International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Making our activism accessible
Art by Andrew Murray

Tuesday the 3rd of December is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a worldwide day to celebrate, consider and campaign for disability rights. We’re a trans rights organisations primarily, but we do a large amount of work in the field of disability rights due to the histories and contemporary realities of trans rights in Europe. Trans communities and disabled communities share long and intertwined histories, and today share large overlaps in populations and issues facing our human rights.

This article is written by our Executive Director, Ellen Murray, who is an international trans rights expert and a Masters student of disability law and policy.

Our shared histories

For hundreds of years, disabled people have faced wholesale and arbitrary restrictions and denials of their basic human rights. In the 19th and 20th centuries in particular, with the rise of the asylums during the Industrial Revolution, a warehousing of disabled people became the standard practice across much of the world, and the development of modern mental health science led to the incarceration and abuse of countless thousands of disabled children and adults. As the practice of eugenics spread around the world, the idea of “lesser forms of life”, second class citizenship and diminution to the right to life was established firmly in law, and is still being struggled against today by disabled communities around the world.

The development of psychiatric practice combined with contemporary moral norms led to people with sexual orientations or gender identities or expressions that were deemed unacceptable became labelled as having a mental disease or disability, and therefore became criminalised, marked as defective, and subject to forced treatment, conversion therapy, and incarceration in asylums and mental hospitals.

Trans people were treated like a subsection of disabled people for the majority of the 20th Century, and were therefore subject to massive and long-lasting denial and abuses to their human rights. While homosexuality was unlawful in the UK and Ireland, it was common for trans people to be criminalised and/or subject to the type of “care” provided to people with mental health disabilities in general society. Forced treatment, electroshock therapy and aversive therapies, all forms of abuse, were used against trans people in Northern Ireland up until the 1970s, and many forms of conversion therapy continue to exist today which are partially based in this disability model of trans identities.

Today, we more rarely see trans people being marked as having a disability because of their trans status, but we see an increasing and worrying focus on disabled people in the fight against trans rights.

Our shared communities

Many, many trans people are disabled. For various reasons which aren’t fully understood yet, there is an overrepresentation of disabled people in trans communities across the UK and Ireland. People who are neurodivergent – Autistic people, people with ADHD, learning disabled people etc, are particularly highly represented, as are people with psychosocial disabilities / mental health conditions. We also see an overrepresentation of certain chronic illnesses in our communities. This makes accessibility extremely important for our work more generally, and as over 50% of both our volunteers and community centre users are disabled, more specifically with our work on the ground with trans communities in Belfast and around Northern Ireland.

When we’re working with schools, public officials, and other organisations, understanding of trans inclusion can be very poor, and the assumptions that providers make can be significantly unhelpful for supporting trans children, young people and adults in their spaces. However, the concept of reasonable adjustments for disability is very well understood, and we’ve found that some of the significant wins for disability rights in the 1990s-2000s have helped many public services across Northern Ireland get ready for trans inclusion also.

Where trans people experience the most profound exclusion from spaces and services in Northern Ireland, we often find that basic inaccessibility is the reason or at least a significantly contributing reason to this exclusion. An improved focus on accessibility more generally and a consideration of what leads to people being excluded from public services is a crucial task for every service provider, community leader and organisation to consider; this moves disability rights forward alongside trans rights.

Rights and justice for trans people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the world relies on rights for disabled people being realised. Where the right to make decisions, the right to private and family life, the right to live independently, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health are not available for disabled people, a huge number of trans people will be denied these too.

We stand as disabled trans activists and alongside disability rights activists at home and around the world.

The dignity of risk

One of the most interesting and worrying developments in anti-trans rights activity in the past few years has been the increased focus on disability rights as an arguing tool. Or rather, a twisting of disability rights. Disabled people have a right to make decisions and to hold legal capacity in line with nondisabled people under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 12) and to make decisions that are best for them, not those that are perceived to be the best for them by others.

Some anti-trans activists are now focusing on young disabled people being “vulnerable” to “recruitment” and “misinformation” by trans rights activists, and that they’re liable to make “the wrong decisions” and need to be protected from this information and prevented from making these decisions. A common example is that young Autistic people and people with learning disabilities happen upon trans communities online, “mistakenly” derive from that information that they are trans, and mistakenly transition. Although we firmly stand with the cause for bodily autonomy for trans people who transition, the small number who detransition, and trans people who don’t transition for whatever reason, these arguments are highly worrying for disability rights and trans rights around the world.

Arguing that disabled people should be shielded from making decisions on transitioning is, ultimately, not an argument against trans rights. It’s an argument against disability rights. It’s not new, either; institutionalisation, mental health legislation, forced treatment and incarceration law and policy which exists today derives mostly from the idea that society must protect disabled people from themselves, and to remove the risk for harm.

However, as bodily autonomy campaigners, we strongly support the continued call from disability rights activists around the world for the right to live independently, the right to legal capacity and for supported decision making, and for the right to have and make choices that are authentic to each disabled person.

If we have an ask for you on this IDPWD, we would ask that you recognise these arguments when you see them as antithetical to the progress of disability rights, you label them as such in private and in public, and you work against them to protect the rights of trans young people, disabled young people, and disabled trans young people to make the decisions they have a right to make.

In the independent living movement, the concept of the “dignity of risk” is the idea that disabled people are entitled to make the decisions they want to, and to experience the benefits and drawbacks of risk involved. Risk is always risk, but risk is a crucial part of human experience, of human dignity. Just as nondisabled people have the right to make the decisions they want to, to commit to or change those decisions, and to make decisions that end up benefitting or harming them, so do disabled people. Please be extremely sceptical about the twisting of disability rights – arguing for protection rather than liberation – as a tool against LGBTI and trans rights.

Happy International Day of Persons with Disabilities; let’s continue the fight for the right to make decisions.