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Intersectionality – identity beyond disability

Intersectionality “the analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person social and political identity's combined to create different modes of discrimination and privilege”, according to black American feminist scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw. The overlapping of these social identities may be equally empowering as they are oppressive.The conversation initially came about as a result of describing the different barriers women face according to their ethnicity, the movement called for better inclusion and understanding of the varying issues such as racism, women of colour face in seeking gender equality.

Intersectionality is affected by ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, culture, class, religion and disability.

Crenshaw, coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989. Reni Eddo-Lodge, had an interview with Crenshaw in 2014, where she explained why her law studies led her to intersectionality:

 “That work started when I realised that African American Women were… not recognised as having experienced discrimination that reflected both their race and their gender. The courts would say if you don’t experience racism in the same way as a man does, or sexism in the same way as a white woman does, then you haven’t been discriminated against. I saw that as a problem of sameness and difference. There were claims of being seen as too different to be accommodated by law. That led to intersectionality, looking at the ways race and gender intersect to create barriers and obstacles to equality.”(1)


Intersectionality moves away from the consideration of people within one segmented group to tackle discrimination and oppression. It addresses the multifaceted and nuanced nature of an individual’s lived experience. Intersectionality is the belief that oppression is intersectional and cannot be resolved or challenged by addressing one dimension alone.

Being a person with a disability is one such identity which can cause a person to feel disadvantaged. Ableism, or the “discrimination in favour of able-bodied people” (2) can come in many forms such as making buildings inaccessible, - preventing people with disabilities from accessing services, products, housing, or employment. One of the worst forms of oppression for those with disabilities is when derogatory terms are used to insult them, terms associated with the challenges such disabilities present. One form of this discriminatory behaviour takes, is the form of a weaponised language designed to denigrate or belittle.

Disability rights movement – an ugly history

When people think of the civil rights movement, they probably think of women’s suffrage, feminism and the LGBTQ+ rights movements. But like other civil rights movements, the disability rights movement is rooted in a dark and troubled history. The 1800’s saw disabled people forced to undergo sterilisation and enter institutions and asylums where they would spend their lives; viewed as individuals unfit for society, persons with disabilities were reserved for the object of ridicule and entertainment.(3)

In the United States between 1867 and 1974, municipal statutes, retrospectively known as “Ugly Laws”, were introduced to outlaw anyone from appearing in public who was deemed unsightly; “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object”(4). These laws targeted the overlapping categories of the poor, the homeless, and those with visible disabilities.

The ugly laws not only institutionalised a legal foundation for a culture of purification which served to keep disabilities hidden from “a fearful and biased society”(5), they shaped the stigmatisation of disability which in turn, resulted in the social and economic marginalisation of persons with disabilities.

While the “Ugly Laws” targeted those with visible disabilities, eugenic sterilisation had far-reaching affects for those with less visible disabilities. An embrace of eugenics affected an ill-informed way of preventing those with disabilities from being able to have children in an era where misconception and ignorance led to a misunderstanding of the reasons for certain disabilities and whether they could be inherited or passed down a family line. This was particularly the case for women with disabilities, who were forcibly sterilised. The peak of this state-sanctioned pogrom of sterilisation ran between the 1930s and 1940s. Some states sustained it until 1950s and 1960s (6). This complex of multiple dimensions over laying one another to compound the injury, illustrates the character of intersectionality. While involuntary sterilisation alludes to an historic practice in the West, reproductive rights of disabled women continue to be denied through forced sterilisation worldwide.

Justification for the eugenic intervention was claimed as a precautionary measure taken, it was argued, for the sake of the good health and well-being of future generations. Conceived in terms of ‘racial purity’ historically, the legacy of eugenic thinking gets played out today in terms of omissions such as the lack of adequate measures to protect against the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls with disabilities.  

Disabled activists are on the rise and many of them are women engaged in the fight against austerity, but disability activism has been mainly gender neutral (7). Disabled women are vulnerable to physical, sexual, psychological and financial abuse making the fleeing from an abuser even more difficult. Dr Amy Kavanagh, a blind disability rights activist and campaigner spoke of how her disability, which prevents her ability to easily identify an attacker or determine whether an imminent attacker is following or watching her, means she is more vulnerable (8). This experience displays the reality of many disabled women, with women with a disability almost twice as likely to have experienced sexual assault (9).

