mean to move’—is a constant reminder that in order for us to ethically engage the question of ‘accessibility’ we must be conscious of the bodies whose movements have, throughout the history of rhetoric and composition, been rendered immobile under the weight of discourse and inacessible spaces.”
Tending to Disability Justice in Off-Campus Communities
A second set of articles in this special issue focus on applying writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies to other contexts to work toward disability justice. These academics take up disability justice in other contexts, including online communities (Cedillo), the medical industrial complex (Manivannan) and public-facing creative work (Trees; Joyce). These authors help us imagine how we might apply academic training to advocate for disabled people outside of academia
Disability justice holds us accountable for decentering whiteness in disability discourse. This is the work Christina Cedillo takes up in “#DisabilityTooWhite: On Erasure’s Material and Physical Dimensions.” Through examining the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag, created by Vilissa Thompson, Cedillo examines how the structures of ableism and racism are intertwined and support one another. Throughout this article, Cedillo examines (and denounces) the rhetorical erasure of disabled people of color.
In Vyshali Manivannan’s text-based game and accompanying e-book, “Hollow Me, Hollow Me, Until Only You Remain,” Manivannan traces the medical ableism at the intersections of racism and misogyny. Manivannan’s work productively problematizes medical assumptions about disabled women of color and blends first-person experience with crip resistance throughout this text-based game.
The issue’s final two submissions use imagery—in poems and music—to push back against ableism. Taking up poetics to explore “cripplepunk,” Madeleine Trees’ poems confront eugenics and ableism. Through her multimodal “Perspective” project, Molly Joyce explores disability-centric concepts of access, care, and interdependence, challenging normative, ableist assumptions through thoughtful presentation of multimodal interviews.
Coda: Towards Less-Ableist Spaces
Disability justice as a framework sure doesn’t belong to me or any of the contributors to this special issue. But we in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies—and academia more broadly—need to learn from this framework. We need to make this place better. This is not an attempt to co-opt disability justice, but it is an attempt to understand our contexts through this framework of disability justice, the shortcomings of disability studies, and how we might work in community to make academia a less hostile, more just space for marginalized people. My hope is that—in learning from disability justice—we disabled academics who do give a damn about the wellbeing of disabled and marginalized people might be able to move forward—cleaning house both in academia and in other communities we call home.
Again, “Liberation happens when we all get free.” Academia isn’t a panacea for interlocking systems of oppression—for too many, it is recreating the same social structures it claims to intervene in. I don’t think for a moment academia is going to liberate us. In her conclusion to Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice & Art Activism of Sins Invalid, Shadya Kafai (2021) so thoughtfully directs our attention to the work of disability justice:
Dear giddy dream maker, dear future seeker, dear crip kin: what direction will your yet-to-be map take you? How will you support the your bodymind and the bodyminds of others as you embark on this journey? What elements are a necessity in your expression of bodymyind reclamation, recognition, and storytelling? How will you integrate Disability Justice into the practices of your everyday living and organizing? You play an active part in creating crip-centric liberated zones and microcultures full of love. You do that (p. 181).
I don’t know how to make Academia not an ableist, white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal nightmare when it is aggressively rooted in colonialist, oppressive ideologies. But we need to do what we can to make our classrooms, our departments, our campuses, and our field a “crip-centric liberated zone.” We can do our part to build community with others—inside our academic communities and with our loved ones outside of academia—that are “microculture(s) full of love.” In crip-centric community with others, we can do our best to carve out liberated spaces for one another, places where we might be freer. Rooted in the frameworks of disability justice, I believe the authors in this special issue offer us a generous gift, offer us insight in how we might create and sustain such communities
Cedillo, Christina V. (2018). What does It mean to move? Race, disability, and critical embodiment pedagogy. Composition Forum, 39.
Cedillo, Christina V., Ore, Ursula J., and Weiser, Kimberly Gail. (2021). Diversity is not an end game: BIPOC futures in the academy. Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, 9(2).
Hubrig, Ada. (2021). On ‘crip doulas,’ invisible labor, and surviving academia while disabled. The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, 5(1).
Hubrig, Ada. (2020). ‘We move together’: Reckoning with disability justice in community literacy studies. Community Literacy Journal, 14(2), 144–153.
Kafai, Shadya. (2021). Crip kinship: The disability justice & art activism of Sins Invalid. Arsenal Pulp Press.
Kannan, Vani, Kuebrich, Ben, and Rodríguez, Yanira. (2016). Unmasking corporate-military infrastructure: Four theses. Community Literacy Journal, 11(1), 76–93.
Kynard, Carmen. (2020). “All I need is one mic”: A Black feminist community meditation on the work, the job, and the hustle (& why so many of yall confuse this stuff). Community Literacy Journal, 14(2), 5–24.
Kynard, Carmen. (2014). Vernacular insurrections: Race, Black protest, and the new century in composition-rhetoric studies. State University of New York Press.
Lee, Robert, and Ahtone, Tristan. (2020, March 30). Land-grab universities: Expropriated indigenous land is the foundation of the land-grant university system. High Country News, 52(4).
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. (2018a). Care work: Dreaming Disability justice. Arsenal Pulp Press.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. (2018b). To survive the Trumpocalypse, we need wild disability justice dreams. Truthout.
Sins Invalid (2019). Skin, tooth, and bone: The basis of movement is our people, 2nd digital ed. Sins Invalid.
Wilder, Craig Steven. (2022). Ebony and ivy: Race, slavery, and the troubled history of America’s universities. Bloomsbury Press.
Withers, A.J., Ben-Moshe, Liat, Brown, Lydia X. Z., Erickson, Loree, Da Sliva Gorman, Rachel, Lewis, Talila A., McLeod, Lateef, and Mingus, Mia. (2019). Radical disability politics. In R. Kinna and U. Gordon (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Radical Politics (pp. 178–193). Routledge.
Wong, Alice. (2022). Year of the tiger: An activist’s life. Vintage Books.
Look, kind human, I’m not trying to reinforce a binary that the academy exists outside of the communities (check out Kannan et al., 2016), nor to belittle the many disability justice organizers who have advanced degrees or are employed in academic institutions. Rather, it’s my hope that this whole introduction reminds us that university-approved epistemologies are not superior to community ways of knowing. I’ve written about this more in “We Move Together,” but also check out Skin, Tooth, and Bone and Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice.