Op-Ed: A New Voice for Disabled Students and Allies

Written by Chantalle Hanna, with additional reporting by Aditi Juneja

Americans with disabilities comprise about 22 percent of the non-institutionalized population and 30-40 percent of people who are incarcerated. They are employed at a rate that is less than half the national average and are twice as likely to live under the poverty line. These gaps are exceedingly profound among people with cognitive disabilities or mental health conditions. 23 percent of people shot and killed by police so far this year have a mental health condition, while an estimated 33-50 percent of individuals killed by law enforcement had some disability. Disability is pervasive, yet all too often, it is forgotten in decision making by policymakers, professors, and peers.

I became interested in disability issues when a family member was diagnosed with autism, which at the time seemed devastating. In time, I discovered that I was most troubled not by inherent differences in cognition, communication, or behavior, but by what amounted to a prognosis of a marginalized life. To unburden a diagnosis of difference from despair, we must dismantle societal barriers, including stigma.

Disability rights frameworks envision a more inclusive society. By applying a disability lens to society, we can see our undeniable interdependency. This realization promotes respect for our differences and respective contributions.

I am troubled that professors at the law school are not always thoughtful in discussing disability when it intersects with the material being covered. This can happen, for example, by referring to people with cognitive impairments not as people first but merely incompetents, or through erasing from the curriculum how society has decided to allocate the right to contract and who is implicitly excluded from participating in that right.

I believe that in order to be effective lawyers we need to be intersectional and inclusive advocates. Furthermore, I believe that disability advocacy is often not about advocating in place of, but rather amplifying, the voices of those that are disabled and using my (temporarily) able-bodied privilege to promote access for those that are too often excluded from these spaces. This, of course, is part of a broader conversation about how to be an effective ally regarding all aspects of identity. There are plenty of people with disabilities who are self-advocates. Two of them are my co-founders of a new student group called the Disability Allied Law Students Association.

Our goal is to create both community and advocacy for those with disabilities and their allies. Our focus for the coming year will be to collaborate with other student groups to make sure disability is included in the important conversations already happening around campus surrounding topics such as criminal justice reform, employment, and immigration. We hope you’ll join us in this quest for disability rights, inclusion, and social justice.

Sakhi’s “Our Bodies, Our Stories”: A Night of Intersectional Feminist Performance

Written by Katrina Feldkamp, Co-Chair, South Asian Law Students Association

In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, NYC-based organization Sakhi for South Asian Women hosted “Our Bodies, Our Stories,” a night of feminist poetry and performance bringing awareness to violence against women. Sakhi, Hindi for “woman friend,” united performers to illuminate both individual female experiences and the wider feminine narrative with a focus on the voices of women of color and women silenced by domestic violence. Outreach and Communications Advocate Senti Sojwal opened the night, stating that “domestic violence does not occur in a vacuum.” Accordingly, artists ranging from musician and activist Kiran Gandhi to spoken word artist Nicole Shante White explored the topics of race, violence, class, sexuality, and identity through poetry, comedy, music, and storytelling.

The night was hosted by Kiran Gandhi, best known for running the London Marathon while menstruating to raise awareness of the stigma surrounding menstruation. Standing before an intimate crowd of Sakhi supporters at The Bell House, she reflected that “[talking about] domestic violence in the South Asian community has been taboo since the dawn of time.” Ms. Gandhi believes that the South Asian community’s silence on issues of gendered violence is magnified when other cultures embrace the cultural-relativist idea that “we can’t tell people what to do.” She thinks that a better approach to the issue is “how do we respect another culture while still making sure that members of that culture are safe?”

Theatre maker Riti Sachdeva performed a recently-developed piece that combined spoken word, singing, and dance to touch on themes of youth and growth in India and the U.S., curiosity and exploration, and first experiences with violence. The piece was designed to juxtapose the beauty of the feminine experience with the darkness and heaviness of trauma. Sachdeva noted that this juxtaposition is unusually risky, especially given its intersectionality with the South Asian experience. She describes theater as a “traditionally white, very bourgeois scene” in which moderate views often pass for very progressive. However, she hoped that this piece and those of the other artists who performed throughout the evening could expand those boundaries.

Sachdeva is a community organizer as well as an artist. In the early 1990s, she formed a network of South Asian women in Boston organized around immigration and domestic violence, and has continued through her current work with South Asian Youth Action. This work, she says, has contributed to a lack of “rose-colored glasses about the issues” of gender, ethnicity, and violence in her art.

Speaking after the show, Sachdeva explained that her experiences with organizing have shaped the way she approaches art. “I come from a place of not having easy answers and I think that’s important for creating.” She was struck by the event’s ability to “move in a progressive direction when nonprofits are getting more conservative.” Such spaces, she said, allow women of color to unite as both creators and audience: “We are a part of this broader community and we also benefit from the work we do.”

Diana Oh, a punk rock artist and the vocalist in{my lingerie band}, put on a show that addressed everything from “celebrating your slutty phase” to tearing down catcalling and other forms of “degradation that come along with women expressing their sexuality.” Oh bares all, wearing nothing but lingerie throughout a show that, she says, “puts on stage the experience of a woman’s relationship with lingerie and confrontation of her sexuality, and of the language people use to discuss women’s sexuality.” She began combining lingerie and feminist activism with {my lingerie play}, a 24-hour public street installation designed as a “public in-your-face way to combat the system [of oppression and control of the female body].”

Speaking backstage before the show, Oh discussed the importance of authenticity, accessibility, and allyship. “You can’t fake the flow,” she says. “If [my art] is not reflecting a mirror back into the world the way that I want it to be reflected, I don’t want to do it.” Her artistic goal is “to take up space to make space for other people,” opening social movements to wider audiences. She also emphasized the importance of allies such as her bandmate Ryan, who doesn’t identify with the queer Korean-American experience that she brings to the table. He feels that “It’s not just enough to not be part of the problem, you also have to be making a difference.” Ryan, who donned glitter and whimsical makeup with Oh for the performance, “is constantly reminding me to keep going and keep making my art,” Oh says.

The night concluded with a performance from Kiran Gandhi, who performs as Madame Gandhi, and her collaborator sound designer Alexia Riner. The two combined electronic music, drumming, dancing, and a lights show with lyrics that describe the feminine experience. Their work celebrates female leadership and includes feminist ideas, at one point even incorporating an excerpt from The Feminist Utopia Project into their performance. Between songs from her existing body of work and her upcoming Voices EP, Madame Gandhi described her mantra: “the future is female.” “A world that is female is a world that is emotionally intelligent,” she said, “a world in which are all linked, and not ranked.”