Further, hate crimes against people with disabilities is also increasing (10), making the need for activists to speak out.

Current campaigns and the need for change

The Convention of Rights for People of Disabilities (CRPD) recognises intersectionality for disabled women. Article 6 for Women with disabilities (11), means that state parties of the CRPD recognise that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discrimination, and in this regard shall take measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The inclusion of a gender specific article in the convention talks directly to the gender-disability discrimination that reflects the need for gender-sensitive measures to guarantee the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms laid out within the legislation.

On a domestic level, disabled people in the UK are currently fighting for the continuation of the Independent Living Fund and access to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and now, against the changes made to Access to Work – supportive instruments in place to allow those with illness, disability or mental health conditions financially manage their associated costs and bypass the barriers to access to work.

Disability campaigners also continue to fight for their access to transport after the government further extended exceptions from the access regulations to leaders in the rail, bus and coach industry. These access regulations, introduced to improve disability transport access, were supposed to be brought into force two years ago – the continued exceptions highlighting another failed promise to the disabled community and another barrier to their equality.

Gradually however, the decades-long battle for stronger disability hate crime laws have seen the Law Commission recommend legislative reform that ensures ‘Disabled victims receive the same protections as those experiencing hate crime due to race or religion’ in 2021 (12). The recommendation comes as a milestone for people with disabilities and a triumph for intersectionality with the recommendation aligning disability with the other characteristics of a person that can be protected.

Raising the profile

The Paralympics 2020 launched the ‘WeAre15’ campaign in an attempt to raise awareness of the diverse nature of the disabled community which makes up 15% of the world’s population (13). By prompting discussions onissues surrounding disability and normalising the need for dialogue and conversations about how disabled people maintain their independence and what their needs are may help in removing the stigma behind disability.

Inevitably, the language used in all aspects of intersectionality is crucial when considering its impact. Negative terminology is likely to reinforce stereotypes and discrimination whilst  positive language can empower. Intersectionality as a term signals the multiple ways in  which people experience oppression and discrimination. The Paralympics 2016, challenged the disability lexicon by introducing the term ‘para-disability’ replacing the term ‘disability’ and ‘handicap’.

The disabled community is diverse; whether the disability takes the form of a lifelong condition, a result of injury, or genetics - the needs of those who make up the disabled community are diverse. And the manner in which physical, sensory or neurological challenges impact on all forms of discrimination, is worthy of still further discussion.

Christina Warner (Goldsmith Chambers) and Lucie Brooks-Francis

April 2021

1 https://archive.voice-online.co.uk/article/%E2%80%98race-equality-gender-equality%E2%80%99

2 Oxford Dictionary

3 https://www.adl.org/education/resources/backgrounders/disability-rights-movement

4 Chicago City Code 1881

5 https://www.adl.org/education/resources/backgrounders/disability-rights-movement

6 https://ihpi.umich.edu/news/forced-sterilization-policies-us-targeted-minorities-and-those-disabilities-and-lasted-21st

7 www.sisofrida.org/disability-and-intersectionality-multiple-identities-cumulative-discrimination/

8 www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/25/the-everyday-assault-of-disabled-women-its-inappropriate-sexual-touching-at-least-once-a-month

9 www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/sexualoffencesvictimcharacteristicsenglandandwales/march2020#disability

10 CPS Guidance - Disability Hate Crime and other crimes against disabled people - prosecution guidance Updated: 3 March 2022

11-1. States Parties recognize that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discrimination, and in this regard shall take measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

11-2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure the full development, advancement and empowerment of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the present Convention.

12 www.lawcom.gov.uk/reforms-to-protect-disabled-and-lgbt-victims-criminalise-extremist-misogynist-incel-hate-material-and-safeguard-free-speech/

13 www.wethe15.org/

Thanks to Arisa Chattasa @golfarisa for making this photo available freely on Unsplash