“Intersectionality” is a big fancy word for my life.
What does it mean to do intersectional work? Although Audre Lorde does not use the term “intersectionality,” she guides our response to this question. Her writings demonstrate that gender cannot be fully extricated from race, or race from class, or class from sexuality; intersectionality refers to the theoretical approach that foregrounds such connections. In her 1984 essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Lorde argues that the US women's movement has been harmed by its overarching focus on gender. Not only does this focus prevent feminists from recognizing the differences among women, it also establishes gender as operating separately from, or even in competition with, race and sexuality.
We begin with Lorde's essay because its title reveals that doing intersectional work in disability studies means addressing gaps in existing theories. Disability studies scholars and activists note that disability – like age, race, class, and sex – is a category with a contested history and material effects; as such, it merits attention within other analyses of intersectionality. Ableism does, too: disability activists and scholars have detailed the workings of ableism and its conjunction with other structures of oppression. This intervention is not merely a matter of “adding” disability to the list, but rather a critical examination of how disability is fully enmeshed in the histories, experiences, and meanings of age, race, class, and sex, as well as sexuality, citizenship, nation, religion, health status, and other categories of difference. Recognizing that gender performances are inseparable from cultural constructions of disability, for example, alters our theorizations of gender, opening up new lines of inquiry. A disability studies-inflected intersectionality recognizes disability as an essential component of intersectional work.
Reading in the other direction, Lorde's title reveals what is missing from some disability scholarship and activism: an awareness that categories such as age, race, class, and sex intersect with or create experiences of disability. There is no monolithic “disabled person” or universal experience of disability, but rather experiences, conceptualizations, and manifestations of disability that vary widely by cultural, historical, and global context.
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