Against accessibility? It’s time to decolonise ableism

disability; colonialism

Every body on the planet moves differently. It’s part of the complex fabric of human existence. What, then, makes a body ‘dis-abled’? Understanding of disability is rooted in colonialism, in which bodies and land were transformed into commodities assigned value on a global market according to their ability to produce profit. While ‘impairment’ is as old as humanity itself, colonialism established a global ableist hierarchy that values bodies as instruments of labour.

Prior to this, knowledge about the body was locally situated, and there are several examples from indigenous and pre-colonial contexts. For instance, Inuits found in the present day regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, organise according to the climate, or Sila – “the breath that circulates into and out of every living thing”. The Inuits understand health as a result of a broader social system shaped by the planet, rather than by limitations of individual capacity. Similarly, historically in Botswana, impairments such as reduced mobility and blindness were linked to increased spiritual insight

Colonialism, however, is not an event that has come and gone. It built the foundations for a capitalist system that debilitates the global majority for the benefit of a privileged few. Currently, 80% of the world’s disabled people live in the global South, where impairment is produced by war, exploitation and control of resources in order to sustain consumption and ‘development’ in the global North. 

The colonialism of the Smart City

The rapid development of smart cities in the global North offers an illustrative example of how the accumulation of wealth and the advancement of modernity is interdependent with colonial structures that disable.

Promising efficiency, progress, and waste reduction by using sensors and cameras to monitor everything from bins to bridges: smart cities mark a new era of surveillance capitalism. They encapsulate the entrenchment of the market into public space, in which private interests replace public assets by providing technological solutions to urban problems.

Manchester is one of the UK’s Smart Cities.

Mainstream criticism of smart cities focuses on their need for data privacy, citizen rights, and accessibility for disabled people. All strategically overlook the coloniality of power at play that underpins their development. Where do the materials for smart cities come from? What happens when all cameras, sensors and surveillance systems break down? Advocating for disability rights (such as accessibility and inclusion) within smart cities, completely overlooks the global system of violence that enables them to be built in the first place. 

While tech giants continue to deny it, the coltan and cobalt needed for our phones, sensors, cameras and electric cars mostly come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Reporters describe their visit to a mine in the province of Masisi, in which miners  “toil in a state of quasi slavery… in deep tunnels where they eat, sleep and work from dawn till dusk…365 days a year.” When people fall to their death, their names are simply scratched off a list and their replacements hired. Meanwhile, the global North promptly and cheaply receives the sacks of minerals needed to build an environmentally-friendly future.

Similarly, the dumping of electronic waste in the global South has been described as ‘waste colonialism’, with the UK shipping 352,000 metric tonnes of e-waste to developing countries – including Thailand – each year. The e-waste releases chemicals that poison the soil and surrounding water reserves, injuring and disabling local communities for generations. 

The question I would ultimately like to raise is this: who is disabled in the global North’s drive for modernity, speed and technological advancement? 

Crucially, when we demand the ‘rights’ that define ableism – such as self-determination, access, mobility, and freedom – this too comes at a cost. Ableism is not made possible by individual merit or natural circumstance, but by the extraction of productivity from the global South made possible by colonialism. As Hartman (2007) writes: “who could deny that white men gained their strength from black flesh?” (69). 

How can we decolonise our relationship to our bodies?

A decolonial perspective ultimately responds to rights-based calls for accessibility and inclusion by asking: accessibility and inclusion into what? We need to recognise the creativity and possibility in disabled ways of being as a form of resistance to violent structures that continuously demand we move faster and perform better. 

To start imagining alternatives, we can amplify the thousands of indigenous epistemologies, voices, and practices from the global South and work towards building a global history of disability. Not only will this contribute to denaturalising ableism, but it will also help to reframe the global South as a space of agency, and revive traditional ways of healing, being, thinking, and living – of relating to our bodies, each other, and the earth.

Lilian Bankiyan-Monfard is a student on the MA in Migration and Diaspora Studies programme at SOAS.

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