by Gabriel Valdez
Robyn Lambird is a Renaissance woman: an athlete, poet, critic, and model. She’s pushed each sphere for inclusion of people with visible disabilities like her own.
Sometimes when someone from a vulnerable community pushes into these spheres, they’re confronted with an argument that participating in things like advertising only furthers the abuses of capitalism. When I write about movies with people of color in them being successful, I’m always confronted with someone (white) telling me that it only means people of color are now engaging in a system that de-prioritizes them.
Somehow, people who are othered are expected to make themselves a priority of that system without ever touching it. It’s presented to them as bad when they’re successful at making themselves a priority of it. Somehow, they have to change the shape of these systems without ever touching them, they’re supposed to fight their disinclusion without ever including themselves.
It’s never acknowledged that the ability to step outside that system is a privilege. There’s much less risk involved in refusing to participate when you know that system will always give you something even when you give it nothing. There’s even less risk in asking those without that privilege not to participate; in fact, that act maintains the nature of the system you’re simultaneously asking people to fight.
By not working inside of it as well as outside of it, people who are othered are encouraged to sabotage their ability to change its shape. This maintains the status quo, which is why it’s an argument so often made by enabled critics when people with disabilities are successful, as well as by white critics when people of color are successful, by male critics when women are successful, and by straight critics when LGBTQ people are successful.
Lambird has a great deal to say about the advantages of pushing inclusion of people with visible disabilities into the advertising sphere:
The question is always: doesn’t someone’s representation in that system make them a cog in it? Yet the histories of vulnerable communities show their members that a lack of representation makes them even more of a cog in it – an invisible one, with quiet voices no one listens to, and a cog that has no power to re-shape the system as a whole.
This extends beyond advertising, movies, music, and into politics, social change, the shape of activism.
Perhaps no group of people has had to fight this more than the disabled community. We share their feel-good stories when it’s cathartic for our purposes, but then we question whether their participation is good when it’s useful for theirs. We sometimes aim to tell them a better way of doing it when we have no access to their experiences and so can’t know their priorities.
This is practiced in every relationship of a privileged community to a vulnerable one, but even those of us in one vulnerable community can possess a privileged identity in relation to someone else. We too often utilize the success of a person with a disability as support for something we want to say or a way we want to feel. We don’t often utilize the success of a person with disability as a platform for what that person and that community wants to say.
In other words, we too often share the voices of people with disabilities in order to have ours heard, instead of using our voices to raise theirs and convince others to listen.
Privilege should be exercised as the responsibility to raise others’ voices, not as the right to stand on others’ voices to raise our own.
Here is “The Daily Commute” by Robyn Lambird:
The feature image is from the YouTube video here. Lambird has a number of videos discussing how disability is treated in society, athletics, and fashion on her channel.