Disability, intersectionality, and criminalization

From awareness and inclusion to justice and action

By: Q Lawrence & Meenakshi Mannoe

Closeup of two manual wheelchair wheels tight against one another. The two white wheelchair users are dressed similarly in grey-black jeans; red, black, and white flannels; and black denim vests and cotton hoodies.

Photo Credit: Q Lawrence

Q (they/them, it) is a Disability Culture Educator, Accessibility & Culture Consultant, and Grassroots Death Doula in Ts'elxwéyeqw, so-called Chilliwack. You can find more information about its practices at queercrip mycologies.

Meenakshi (she/her/hers) is the policing & criminalization campaigner at Pivot Legal Society. In 2019, she compiled feedback on proposed accessibility legislation in BC, Report Back from Independent Community Consultations, based on feedback from five community consultations in the DTES.


Since February 2021, Q has been facilitating disability education at Pivot, first through a series of workshops, entitled Ableism 101, Accessibility 101, and Disability Culture & History 101. It is currently working with Pivot to complete a Radical Access Mapping Project (“RAMP”) accessibility audit of our physical space.

Q’s work at Pivot has taken us beyond the liberal frames of “access” and “inclusion,” and instead challenges us to make essential connections between our campaign areas and the legacy of disability justice organizing.

LISTEN: DTES suite / burials underfoot - a furious journey with Q Lawrence

These connections are essential to addressing access and inclusion of disabled folks and communities within our work. This blog serves as an introduction to the work we are doing for Pivot’s followers and supporters, and we invite you to begin thinking about what accessibility means to you. We’ve also highlighted and put together some resources that may be useful.

Ableism is a systemic oppression that allows society, systems, and individuals to assign value to people based on their appearance and their ability to re/produce, excel, and behave. Ableism evaluates people on their divergence (whether actual or perceived) from constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, and productivity. In the united states [and canada], these constructions are necessarily rooted, as is the country itself, in anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, misogyny, eugenics, colonialism, and capitalism.

~ TL Lewis, Disability Justice Is an Essential Part of Abolishing Police and Prisons (October 6, 2020)

Disability Rights

When folks first consider disability through a social justice lens, the Disability Rights framework begins to surface. The Disability Rights framework attempts to improve disabled lives through fighting for civil rights and protections. Disability Rights activists have worked hard to change the fate of innumerable disabled people across so-called Canada and globally.

Disability organizers and leaders continue to fight against ableist violence such as institutionalization

Here, disability organizers and leaders, especially those with intellectual disabilities, fought and continue to fight against ableist violence such as institutionalization, and for equal and equitable access to transportation, education, housing, and a great many more things disabled people are frequently barred from.

Activists demanded self-determination, self-respect, and equality, and did so by supplanting the medical and charity models of disability with the social model that distinguishes between impairment and disability...A hard fought outcome of disability rights activism in the 1970s was the Canadian Human Rights Act passed in 1977. This statute included disability as a prohibited ground of discrimination and was a significant step forward in granting disabled Canadians legal equality.

~ Joshua St. Pierre, Disability Rights (April 28, 2014)

Advocates and activists have made immense strides in changing the fabric of disability politics and life. Ableist violence, however, remains. Most recently, this was evident in support for eugenicist Bill C-7. Non-disabled people in Canada rely on the propaganda of “niceness,” “universal healthcare” and pointing to the USA to defend a wall of non-disabled inaction and dismissal. These defenses deliberately ignore the intersections of settler-colonialism, white supremacy and other intersections that shape the lives of disabled people.

A group of land defenders are zip-tied to a fence on so-called burnaby mountain in 2018, facing a line of RCMP during the Stop Kinder Morgan/TMX action on Burnaby Mountain in 2018. Some of the group are seated on the ground; one is in a manual wheelchair. A red banner sign on the fence behind the group has white lettering that says, “Our future—our fight. #ProtectTheInlet #StopKM.”

Photo Credit: Rogue Collective | Stop Kinder-Morgan/TMX Pipeline on Lhuḵw’lhuḵw’áyten (aka Burnaby Mountain) | March 20, 2018

Leftists and progressives have upheld these problematic beliefs and systems, and fail to understand “solutions” like institutionalization, coercive medical practices, deemed consent, and other dehumanizing interventions as extensions of the prison-industrial-complex, though they very clearly are. On many occasions, the institutional “Left” in Canada has supported eugenics, including the aforementioned Bill C-7. Through the work of disabled activists in the early spring, these connections became apparent, culminating in the broadcast of the Disability Filibuster

[The Canadian left did not] consider the way disabled people are disproportionately represented in prisons where they may select the ‘choice’ between a lengthy sentence without the proper care and supports they need for their condition or a doctor giving them a lethal injection, to be anything other than progressive freedom. 

