Melissa Graham is the founder and organizer of Toronto Disability Pride, which is having its 10th annual event this Saturday, September 19. Spring Magazine spoke with her about the disability justice movement, struggles from police violence to COVID-19, the capitalist basis of disability oppression and the fight for a better world.
This is the 10th annual Toronto Disability Pride. How did it start and how has it evolved over the years?
It started with Occupy: there were a lot of different movements going on during that time, but there weren’t really any actions for disabled people in that movement. And the movement itself at the time wasn’t very accessible. So it was just something I decided to do on my own at that point. And then over the years it has evolved where we have more of an organizing team and our organization has more structure and expanded. So we have formal speeches at the beginning and a celebration at the end with disabled artists, and over time developed the Beverly Smith award for an organizer who passed away. So it’s really expanded and grown over the last 10 years. But over that time we’ve never had any public funding. It’s all been organized through the support of the community, which we’re really proud of.
With had some involvement from non-disability organizations, like unions and other socialist movements. I don’t know if we’ve connected too much with other disability organizations because it’s pretty rare to have a group like ours that isn’t attached to public funding and which can do the advocacy work that we do. A lot of what happens within the disability movement is that different organizations that run programs are tied to public funding and then are no longer able to do advocacy. That was part of one of the ways that disability movements got silenced over the 80s and 90s. There have been other organizations that have sprung up since the march started, like Disability Justice Network of Ontario, and we’ve built some connections with them, and we support each other’s activities. We’ve focused on the annual events year after year. It’s always been my hope that we can broaden into a broader force for disability justice.
The first Toronto Disability Pride called attention to police killings of people with disabilities, and now there’s a resurgence of Black Lives Matter sparked by the police killings of Black and Indigenous people with mental health issues—an intersection that Ryerson scholars Sonia Meerai, Idil Abdillahi, and Jennifer Poole call “anti-Black sanism.” Can you explain the intersection between disability justice and racial justice, and how this relates to calls to defund the police?
All the things we were struggling with in the beginning are still issues today, which is unfortunate but it brings the important point that this is why we need to keep organizing so we don’t go away. It’s not often that you see disabled people struggle as an identified force; you might see an occasional disabled person within a movement but not a group of disabled people.
In terms of police violence, back in 2011 it was one of the things that came up as an issue. I can’t remember the exact context but I think it had to do with violence around Occupy. But also we know that if you’re a psychiatric survivor or mad person, or someone who communicates someway other than verbally, you are more likely to have a negative interaction with police. For a psych survivor or mad people, social workers in Canada still work very closely with police, see police as keepers of their safety when working with certain clients and this tends to go very badly—especially for Black, Indigenous and racialized people.
We’ve seen that with Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, and also one of our own organizers in years past was a victim of police violence. So we know this happens, but the disability community at large is not raising attention to this for reasons I mentioned earlier, which is a real fear of speaking up against the state and losing your funding. But because we don’t have public funding, we don’t have to worry about that. The organizing team really felt it was an important priority to bring up again this year, because people forget that this is part of the history of how the march started, and particularly people who are new to the march have seen other disability events in the past and might think this is just a celebration. But the Disability Pride March is deliberately a political movement, especially at the intersections of oppression and justice.
How have you used an intersectional lens in your organizing?
It’s always been a foundation of what we do, in a few different ways. All of our organizers have the lived experience with disability and a number have experiences of poverty and racialization and other forms of oppression. In our organizing we operate with that understanding. We deliberately choose speakers, for the most part, that don’t get a lot of recognition for working in the community, and we do that on purpose to upend normal ways of doing events. There have been different movements in the past that we’ve added Toronto Disability Pride March to, that we’ve supported and funded—like the care-mongering support that was going on in Hamilton during the pandemic. We’ve supported different Indigenous struggles in different ways as well.
There’s a connection between disability struggles and Indigenous struggles. To me, I see two groups that have been defined very narrowly by the ruling class, an outside force defining who they are and what they’re allowed to have access to. Those are ways in which those two forms of oppression intersect, and they’re both groups that have been kept separate from mainstream society for a very long time.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis affected people with disabilities, how has the disability justice movement organized in response?
In terms of how it’s affected disabled people, we’ve seen this in a variety of ways. The one you’ll see the mainstream disability movement talk about most are things like access to PPE and attendant services, which is important. But classism exists within the disability community too, and those are issues that you’ll see brought up by people with more privilege than the majority of people who would call themselves disabled people. What I see as the impact of the pandemic is isolation, people who have barely left their homes in months. This leads to increased police violence, because if you’re labeled as someone with a mental health problem or mad person or psych survivor, you are more likely to have interactions with the police where they have the right to remove you from your home. Also there’s the fact that CERB was significantly higher than ODSP rates in this province. When you talk about seniors, many disabled people in the group are more vulnerable to this virus and therefore more afraid. There are hospital regulations in Ontario that essentially say that if things get bad enough where we have to start rationing ventilators, people with these disabilities won’t be offered ventilation.
But what I think is really wonderful is the disability movement coming together to support each other. It’s been disability movements that have been doing things like what Disability Justice Network of Ontario is doing: literally providing supplies to disabled people to have what they need in terms of food and cleaning supplies. And disability organizations pushing for that $600 they got for pandemic cost, which is nothing but it’s something. Building community through virtual spaces is something I’ve seen a lot too.
