Disability Justice is a form of disruption that libraries need

Disability Justice is a form of disruption that libraries need

Disability justice is a framework that examines disability and ableism as it relates to other forms of oppression and identity. It’s a framework that is inherently important to libraries, who engage with communities and promote inclusivity.

Before I go on, I want to define two terms. Firstly, ableism is defined by Talia Lewis as a “system that places values of people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence. These constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence are deeply rooted in anti-blackness, eugenics and capitalism. This form of systematic oppression leads people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on people’s appearances and/or their ability to satisfactory produce, excel and ‘behave.’ You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism,” (Parks-Milbern, 2019).

Disability justice acknowledges that “ableism helps make racism, Christian supremacy, sexism and queer and transphobia possible,” and that all those systems of oppression are intertwined (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018). In the disability justice framework, disability is not defined in “white terms, or male terms or straight terms,” (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018).  It’s a framework that is being applied to the intersectional reexamination of a wide range of disability and human rights and justice movements. As soon as you’ve identified someone who’s included, you’ve excluded them and others in some way. Disability justice seeks to rectify this by dismantling oppression and ableism for all people who experience marginalization.

There are 10 principles of disability justice

  1. “We do not live single issue lives” –Audre Lorde.  Ableism, coupled with white supremacy, supported by capitalism, underscored by heteropatriarchy, has rendered the vast majority of the world “invalid.”
  2. Leadership of the most impacted. “We are led by those who most know these systems.” –Aurora Levins Morales
  3. Anti-capitalistic politic. In an economy that sees land and humans as components of profit, we are anti-capitalist by the nature of having non-conforming body/minds.
  4. Commitment to cross-movement organizing. Shifting how social justice movements understand disability and contextualize ableism, disability justice lends itself to politics of alliance.
  5. Recognizing wholeness. People have inherent worth outside of commodity relations and capitalist notions of productivity. Each person is full of history and life experience.
  6. We pace ourselves, individually and collectively, to be sustained long term. Our embodied experiences guide us toward ongoing justice and liberation.
  7. Commitment to cross-disability solidarity. We honor the insights and participation of all of community members, knowing that isolation undermines collective liberation.
  8. We meet each others’ needs as we build toward liberation, knowing that state solutions inevitably extend into further control over lives.
  9. Collective Access. As brown, black and queer-bodied disabled people we bring flexibility and creative nuance that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity, to be in community with each other.
  10. Collective liberation. No body or mind can be left behind – only mobbing together can we accomplish the revolution we require.

(Sins Invalid, 2015)

Although these principles might not speak to you directly, they are the disruption libraries need. To quote the fabulous Nathan Sentance (2018) “diversity means disruption.”

For example, let’s look at principle 9: Collective Access.

The notion of collective access, articulated by activists like Mia Mingus, understands disability as intertwined with other aspects of embodiment and lived experience, and thus connects disability justice activism with antiracist, feminist, reproductive justice, queer, and prison abolitionist movements (Kumbier & Starkey, 2016). The framework of collective access also centers solidarity and interdependence—on these terms, creating access is a shared responsibility and requires a shift in thinking. Instead of understanding access as the result of specific accommodations for individuals, collective access focuses on developing strategies for practicing mutual interdependence and supporting access for communities (Kumbier & Starkey, 2016).. When we bring the framework of collective access into conversations with conventional library understandings of access, one of the biggest shifts we make is from thinking about accessibility as a matter of problem solving at the “tick-box” level to accessibility as part of a larger project to dismantle ableism in our libraries (Kumbier & Starkey, 2016).. When we conceptualize access in this way, we are asking libraries to understand it as an ongoing project, one that will transform our profession and organizations in ways we cannot anticipate (Kumbier & Starkey, 2016).

Disability justice aims to complicate our understanding of ableism by directly engaging with an institution that names itself as ‘public’ while maintaining an ableist system. One that perpetuates the violence that the content of its collections hold the power to dismantle. A public library (Bishop-Root & Gibson, 2019).

According to Bishop-Root & Gibson (2019)

“The need to name something as public, or ‘for the public’ acknowledges and reinforces that there is a private (singular ownership). In a hyper capitalist, white-centered and ableist culture, institutions and lands who name themselves public, exist with colonial histories that have been built on land that was neither public nor private. Privatization and theft are the foundation of many of the places that are considered public (libraries, parks, people, government buildings, etc). This translates into the architecture of the physical space, the organizational practices and the everyday experiences of those who do, do not, or are not able to utilize the space and/or services. Public spaces and public resources cannot be separated from, or idealized outside of, the intentional construction of systemic oppressions. Therefore, the relationships of power that are present, define who the public is and the access needs for those publics. The attempt to make public, is a system of reduction that limits access to people that are marginalized by the exact system that is creating the ‘public’ resource or place. This limitation effects all of us in the expansive possibilities and actualization of both who publics can be and what publics can do. There are many publics in every public. If the assumption is that the public in a library are the resources and services it offers ‘that are for the general welfare’ or ‘accessible or shared by all members of a community’ it then becomes a structure of erasure. In the rare instance that accessibility (per ADA) is fully implemented, it typically fails to move beyond access to engagement. Engagement is experienced from who is employed, to how programs are designed, to the resources are that are offered (and how they are offered).”

I think the library profession has a lot to learn from the disability justice framework, particularly the intersectionality it promotes, as well as the trials and triumphs of the disability rights movement, who continue to dismantle ableism for all marginalized people.


Bishop-Root & Gibson. (2019). Collecting [a] home for Disability Justice in the Library. https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2019/02/24/collecting-a-home-for-disability-justice-in-the-library/

Kumbier & Starkey. (2016). Access Is Not Problem Solving: Disability Justice and Libraries. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/613919

Park Milbern, S. (2019). “The Politics of Space and Belonging: Disability in Our Libraries,” Presentation for San Francisco Public Library (slides). https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2020/05/23/staceytaughtus-syllabus-work-by-stacey-milbern-park/?fbclid=IwAR3Ow1Jb8cpk_r1ja55zag-Iqp2oC9qHins3KypjzUmewu9r8mOiVrsxAsA

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi (2018). Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Sentance, N. (2018). Diversity means disruption. https://archivaldecolonist.com/2018/11/28/diversity-means-disruption/

Sins Invalid (2015). 10 Principles of Disability Justice. https://www.sinsinvalid.org/blog/10-principles-of-disability-justice




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