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Straddling Identities / Eleanor Lisney

I belong to a few communities, but they do not often link up. It feels like parts of my identity are not visible or ignored by the other parts. This feeling of being an outsider is exacerbated during a crisis like the pandemic, as a disabled woman of colour of East/Southeast Asian heritage. Needing to shield and self-isolate (as a disabled person ) made time to reflect and organise differently. I had started to connect with ESEA Facebook and Instagram groups and started attending events. But not all venues/community centres are wheelchair accessible, and I am saddened by that. As a disabled activist, I frequently call out on such venues because there is legislation against this but I am loathe to do this in my own community spaces. Is this a double standard on my part? I am being excluded by my own community – in a space where I can use my mother tongue.

As I write, it is Disability History Month (DHM) (18 November to 18 December). Most people know of the Black History Month (BHM) but not many know of the DHM, not even disabled people themselves. Due to COVID19 restraints, I did some online interviews of the intersection of being disabled and people of colour, including with disabled people from the ESEA community to mark DHM. There is a theme each year and last year it was on Access, this year it is Hidden Impairments and Disability, Sex and Relationships.

There has been none themed yet on intersectionality and so last year I collaborated with a few disabled friends of colour on online videos on how they perceived themselves with the interlinking identities of being disabled and people of colour. Amongst them were people from the East and Southeast Asian communities. Disabled people are found in every sector of society - we are very diverse with a cross section of impairments: physical, visible, learning disabilities, mobility, vision, hearing, neuro diverse. Some of us have our impairments from birth and some have acquired impairments from accidents, illnesses or they can be age or mental health related. One barrier, among others, we all share is the stigma from being disabled. This stigma is even more pronounced among Black and minoritised communities, we are less likely to self-identify as disabled.

Disaggregated data has been signalled as very important in UN shadow reports such as the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) and certainly in the pandemic, to ensure that everyone is included when it comes to strategy and policy decisions. However, data as regards to gender, race, sexual orientation etc – all the protected characteristics are not always recorded. At Sisters of Frida, a Disabled women’s collective, we did a report on Disabled Women’s perspectives and how COVID19 has impacted on their independent:

Our briefing ‘The Impact of COVID 19 on Disabled Women from Sisters of Frida’ illustrates that most Disabled women are already on low income. We are more likely to provide domestic care, less likely to be employed, and are less financially independent. We also know that women do not all have the same life experiences and this needs to be reflected in policy making. For example, Disabled women of colour are disproportionately disadvantaged due to racism, disablism and sexism. Disabled lesbians face social exclusion from the LGBTQIA+ community and disability rights groups. While some data exists on some matters affecting Disabled women such as unemployment, intersecting identities such as race, class, sexuality and gender diversity are not taken into account. Therefore, when considering policy on disability issues, it is important that different Disabled women’s experiences are included. This report attempts to incorporate some intersectional depth to Disabled experiences of the pandemic.

Data on how the pandemic has affected the ESEA community is not easy to extrapolate. There are reports such as on Filipino nurses in the UK. However, as far as I know, there is no data breakdown on ESEA disabled, let alone on how they are affected in the pandemic. We can venture a guess on the disruption of family lives because of lockdown. BIPOC/ BAME older folks and disabled tend to have a higher dependence on family members for care duties. I did a video as part of the Sisters of Frida’s report above in which I spoke about the impact of COVID19 and briefly on ESEA racism. However, I think my friend, James Lee, speaks best on this point of being both from the ESEA community and being disabled during this pandemic. James is a disabled consultant who consults for grant funding organisations. His parents are immigrants from Singapore. He remarked that as a disabled person of colour, he is hugely influenced by his parents who are also both disabled people of colour.

On my question (in my interview with him) as to whether the pandemic and the specifically discrimination and violent attacks on people of East / Southeast Asian origins, affected him or if he had any thoughts on that, he responded, [1]

I think that clearly there was a demonstrable rise in racism and in hate crime incidents against people who were of the Southeast Asian heritage or appear to have a Southeast Asian heritage and that all started with I think some of the unhelpful rhetoric on around the world about how we talk about the virus about where you know people deemed case zero to be as it were where people felt the origins of the virus came from.

A lot of that was driven by some of the unhelpful rhetoric around that ... It was frankly racist rhetoric - calling things like the China virus and so forth. ... It's horrendous that that happens, I think that if you are a disabled person of Southeast Asian heritage you feel and you have the danger of feeling an even more acute vulnerability to that, and I hate the word vulnerable, I hate to use, I know we use it so much when we talk about disabled people in the context of COVID but I'm talking about vulnerability in the context of hate crime here.

We know that hate crimes against disabled people are hugely underreported; that they are rarely followed up that they rarely end in any form of judiciary action.

To be both disabled and a person of Southeast Asian heritage, I think puts you at an even greater ... it leaves you feeling so much more exposed, so much more targeted and singled out. And it may well be that the people all around me that the thought had never crossed their mind to say anything that was racist or to say anything that was ableist. But there is a level in which we talk about internalized ableism we talk about internalized racism and there is a level to which that you can't help but have that creep into your psyche a little bit. To the extent where you know - I would go to the shops and I think all right - do I, you know - are people looking at me more?

So I've got what I like to think is a relatively thick skin. I've been a wheelchair user for a very long time I, you know, don't bat an eyelid at the occasional lingering glance or the occasional, you know, I almost said longing stare. There the occasional, the occasional lingering glance or like if someone looks at you and you know that they're thinking something or you project that they're thinking something slightly unkind as disabled people may do but I think that that combination of factors - the prevailing mood of racism at a time when there was also this huge issue with disability hate crime is just - it's not a pleasant combination.

Realising the different identities and my own specific heritage, I applied to be one of the directors of the End Violence and Racism Against East and Southeast Asian communities (EVR) and am honoured to be accepted. I hope to work for the identities I belong to with the passion I feel for justice, equity and inclusion for everyone.


[1] Edited from the video’s automated captured captions


Eleanor Lisney

is a campaigner, activist, access adviser and public speaker. She is a co-founder of Sisters of Frida and Culture Access. Previous trustee of NAWO, National Alliance of Women’s Organisations, she has also attended UN CSW (Commission on the Status of Women) in NYC as well as CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women ) meetings in Geneva. She is currently a trustee at Disability Arts Online. She is passionate about social and disability justice and advocates for an intersectional perspective with the importance of lived experience. She has contributed to academic journals such as the Global Perspectives on Disability Activism and Advocacy (Routledge) and The Routledge Handbook of Disability Activism.

She was born in Malaysia and came to the UK to study, lived in Strasbourg, France as a full-time mother, and did her graduate studies at Austin, University of Texas. She is now based in London. She enjoys cooking and gardening as a wheelchair user and is an aspiring creative practitioner. She is catching up on Chinese wuxia stories by watching Chinese action dramas.

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