Addressing the Criminalization of Disability from a Disability Justice Framework: Centring The Experiences of Disabled Queer Trans Indigenous and People of Colour

November 21, 2013
By

By Abla Abdelhadi

I write this piece in honour of the countless disabled queer trans Indigenous and People of Colour (IPOC) who have been criminalized, institutionalized, assaulted, tortured and or murdered by police/state agents, queer trans IPOC who are so often absent from our conversations about disability, both in academic and activist spaces. Using a disability justice framework, I will share with you my experience of surviving police and state violence in the USA. I was criminalized for being a mentally ill Palestinian, Muslim womyn.  Using a disability justice framework has allowed me to take the conversation deeper to address how the violence I experienced was an attack on my intersecting identities, as I cannot separate being Palestinian, from being disabled, from being a womyn.1 Please note this piece comes with a serious trigger warning for experiences of racist, ableist, misogynist police state violence and for discussions of colonial and anti-black violence and discussions of trans and queer phobia.

Two years ago I accompanied my Mother to the USA where she received chemotherapy. One night while sitting outside a bar in Rochester, Minnesota smoking a cigarette and having what I later realized was my first manic episode, someone called the Emergency Medical Services. The police were called right away. Still in shock and stunned that I could get arrested for sitting on a sidewalk and laughing, I was taken by the police to a mental health detention centre.  Overnight, I was tortured in ways that targeted my intersecting identities of disability, gender and race. Rather than help me get grounded from my first manic episode, I was subjected to humiliating scenarios of white men pretending to pray like Muslims in mocking racist ways.  Rather than helping me find a safe space when I identified as a survivor of male violence and child abuse, I was locked up in a room with a male against my will.  This night of horrors and terrors culminated in a male staff member physically assaulting me. After staff ignored my pleas for help, I broke out of a window fearing what violence was coming next. I was then arrested again and forcibly hospitalized for 10 days under extremely oppressive ableist racist misogynist conditions. The doctors decided I was bi-polar, having my first manic episode. My list of diagnoses included being a “sex addict.” I was an “explosive” crazy Arab womyn with an out of control sexuality, take that for your exotic national security threat!!! I was also legally charged for the broken window and advised by my attorney against visiting my Mother in the USA, before she lost her battle to cancer, for fear I would be taken to Minnesota State Prison.  I had to fundraise for my legal costs, and while charges against me were dropped, I had to pay a huge fee to make that happen!2 While my experience is quite traumatic and seems surreal, it is by no means an isolated or rare event for mentally ill POC to be criminalized, tortured, institutionalized, or murdered by police and state agents.

In addressing how disability justice frameworks are intersectional, Mia Mingus reminds us that we must include ableism in our conversations and analyses of oppression and violence since “[a]bleism cuts across all of our movements because ableism dictates how bodies should function against a mythical norm—an able-bodied standard of white supremacy, heterosexism, sexism, economic exploitation, moral/religious beliefs, age and ability.”3 By centring the experiences of disabled queer trans IPOC’s experiences, disability justice allows us to understand violence against and criminalization of disabled people in more critical ways. Andrea Smith, an Indigenous academic and activist, calls for an intersectional approach to feminism. She makes the argument that mainstream anti-violence movements in the USA must address the intersections of gender and race that Indigenous and women of colour live in and that our strategies to combat violence within communities “must be informed by approaches that also combat violence directed against communities, including state violence – police brutality, prisons, militarism, racism, colonialism, and economic exploitation.”4  Disability justice frameworks extend this intersectional understanding of feminism to ableism and disability.

Image credit: http://libcom.org/library/i-am-woman-human-marxist-feminist-critique-intersectionality-theory-eve-mitchell

Image credit: http://libcom.org/library/i-am-woman-human-marxist-feminist-critique-intersectionality-theory-eve-mitchell

I am a Palestinian womyn, and my people are living under Israeli colonialism, occupation, and Apartheid. I am living in Ottawa, Canada, on unceded Alqonquin territory. When I want to address being a colonized Indigenous Palestinian womyn experiencing violence from the police/state on these colonized lands we call the USA and Canada, I have to acknowledge the historical and on-going violence against Indigenous womyn, girls and two-spirit people on these lands I live and organize on.5  Disability justice centres the experiences of missing and murdered Indigenous womyn, girls and two-spirit people and their families and communities across Canada/USA, families and communities living with the trauma of racist misogynist colonial violence.  When I complicate my identity as a Palestinian who has experienced the inter-generational trauma of my people being ethnically cleansed, occupied, and colonized, disability justice would remind me to centre the disabling effects of the inter-generational traumas of genocide, ethnic cleansing, residential schools, asylums, prisons, the 60s Scoop and on and on directed at Indigenous peoples in these lands called the USA and Canada.

