For more information on intersectionality, check out the Invisible Intersections toolkit.

The term intersectionality was coined by Black feminist scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in 1989 to illustrate the interlocking systems of power and how they impact those who are most marginalised in society. Intersectionality is a theoretical framework that acknowledges the structural dynamics of power and how one’s identity and experiences can be shaped and informed by factors such as race, class, gender, and disability, among other social relations. Intersectionality states that these overlapping factors create a complex web of prejudices, including oppression and discrimination against individuals and communities. It further understands that features of one’s identity, such as race or disability, do not exist independently of one another, but rather intersect to create a unique experience.

Case example

Fatima, a Black schizophrenic[1]In this example, Fatima prefers to use identity-first language (“schizophrenic student”), while James prefers person-first language (“student who uses a wheelchair”) student who is also a lesbian and Muslim, will experience her disability differently from James, a white heterosexual student who uses a wheelchair. Fatima will likely also have to navigate misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, as well as ableism, all of which may intersect in various ways to lead to her discrimination. Fatima may experience racism when dealing with healthcare professionals, which could impact her care and, therefore, impact her disability. Fatima may also find that she experiences racism in her disabled community and ableism in her Black community, potentially making her feel like an outsider in spaces meant for belonging. For example, imagine Fatima overhearing a comment about how she must be “crazy” during a campus event for Black Muslims.

The following video by advocate Keri Gray provides a helpful explanation of the importance of intersectionality within disability.

Intersectionality & disability, ft Keri Gray, the Keri Gray Group #DisabilityDemandsJustice – YouTube

The intersectionality of disability can also be seen in key statistics. For instance, while 22% of the Canadian population has one or more disabilities, women are consistently more likely than men to have a disability, according to Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, a retrospective study from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey in the United States found that non-Hispanic African Americans were more likely to have a severe disability than were non-Hispanic whites. These statistics illustrate that disability will have different impacts on different communities.

One way that we can incorporate considerations of intersectionality into disability models is through the Disability Justice framework. This framework, developed by disability justice performance project Sins Invalid, understands ableism by connecting it to other structures of power such as colonialism and capitalism. Disability Justice recognizes that these structures of power impact how people’s bodies and minds are labelled as “deviant”, “unproductive”, or “disposable”. For example, in a capitalist system, everyone is expected to produce a certain amount of work to be perceived as valuable and “productive members of society”, whereas many disabled people don’t have the capacity to achieve the level of productivity that is expected of them. These disabled people are, therefore, often labelled as “lazy” or “unproductive”.

Disability Justice also has consequences for the idea of independence for disabled people. According to writer and community organiser for disability justice Mia Mingus, “with disability justice, we want to move away from the ‘myth of independence’, that everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence… I am fighting for an interdependence that embraces needs and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is just that, a myth.”

It is critical for post-secondary staff to have an understanding of intersectionality to provide culturally-relevant and thoughtful support to students with disabilities. Disability Justice provides us with a framework through which we can implement those considerations of intersectionality and shift our own assumptions about disability.

Further reading on Disability Justice:


1In this example, Fatima prefers to use identity-first language (“schizophrenic student”), while James prefers person-first language (“student who uses a wheelchair”)
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