Mind the Gap

Image of a subway station with a sign painted on the ground saying 'Mind the Gap.'

When I first started working with VOCAL, one of the first things I asked was “How do you involve people with many different kinds of disabilities? Do you do cross-disability advocacy?” For me, “cross-disability” is more than a buzzword or a form of activism – it is my life. In addition to mental health disabilities, I also have physical and developmental disabilities that affect my mobility and concentration, among other things. One of the things I have learned in meeting other people with disabilities is that I am definitely not alone. Many people deal with multiple kinds of disabilities and people with mental health disabilities face additional challenges when getting treatment or support for their other disabilities, just as people with physical, developmental, and other kinds of disabilities face additional challenges in mental health recovery.

In activist and advocacy movements, we are often asked to leave all of our other identities behind. If we are working in mental health movement spaces, when we bring up issues relevant to our other identities – like discrimination against people with physical disabilities, or sexism, racism, ageism, or any other kind of discrimination – we are often told that we are ‘diluting the message.’ The same thing happens in other kinds of disability movement spaces when we bring up discrimination against people with mental health disabilities and various other kinds of discrimination. And yet – if we really want to transform ourselves and our communities, we have to acknowledge that we are not neat little boxes. We are wonderfully messy beings with all different kinds of identities that make up who we are, and we can’t neatly extract any one piece of ourselves and just be that. Especially when discrimination against us makes us reluctant to speak out in movement spaces. We are silenced and erased enough as it is.

There is a particular history of tension among mental health communities and other disability communities, especially the developmental and intellectual disability communities. The voices of people with mental health disabilities are often othered with labels like ‘insane,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘lunatic,’ ‘addict,’ etc. and to build solidarity with the mental health disability community is seen as risking legitimacy for other kinds of disability movements. Many people with disabilities say things like ‘we aren’t crazy!’ to differentiate themselves from people with mental health disabilities as though having a mental health disability is a bad thing. Mental health disability history and information is often left out of disability studies and disability theory. While many people are beginning to understand physical, intellectual, developmental, and other kinds of disabilities as simply different ways of being in the world rather than as problems or as something broken that needs to be fixed, mental health disabilities are often left out of discussions and analyses around the social model of disability.

Likewise, mental health disability communities sometimes go to great lengths to differentiate mental health from other kinds of disabilities, saying things like, ‘having a mental health disability does not mean you are retarded or crippled!’ People with developmental and intellectual disabilities have gone to great lengths to educate on how hurtful the use of the word ‘retard’ is, and we are working very hard to have it removed from official language on disability. ‘Crippled’ is also a word that is often used to bully people with physical and developmental disabilities, and when used in this way – to differentiate between disabilities – it implies a value judgment than mental health disability is somehow better than other kinds of disability. Many people with other kinds of disabilities face barriers of accessibility in mental health disability movement spaces. An unqualified or single-model emphasis on recovery in mental health disability communities can be alienating for people who were born with a disability or who have a lifelong disability.

And yet – while we spend a lot of time attempting to differentiate our communities from one another, there are SO many challenges that we face in common, things like

  • Employment discrimination
  • Lack of access to education, or being marginalized and pushed out of the education system because we learn in different ways or at a different pace
  • Lack of access to spaces that are only set up for people who are ‘able-bodied’ and ‘able-minded’
  • Discrimination because of how we appear, are perceived, act, and interact
  • Increased rates of homelessness and poverty
  • Being subjected to harsh, painful, and unnecessary medical tests and treatments, sometimes against our will
  • Being told we are broken and in need of fixing
  • Being told we will never be ‘normal’ and that ‘normal’ is the only acceptable way to be
  • Being told we cannot make our own decisions and have no say in our lives
  • Being institutionalized and told we cannot live independently or that we cannot participate in our communities
  • Increased likelihood of being sexually abused, sexually assaulted, and physically abused
  • Denied agency
  • Denied the ability to fully express ourselves
  • Denied the ability to have safe, consensual, and fulfilling romantic and sexual relationships
  • Being infantilized/being treated as though we are children no matter our actual age
  • Having our bodies and minds viewed only as medical objects rather than as human
  • Being told we cannot be beautiful, attractive, or desirable
  • Being dehumanized

To me, “creating wholeness” is about integrating all of our identities and being in the world fully as ourselves – not having to hide or partition ourselves to participate in our communities. Obviously every movement cannot tackle every single issue relevant to other specific identities – so it is not the job of mental health activists to do the work of other kinds of disability activists, or vice versa. But in order to transform ourselves and our world to break down the issues I listed above and all the other problems we face, we must make our movement spaces and ALL of our spaces safe and hopefully life-affirming and empowering for everyone. That is what it means to create wholeness.

What does creating wholeness mean to you? What things do you think people with mental health disabilities and other people with disabilities have in common? When and how can we work together to bridge the gap in our communities?

A’ishah Hils


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