They did not think of another creation of the Canadian carceral state, the horrors of which were long known and spoken about by disabled people but were only now hitting the news enough to register with non-disabled people – long term care, nursing homes and other congregate care settings.

The Canadian left, progressives and social justice movements fail to demonstrate even the most minuscule of solidarity with disabled people’s struggle, actively exclude us from their own activism and advocate against our interests far too often.

~ Gabrielle Peters, Disability Filibuster and What Access Is and Is Not. (May 30, 2021)

In the above quote, Gabrielle Peters challenges the left, progressives and social justice movements to understand solidarity beyond awareness and anti-discrimination. Peters recounts the ways disabled people are left behind, which is reflected in, among other things, disabled people facing homelessness at disproportionate rates, a lack of adequate (or any) mental health supports, food insecurity, and increasingly insurmountable barriers to things such as medications and treatment, many of which are not included in so-called Canada’s so-called “universal” healthcare.

A page from a notebook with a drawing in black sharpie of two wheelchair users back to back—one using a manual chair, the other a powerchair. Text above says, \

Art by @ThePlantQueer

Being left behind is a product of intersecting oppressions, and these experiences demand that we must go beyond the single-issue lens of Disability Rights to consider what equity, safety, and ending ableist violence would entail.  We know people are routinely left behind when they do not fit into a “single-box.” We know that people who are poor, racialized, and whose survival activities are criminalized are pushed even further to the margins. We even know that this creates a culture where police can target people with disabilities.

READ: OPCC rejects slap on wrist for officer who pushed woman

Disability Justice

A Second Wave of political disability thought has been growing: the Disability Justice Movement. Originally, Disability Justice was developed in large part by disabled activists of colour Mia Mingus, Patty Berne, and Stacey Milbern (may her memory be a blessing), who were soon joined by Leroy Moore, Eli Clare, and Sebastian Margaret. Disability Justice is considered by many to be the beginning of the reckoning required in disability organizing globally.

The use of strategic litigation as the foremost mode of resistance is...deeply suspect for radical disability activists. From this perspective, disability rights are inseparable from the struggle over the definitional boundaries of normalcy. Radical disability activists seek to unsettle ‘normalcy’ as a natural and stable concept, thereby making space for non-normative modes of embodied existence within society.

~ Joshua St. Pierre, Disability Rights (April 28, 2014)

In fighting for civil rights, Disability Rights movements around the world have long neglected the effects race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, incarceration, and other compounding identities and experiences have on the ways one navigates and is impacted by disability. This has contributed to queer, trans disabled people and disabled people of colour in particular being left behind to continue to experience and hold their own against ableist violence.

A person in a wheelchair, with a solemn expression and their hands in their lap being carried off by four RCMP officers across a police line. Two other RCMP hold police tape over their heads and have a recording device in their hand. Trees and a camera person are in the background.

Photo Credit: Rogue Collective | Stop Kinder-Morgan/TMX Pipeline on Lhuḵw’lhuḵw’áyten (aka Burnaby Mountain) | March 20, 2018

The Principles of Disability Justice are an attempt at articulating these rifts and differences and building a framework of meaningfully and actionably organizing with them at the forefront of all demands and progress, as opposed to in spite of them in a single-issue manner.

Read: 10 Principles of Disability Justice by Sins Invalid

It must be said that both Disability Justice and Disability Rights frameworks include an understanding that calls for “access awareness” fall short in addressing systemic harms. Rather than awareness, leftist and progressive education on ableism and inaccessibility must be rooted in answering calls to action and demands for improved solidarity, including greater attention to access and accessibility of professional and grassroots organizing across movements. To be aware of ableism and do nothing is to be complicit; to understand the importance and urgency of access and neglect it is to deny disabled freedom.


