Intent vs. Impact: Activists can be Ableist, too.

This is Where She Stands’ first guest post, written by Ariel Adelman

In the last decade, activist circles have embraced intersectionality as a principle and practice. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar of critical race theory at Cornell University, developed intersectional feminist theory two decades ago. Her pivotal paper redefined feminism as an intersection of various identities, particularly in the context of Black womanhood. Such identities include race, ethnicity, immigration status, religion, socioeconomic status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, health status, and dis/ability.

As a whyte woman I defer to POC, especially WOC and QPOC, in almost any space, as should be done. Some of my own intersections include being Jewish, an immigrant, raised working class, queer, and both chronically ill and disabled.

Efforts to intersectionalize activist spaces should inherently require physical and emotional accessibility. Creating a truly intersectional forum implies acknowledging and including disabled and/or chronically ill people; otherwise, the space and its creators are derelict. The bare minimum so adamantly demanded remains unmet when people cannot participate in the discussion, whether physically or emotionally.

Such hypocrisy inspires the question of why accessibility is so often ignored in so-called intersectional spaces run by “woke” leaders.

This is more of a rhetorical question than anything. Part of the answer lays in lack of visibility, some of it in lack of education, and still more in the catch-22 of inaccessibility. When disabled activists do not have a voice in sociopolitical arenas, the discussion remains inaccessible, further preventing improvement, in turn perpetuating the silencing of disabled voices, and so on.


A more important question may be, What does inaccessibility look like? Most abled people can identify physically inaccessible locations with a little thought and empathy. On the other hand, these same people often have a hand in creating or maintaining emotionally inaccessible activist spaces through unempathetic, condescending, and sometimes violating treatment of us — despite good intentions. This is largely found in people’s reaction to seeing disability. Probing questions and insensitive remarks usually start off the conversation. For instance, I recently attended a rally organized by my (able-bodied) boyfriend and some of his comrades. I knew some of the organizers from other activism, but was also introduced to many people that day.

To contextualize these interactions, know that I am a very part-time wheelchair user. I am usually insistent upon standing or walking for as long as possible, sitting when needed (which is often). I don’t enjoy using the wheelchair but I know when I absolutely need to use it.


Some of those who knew me saw me in a wheelchair for the first time asked, “What’s wrong with your legs?” or “What happened?” Some asked this with barely a hello beforehand. A few rally attendees were scarcely introduced to me when they asked why I was in a wheelchair.

Oh my god, Karen. You can’t just ask someone why they’re not walking.

Still worse were those who didn’t ask me, instead opting to ask my boyfriend — as if it were too uncomfortable for them to see me using a mobility device. If you’re going to be rude enough to ask, at least ask me directly; I promise my chair doesn’t have self-launching missiles aimed at people asking ridiculous questions (yet).

The main reaction I noticed from people I already knew was pity. Pity. Why is being in a wheelchair pitiful? It’s the opposite —it helps me move! It increases my mobility! It is absolutely none of your business!

One notable reaction was that of an acquaintance named Nobu, an indigenous rights activist whom I know from the OccupyICE protest (downtown Los Angeles, outside the federal building on Aliso Street). Many OccupyICE protesters were already aware of my disability, but had never seen me in a wheelchair. Nobu and others had been very helpful and accommodating before.

He waved hello, asked me how I’m doing, then casually asked, “Why the chair?” I replied, “I’m just that disabled hoe, you know?” He pumped his fist and said something to the effect of “Hell yeah!” – and left it at that. Abled allies, if you must ask someone, that is how it is done. Mobility devices are an awesome thing and should be treated as such.


In order to make activism more accessible, leaders must rethink how organizing occurs. If a movement or organization has physical meetings, ensure that everyone can participate. For instance: ensure that the physical location can be easily accessed in terms of transportation and actual entrance; remember to include an interpreter if relevant; find locations free of barriers to mobility devices and that offer pain-free paths of access; and utilize technology like video conferencing to include those who may not be able to physically get there. Just as importantly, do not stigmatize self-care. If a disabled or chronically ill person decides they cannot physically attend, it is not up to you to evaluate the validity of their decision; instead, it is up to organizers to ask how to accommodate them and remain open to new, radical ideas for accessibility.

So how does one be a good abled ally?

The same way one is an ally to any other marginalized group: No assuming you understand; educating yourself; using that education to evaluate the accessibility of all spaces, and then calling attention to areas that need improvement; elevating our voices; and of course calling out ableists when relevant.


Today, this where she stands.


Ariel is a third-year student studying classical voice and international relations at the University of Rochester. She co-founded Students for Chronic Illness Visibility, a new organization dedicated to raising awareness and making campus accessible for chronically (ch)ill students. A member of Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity, Ariel participated in efforts to educate her community about eating disorders, particularly during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. While some of her time is occupied by going to therapy for myofascial pain syndrome and tarsal tunnel syndrome pain, Ariel also enjoy being gay, drinking excessive amounts of caffeine, and singing baroque arias.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s