In term of how it affected our march, and it being entirely virtual this year, that was something that was very difficult for us. It might seem like an obvious decision in the context of the pandemic, but marching itself is a big part of the event: the ability to take up streets, and take up space and visibility, it’s a big piece of why the march exists—it’s a march. But also there was an unexpected factor where we came across people who would ordinarily have loved to speak on particular issues but feel uncomfortable doing it virtually because the sensitivities of the subjects they were bringing up. For example, people who experience homelessness or are precariously homed, were not as comfortable speaking about that in a virtual public space where they didn’t necessarily know who the audience was. Similarly with issues with police violence, we’ve struggled finding speakers to speak on that virtually as well. It’s something I hadn’t considered but makes sense that it’s much easier to have that spoken about in a public venue where you know who you’re speaking to.
What have been the challenges organizing over a decade?
We’ve lost a couple of organizers, Kevin and Karina. It’s important to recognize that this work is hard on a number of levels. It’s hard work to continue to do over 10 years. It’s hard work because we live it at the same time as we’re fighting for better. It’s hard because most of us have different struggles than you might see in able-bodied activism. Poverty and impairment and oppression impact organizers too, not just the people we put these events on for, and I think it’s really important that other organizers from other movements recognize the importance of the need for solidarity—just how much disabled people literally put their bodies on the line for this work, because we care so much about it. For me, with everything I have going on right now, the only reason I’m continuing to organize the march is because I know how much it means to the community. I wish that other disability activists that might have something to give to the struggle could see themselves in it, and not just participants but actively involved—because we need more people.
As much as we’re bringing up the same issues year after year, it’s not that it’s not working. It keeps it in the consciousness so it doesn’t go away. Because what people forget is that prior to 10 years ago, a lot of these conversations were happening behind closed doors. There weren’t public events and discussions, it wasn’t getting into non-disable discourses around oppression in the same way. The Toronto Disability Pride March now is a movement that’s known to different activists across the country, it’s a movement that other activists aspire to do. So as much as I say that we’re still struggling for the same things, that might sound frustrating but we’re still struggling.
The struggle continues because the system continues. Capitalism is founded on disability and mad oppression, narrowly defining what constitutes “productive labour” and pathologizing those who don’t conform. How does capitalism continue to reproduce disability oppression?
Capitalism relies on exploiting labour from all of us, but often—particularly in the case of disabled people—our free labour. I think about the patient wall that still exists at the Queen Street CAMH location: that wall was built by patients to enclose themselves. It was men and women enclosed in there because they were identified as people who were struggling with their mental health, but more often than not they were people who didn’t fit neatly into capitalism. They were seen as not fitting within capitalist society, but their labour was still exploited to build the very wall that penned them off from the rest of society.
So that’s the image that comes to mind when I think of how capitalism exploits disabled people. We’re still often asked to do free labour. We’re told that we can’t do labour on one hand, but then we’re asked to do that for free—asked to consult for free, asked to organize for free. Very often disability organizations will have unpaid positions and it’s this expectation that you should be lucky for the opportunity, and that your labour has no value but we’re offering you this opportunity to let us exploit your labour. Legally, in order to say you’re a disabled person you have to say you can’t work, but that same system is willing to recognize your labour if they don’t pay for it.
It’s a great example of how capitalism can’t care for the basic needs of anyone. Anyone has the potential to become a disabled person, and yet we still don’t have a society which can cover basic needs like housing, proper healthcare, and equipment that someone might need. And your access to that varies very much by where you live and how much of the capitalist powerhouse that community is—so, for example, if you’re a disabled person living in Toronto, your experience accessing doctors, accessing appropriate medical care, accessing community supports will be very different than if you’re a disabled person in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Your disability might be exactly the same, but your experience of disability is going to be very different because capitalism defines those barriers and inequities.
It’s frustrating to know that there are so many people out there with so much to contribute, but because our ability to contribute as human beings under capitalism is defined so narrowly, many people who have so much value to bring are told they have nothing of value—and that affects not only how disabled people are seen by society, but how disabled people see themselves. And when you have other intersections of oppression to go along with that, the situation becomes more and more untenable for people. So you have people dying young, because there are no answers for people.
I’m fortunate in my position to have a job and access to education. A lot of disabled people don’t have this. They’re told they are on social assistance and that’s it, that is all the expectations you should have. It doesn’t allow people to imagine better futures, it doesn’t allow people to imagine a world where they’d be valued for what they have to offer.
As Marx said, we need to replace capitalism with a society “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” What would a world of disability justice look like.
A where all have our basic needs met, where we’re all treated equitably regardless of our ability to produce, where our production wasn’t seen in such narrow and materialistic way. Throughout my years as an organizer, the most valued organizers that I’ve had the privilege of working with—all of them had no money, hadn’t been able to work in the mainstream workforce for many years. But without their ideas, without their passion, the Toronto Disability Pride March wouldn’t be what it is today.
How can people support Toronto Disability pride, and include disability justice in other campaigns?
There’s two ways to support Toronto Disability Pride March. The first is we hope that people show up: it’s on Saturday at 1pm. There is also a fundraiser; we’re not pushing the fundraiser too hard this year because we know that not many people have money, but if someone the means to contribute to our accessibility costs that would be great—because that’s where all the money goes, providing accessibility for people to attend the event.
If you want to support disability justice more broadly, there are many disability justice activists out there who are also Black activists. Speaking to them and finding out where they could use support, seeing what they are doing and seeing what you can bring back to your organizing. There are a number of good authors and good people doing organizing. I don’t want to speak for them as a white person, but I think that’s where we should focus.
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