Disability justice also allows us to complicate discussions about the Medical Industrial Complex (MIC) and how closely the MIC works with the Academic Industrial Complex in paving the way to criminalize queer trans disabled IPOC. There can be no critical discussions of disability or mental health without centring the experiences of queer trans IPOC in these institutions. A very brief look at the historic roots of asylums in Canada and the USA shows how these institutions not only have a history of oppressing IPOC, but have in fact been founded on the principles and legacies of colonial and anti-black racism and violence. Nadia Kanani argues that “[b]y regulating Indigenous people through psychiatric institutions … settler societies have been able to permanently subordinate Indigenous people and ensure the transfer of Indigenous land to colonial governments.” In fact in both Canada and the US psychiatry was and is a tool to discipline Aboriginal people.  Psychiatry also used racist constructions of black people to argue “that African Americans were psychologically suited for slavery, and that in fact, slavery was a natural condition for them.” Any black person who protested slavery or ran away from it was “labeled as having a mental illness.”6  Disability justice also centres the experiences of disabled queer and trans IPOC.  We live in cis-sexist hetero-normative societies where transsexuality is labeled as a mental illness or “Gender Identity Disorder”; where parents or the state in North America could have children institutionalized for being non-gender conforming.7  Disability justice complicates our understanding of violence against “mentally ill” IPOC by taking the conversation to the level where we address how queer trans liberation work is inseparable from disability justice work.

The violence I experienced also happens within a larger context of what Arab feminists call transnational imperialism.  As Nadine Naber reminds us “the US war on terror is a racialized, gendered, and sexualized imperialist war that operates through military and economic policy in order to advance and consolidate the system of capitalism.”8 So this helps me explain and complicate the context in which I experienced police/state violence.  In the context of the war on terror we are struggling against governments and state/police agents who continuously find ways to profit and gain power and control from the disabling of entire communities and the pathologization and criminalization of anyone who does not fit the mythical norms of the white ableist supremacist cis-sexist hetero-patriarchal and hetero-sexist sexist “productive” capitalist ideals they fight so brutally to protect. Centring disability justice in any discussions of disability, be they in the academy or in activist movements, allows us to centre the lived experiences of disabled queer trans IPOC living under these systems of oppression. Furthermore, centring disability justice allows people like me to share our stories of survival and resilience!



1    I would like to acknowledge the support and solidarity of three magnificent queer disabled people of colour who have enriched my understanding of disability justice and shared so much of their work with me: Mia Mingus, Eddie Ndopu and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

2    For more background on my case and to keep posted about my struggle for justice, please join my disability justice group Justice for Abla on Facebook.  For more information you can reach Justice for Abla at justiceforabla@gmail.com

3    Mia Mingus, “Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability” *Femmes Of Color Symposium Keynote Speech, Oakland, CA August 21, 11.

4    Andrea Smith (2005) Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. South End Press.

5    I would like to acknowledge the amazing work of Families of Sisters in Spirit who have taught me so much through their work and struggles for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous womyn, girls and two spirit people on colonized lands in Canada.

7    “Manifesto,” by the International Network for Trans Depathologization

8    Nadine Naber “Transnational Anti-Imperialism and Middle East Women’s Studies

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AblaAbdelhadi-Addressing_the_Criminalization_of_Disability_from_-ablaabdelhadiphotoAbla Abdelhadi is an Indigenous Palestinian womyn, living and organizing on colonized and stolen unceded Algonquin Territory. Abla is a radical disability justice advocate and community builder, where disability justice is understood as being grounded within decolonization and anti-oppression frameworks that centre the experiences of disabled queer trans Indigenous and People of Colour. Abla is a survivor of childhood abuse and violence; also a survivor of police and state violence, Abla was recently (in 2011) criminalized, detained, tortured, assaulted, forcibly hospitalized and legally charged for having a “mental illess” and being a Palestinian womyn in the USA. Abla is the founder of Justice for Abla, a radical mental health justice group, that currently works on Abla’s case in the US but are working to expand our work to support other racialized “mentally ill” survivors of criminalization, police and state violence in our communities.

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