Disability is not our only identity: An interview with Becky Olaniyi

Becky Olaniyi
Becky Olaniyi

In anticipation of this year’s Feminism In London conference (October 24-25), Alicen Grey talks with Becky Olaniyi about disability, feminism, and the challenges and lessons of being an activist at the intersection of identities.

Alicen Grey: First, tell us a little bit about yourself and your activism.

Becky Olaniyi: I’m a 19-year-old psychology student living in Birmingham. I was born in the US and grew up in London, and I’m Nigerian. I have cerebral palsy, which affects my muscle strength and ability to walk, meaning I have to use a wheelchair to get around. I wrote a piece for SnatchedXO called 18 Years with a Disability — it’s worth a read if you want to know more about what it’s like to live with a disability.

I’ve been working for over a year with Sisters of Frida, a feminist organization for women with disabilities. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to speak at the Women of the World Festival 2014, and Feminism in London 2014, and I’ll be back at Feminism in London this month to speak at the “Multiple Identities: Ordinary Lives — The Challenges of Being Disabled and Feminist” workshop on October 25th with my fellow Sisters of Frida.

Alicen: About 1/7 of the world lives with varying degrees of disabilities — that’s a higher number than most people realize! And yet, the world is incredibly inaccessible. Why do you think this is? What can we do to reform the world’s attitudes towards disabilities and the people who live with them?

Becky: The world is inaccessible because in societies everywhere people with disabilities are an afterthought. They are not seen as people who will want to go out and shop and eat and travel; they are considered a rare species, who you’re unlikely to encounter in public. This leads to widespread inaccessibility, simply because people don’t think that disabled people will show up wanting to get to places and do things just like everyone else. Even in places with disabled access, people seem surprised when I appear, and it’s clear that although the building is accessible they weren’t expecting anyone with a disability to ever need to use it.

I think that to reform the world’s attitude to disability, it needs to be made clear that disabled people have the same interests, wishes and needs as other people. The world needs to know that although disabled people have characteristics that make their day to day experiences different from able-bodied people, and that although we may look different, disabled people and able bodied people have more similarities than differences when it comes to needs.

Alicen: When it comes to educating people about disabilities, what approach do you take to your activism? (Direct action? Workshops? Civil disobedience? etc.) What have you found to be most effective in inspiring change?

Becky: I find that just talking to people about my day to day experiences is the most effective way to educate them. People tend to ask me the same questions over and over again. “Have you been in a wheelchair your whole life?” and “What happened?” are extremely popular, but nobody ever asks me, “What is it like to be in a wheelchair?” Because of that, I feel like the best thing I can do is to just explain more about my life and myself as a person because it helps people to understand what it’s like to actually live with a disability, and that people with disabilities are normal people that you may actually end up liking and having things in common with.

As well as talking face-to-face, I like writing, as I can take the time to think about how I want to articulate my thoughts in a way that you can’t in a conversation. I find that leading workshops is also helpful, because that’s probably the only context in which complete strangers can ask me about my life and it doesn’t come from a place of “freak show fascination.”

So basically I like to talk about myself; but that being said, I tend not to focus too much on the medical aspect of my disability. In my opinion it tends to dehumanize disabled people when we talk about being disabled just in terms of our health and not our lives, stripping down a complex, complete person into ‘this is what is wrong with me, and this is why.’

Alicen: What challenges do women of colour with disabilities face that white people or men with disabilities may not experience? Why do you think this discrepancy exists?

Becky: There are several challenges that are unique to women of colour with disabilities that aren’t experienced by men or white people. For example, in many African cultures people with disabilities are outcast, looked upon as cursed or simply locked away by their families to avoid shame. For the disabled diaspora from these cultures, many of these things aren’t happening to them as there are laws to prevent abuse — but the belief that a disability is the result of a curse, something to be ashamed of, or something that reflects badly upon your family still exists, particularly in the older generations. These beliefs stem largely from religious beliefs and beliefs in the supernatural that aren’t prevalent in white communities. A huge part of African televangelism is based around healing ceremonies from mega-church pastors in which they claim to be able to have the power to cure disabilities for those who pay to get in.

Men are more likely to go up and start pushing a woman in a wheelchair without asking than a man in a wheelchair. This is because of the idea that women are weak and feeble and need the help of a man, which is further amplified when you combine the idea of disabled people as incapable and in constant need of guidance and help from able-bodied people. This is also because men may feel comfortable invading the personal space of a woman, whilst they’d feel awkward doing the same to a man, not wanting to patronize or emasculate a man in a wheelchair and not wanting to carry out such an intimate, controlling behaviour towards another man.

Sexism and ableism are consistently in conflict, as ableism portrays people with disabilities as asexual beings who are childlike and totally undesirable, whilst sexism relies on the consistent hypersexualisation of women. These two schools of thought that contribute to the oppression of disabled women are at odds with one another, but their shared characteristic is that they both demean those who are perceived as less capable.

Alicen: How do you feel about the practice of sexualizing people with disabilities as a means of making them “visible?” (For example, this and this.) Do you see this as a sign that society is becoming more accepting of people with disabilities?

Becky: Well, it’s a nice try. I don’t think that works, though. It comes off as very fetishistic to me, and doesn’t really do anything for the disabled person in question or disabled people as a whole.

I’m definitely not saying that disabled people shouldn’t choose to present themselves in a sexualized way, but sexualization does not help with visibility as most people have trouble talking about sex anyway, and would probably find it even more difficult admitting they were attracted to somebody with a disability. Although these pictures may get shared and supported on social media, people will probably be less receptive and understanding when a friend comes to them with the news that they are dating and average-looking paralyzed person.

Also, the people in those photos, just like able-bodied people in sexualized photoshoots, are an outlier in the group they are meant to be representing in terms of their physical attractiveness. Most disabled people don’t look like that. The purpose of photoshoots like this that use able-bodied models is to show people what they should aspire to in order to become the most desirable, but when using disabled models the message is, “Here! Look! Disabled people are worthy and attractive!” It creates the idea that for a disabled person to even be considered as a person or as a potential partner, they have to look like a model.

So all in all I believe that society would like to think that it is becoming more accepting of people with disabilities. But the reality is that society is only appreciative of disabled people who go above and beyond the expectations of talent, beauty, or intelligence required of able-bodied people in order for them to receive praise, but the average disabled person is not considered an equal by society.

Alicen: In regards to becoming more accessible, what progress have you seen in the feminist community? What work still needs to be done?

Becky: There’s been very little done outside of superficial efforts for the most part. Although feminist organizations and gatherings have started to include disabled women, they are often segregated into their own factions and asked to deal with issues solely related to disability, which is disappointing, because for the feminist movement to be effective there needs to be intersectionality. The feminist community believes that addressing the issues of different groups of women separately is intersectionality, but true intersectionality will acknowledge the fact that women who have disabilities can also speak for several other groups, because disability is not our only identity.

Becky Olaniyi is a 19 year old student born with cerebral palsy. On Sunday October 25th, she will be speaking with Sisters of Frida at Feminism in London 2015, as part of a workshop called, “Multiple Identities: Ordinary Lives — The Challenges of Being Disabled and Feminist.” You can follow her on twitter: @beckyolaniyi.

Alicen GreyAlicen Grey is an award winning writer and author of Wolves and Other Nightmares. A passionate artist and activist, she strives to inspire her audience toward change and healing. More of Alicen’s work can be found at her blog, www.alicengrey.com. Follow her on Twitter: @AlicenGrey.


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