Radio: Anti-ableism and disability justice education

Kate Welsh and Dev Ramsawakh are co-creators of the CRIP Collective, a small group of Toronto-based disabled educators and artists who do anti-ableism, anti-oppression, and disability justice-related workshops, and various other kinds of community building with disabled people, using an intersectional approach. Scott Neigh talks with them about disability, ableism, and the collective’s use of education as a tool for change.

Welsh is a white, queer, disabled person who uses she or they pronouns. They are involved in anti-ableism education and visual arts as well as research related to ableism, and they have a private practice as a mental health counsellor through which they provide support for queer and trans people who are disabled or chronically ill.

Ramsawakh is a diasporic Indo-Caribbean, gender fluid, disabled artist who uses they and he pronouns. They are a multi-disciplinary storyteller who works with a wide range of media, and one key focus for that work is disability justice.

The name of the collective is both an act of reclamation and an acronym. The first word in the collective’s name is a slur that some (though not all) disabled people are reclaiming. In the case of this collective, it is also an acronym for “Community Resistance Intimacy Project.”

The story of the collective begins about five years ago. Welsh was working in the social service sector. She was the only (at least visibly) disabled employee at a seemingly progressive non-profit – the kind of place that had good policies related to anti-racism, anti-oppression, trans inclusion, and so on, and employees with lots of different intersecting identities. But Welsh experienced some very blatant ableism in that workplace. Neither their colleagues nor the organization were able to deal with it effectively, and they ended up quitting. They said, “This experience really lit a fire under me to be, like, I need to do something.” The head of the organization asked Welsh to connect them with some kind of workshop on anti-oppression and anti-ableism. So she looked around the Toronto context and found…well, nothing.

This was a huge gap in the community, and Welsh decided to do what they could to fill it. They had co-facilitated some workshops on disability and queerness in earlier years, but they knew that they did not want to take on this new challenge on their own, so they reached out through community networks seeking specifically racialized and queer disabled folks who might want to co-facilitate. They connected with Ramsawakh. The two really hit it off and decided that they wanted to work together, and by 2018 they and another facilitator – Jayde Hinds, who is no longer with the collective – had developed a workshop they called Unpacking Ableism.

Demand for their work was high right from the start, and in Ramsawakh’s words, “There wasn’t just a gap … but there was actually a thirst for that training. Like, folks were really interested in it.” And by 2021, Welsh and Ramsawakh could no longer meet the demand on their own, so they invited five new members into the collective. They have also been expanding the kinds of things that the collective offers. Along with anti-ableism education ranging from 101-level to more advanced, they also do more focused or specialized workshops, as well as various kinds of disability justice-centred facilitation and community building.

In response to a question about the key things that non-disabled people consistently fail to understand about disability, Ramsawakh said, “It’s pretty much just everything about disability.” Often, non-disabled people treat disability as a discrete thing that can always be clearly and easily identified, and then met with clear accommodations. But ableism just is not reducible to, say, being unable to get into building X or to make use of service Y. Rather, ableism permeates everything. And while being disabled can be a vital source of joy, resilience, and community, the impacts of systemic ableism are profound.

Ramsawakh said, “I think a lot of folks have this idea that they know about disability and that they are really educated about it because they know phrases like ‘people with disabilities’ or, you know, they can tell you where to find the elevator. But it’s so much bigger and broader than that. These systems that impact us have these really insidious histories when it comes to disabled people. And so I think that the biggest misconception that we are unravelling is that these issues are more than just getting into a building. It’s, you know, our basic survival. And for multiply marginalized people, that ability to survive is impacted in so many different ways that it really is set up to be nearly impossible for us to just survive. Like, I’m not even talking about just having comfortable lives – just being able to survive is something that is made difficult for us.”

In the face of all of this, the kind of educational and community-building work that the collective does is only one facet of the change-work that is needed – but it is an important one. Making a healthcare setting, a workplace, a social service, or a community group into a more liveable, less ableist space can make a huge difference for the disabled people who are (or want to be, or need to be) in that space. And the way Ramsawakh, Welsh, and the other members of the collective approach it, education is not about making sure people have particular terminology or information, but about cultivating the kind of critical perspective and confidence that can allow people to actively engage in practical ways in supporting disabled people and working against ableism.

According to Welsh, “Disability actually affects us all, because we all have bodies.” In part, this means that all of us who live long enough will one day be disabled. But it also means that all of us face pressures – often tied to work under capitalism – to meet expectations about what “normal” bodies are and what they can do. Ramsawakh said, “Everybody has varying abilities. They have varying skills, they have varying strengths. And capitalism, society, all of these things really try to enforce an idea of what a normal, typical, productive human being is. And for a lot of us, disabled and non-disabled alike, we don’t really fit those categories.”

A rough transcript of this episode can be found here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of the CRIP Collective.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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