On March 14, U of T community members eagerly attended the annual Hancock Lecture at Hart House’s Great Hall to listen to Black disability activist Sarah Jama, whose talk was entitled “Moving Toward a Disability Justice Revolution.” The event was originally scheduled in February, during Black History Month, but was delayed due to severe weather conditions.
Jama is a Hamilton-based community organizer and a co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO), an organization that seeks to “[create] a world where people with disabilities are free to be.” The DJNO does advocacy work, runs workshops and focus groups, and reports on various relevant policies and legislation. They seek nothing less than complete personal and political self-determination for people with disabilities in Ontario.
Jama was commanding and dynamic as she spoke forcefully to the room, pulling no punches and refusing to sugarcoat her language. She condemned the various superseding structures that have made life untenable for so many people with disabilities, including the role of specific anti-disability politicians, like Premier Doug Ford.
Part of what was so powerful about Jama’s speech was her ability to paint a holistic picture of the state of things that produce marginalization. “At the end of the day, all of the struggles that we care about are intertwined,” she insisted.
Jama tied capitalism with ableism by asserting that it is the former’s unnuanced focus on productivity and individualism that devalues the lives of disabled people. She linked the legacy of colonialism with ableism by explaining how the enslavement of Africans constructed them as disabled in order to excuse their subjugation and to pathologize their desire for freedom.
But just as these legacies of domination are interconnected, so too must the work of resisting them be intertwined. Jama stressed the importance of building coalitions between seemingly disparate aims. “These conversations [are] tied back to the root cause of people not being able to create spaces or have their voices heard, and that matters to people [of all stripes],” she asserted.
All activism, whether it be for anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, or disability justice, is grounded in the desire of these communities to be able to exist freely and unapologetically in a society that actively works to marginalize and silence them.
Jama acknowledged that, as students, we have an unprecedented level of freedom afforded to us, and with it, the ability to make connections with others, get involved in social issues, and do activist work. She advised that on the campus level, we should start by learning about and involving ourselves with spaces that we don’t normally occupy. It is important to make ourselves uncomfortable and to ask questions.
In these ways, we can disrupt normalcy and learn to work with each other. As students, our aim is to not only learn about the world, but to engage in bettering it. This involves disrupting our perspectives and learning about disparate experiences and ways of being.
The systems that are in place have been made and maintained through human effort and are not timeless or impervious. They can therefore be dismantled through human effort.
Jama’s words are timely. We live in a time when governments worldwide are issuing austerity measures. Politics are increasingly divisive and many of us are becoming cynical and disenfranchised. In Ontario, the government’s attacks on the Ontario Student Assistance Program, public health care, Ontario Works, and the Ontario Disability Support Program, as well as the termination of the Basic Income Pilot, are all part of a larger project to undermine the lives of the province’s most marginalized people.
In this burning world, a lot of activism tends to be centred around rage and anger. This is a valid reaction, but approaching social issues from a place of cynicism only has so much potential for growth. “Figuring out how to organize from a place of love,” insisted Jama, is the crucial first step.
Indeed, we must love those around us — especially if we don’t understand their experiences. Only from this place can we move toward a revolution. As Jama noted, the institutions and structures that oppress and silence us desire us to be divided and pitted against each other, because they know that if unified, we will become a dangerous force.
The Hancock Lecture closed with moderator Loren Delaney reciting a poem with the line, “Underneath this skin, bone, and blood is you, me, us, and them, dressed as others.” To seek justice and move toward a revolution, we need to acknowledge our commonalities and learn to depend on each other, while resisting the superseding structures that seek to divide us to navigate activism and the world from a place of love.
Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.