Disability & Criminalization 

Although the violence of criminalization is apparent across Pivot’s campaign areas, the intersections with disability are often invisibilized due to ableism. Over the last year, police and prison abolition has gained traction in mainstream conversations, evident in the enduring calls to defund the police across so-called Canada. Disability justice organizers, however, have challenged abolitionists to expand their vision of a world without police and prisons to include a world free of institutionalization. We know that people with mental illness continue to be criminalized, rather than receive care-based interventions. Care-based interventions, however, still rely on coercive practices embedded in the Mental Health Act

Beyond Alternatives: Disability, Madness and Prison Abolition

We also recognize that racism persists in all institutions - including the BC healthcare system, evidenced by Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s 2020 report In Plain Sight; we know that disabled Indigenous people are at constant risk of racist violence. As the BC Aboriginal Network on Disability Society notes, “the Indigenous population of Canada experiences a disability rate much higher than that of the general population, at approximately 30% to 35%. Additionally, many Indigenous communities are affected by minimal economical and employment opportunities, remoteness, accessibility barriers, transportation issues, limited access to necessary disability, health and social services and their associated professionals, limited community amenities and so forth, all of which impact their memberships ability to reach their full social and economic inclusion.”

If we are looking to address police violence, then we have to address how disabled people of colour, particularly Indigenous & Black disabled people are overrepresented in police-involved killings - at a rate of approximately 68% according to CBC feature Deadly Force. Unfortunately, there are no databases or reliable analysis for disability statistics of disabled & Mad people killed or injured during police encounters, as the Canadian government does not even explicitly or implicitly include disabled people in the census. The call to defund and dismantle policing therefore, must take up the work of disability justice.


Making Connections to Pivot’s Work

Through Pivot’s work with Q, we are working to develop a responsive approach to access, rooted in the principles of Disability Justice. We witness barriers that people face - particularly when we consider the experiences of people who rely on public space, people who use (il)licit substances, people working in informal and criminalized economies, and people who are institutionalized by carceral systems such as prisons and psychiatric facilities.

Singular and one-off practices do not constitute disability justice.

We must, however, turn our awareness into collective and community-based work, and shift from the “checklist” approach to access. Singular and one-off practices do not constitute disability justice.

At Pivot, we’ve been primed to think about access and inclusion in tandem with stigma and discrimination, we are also acutely aware of stigma and discrimination, including anti-drug user and anti-homeless stigma, as detailed in Project Inclusion. When we #SayYesToAccess, we must investigate whose liberation is prioritized, which in turn informs who is able to attend and participate in meaningful ways.

Pivot is still in the nascent stages of overhauling our work, which will include addressing inaccessibility in digital and online communications as well as fostering a culture of disability justice throughout our campaigns, operations, development and administrative work. In our past work, this has included ethical substance use navigators, as well as facilitating access to transportation, food, and ASL interpretation. Increasingly, we are adding alt-text to our social media and invite all organizations to undertake this practice.

If I don’t feel fully human and especially if I am made to feel less human then the place or space or thing or policy or system or attitude is not accessible to me. At a very core and fundamental level it means I fall outside your definition of human.

Accessibility is about the ability to be. Without explanation.
Accessibility is about belonging without earning. You belong because you are.
Accessibility is about connection to others, to life and to our own selves.
Accessibility is acceptance.

~ Gabrielle Peters, Disability Filibuster and What Accessibility Is and Is Not. (May 30, 2021)

Pivot is immensely grateful to Q for sharing their expertise, in this blog and through its inclusion workshops, and auditing of our work.

Additional Resources


Beyond Alternatives: Disability, Madness and Prison Abolition
Angela Y. Davis, Beth Richie, Liat Ben-Moshe, Maya Schenwar, and Victoria Law in conversation
Access Info: ASL, English CC


Disability Justice, COVID, and Abolition
Mia Mingus, TL Lewis & Liat Ben Moshe
Access Info: ASL, English CC


Disability Justice and Abolition
Elliott Fukui
Access Info: English CC


Moving at the Speed of Trust
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha & Elliott Fukui
Access Info: ASL, English CC, English transcript available as PDF



Organizing in a Pandemic: Disability Justice Wisdom
Patty Berne, Lydia X.Z. Brown, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, & Allegra Heath-Stout
Access Info: English transcript available as .doc



Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha

Skin, Tooth, and Bone: A Disability Justice Primer
Sins Invalid

Decarcerating Disability
Liat Ben-Moshe


Disability Filibuster and What Accessibility Is and Is Not
Gabrielle Peters

10 Principles of Disability Justice
Sins Invalid

What Is Disability Justice?
Sins Invalid, Patty Berne

Cripping Abolition
The Abolition and Disability Justice Coalition

Guiding Principles Based in Disability Justice
The Abolition and Disability Justice Coalition

Disability Justice and Abolition
National Lawyers Guild

Queer Thought Bomb
Published by anonymous queers June 2017

Disability Justice Is an Essential Part of Abolishing Police and Prisons
TL Lewis

Disability Rights
Joshua St. Pierre @ Eugenics Archive

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.