Feminist Spaces Remain Notoriously Clueless About Disabled Women’s Needs: Nidhi Goyal

Nidhi Goyal

Nidhi Goyal is a young feminist from India working at the intersections of disability and gender. She is committed to changing the lives of women and girls with disabilities. Her work spans research, writing, training, campings, advocacy, and art. She’s the founder and director of Rising Flame Foundation, a small but robust organization focused on building leadership skills of persons with disabilities and creating self-advocates. She’s also the sexuality and disability program director at the nonprofit Point of View, where she has researched and coauthored a pioneering online initiative, sexualityanddisability.org, a popular and comprehensive online resource on disability, gender, sexuality, and violence. Nidhi sat down in conversation with Preeti Shekar, FAR’s communications coordinator, to discuss her journey that led her to becoming a fierce, feisty and fun-loving feminist activist.

Preeti: Begin by telling us a little bit about how you came to do this work in disability rights as a young feminist.

Nidhi:  I started about seven or eight years ago. Let me step back to even before I started. I am a woman with a disability, and I wasn’t always disabled. I was a non-disabled person. I was diagnosed with my visual impairment at the age of about 14 or 15. What happened then was a very beautiful thing, and I say “beautiful” because when you transition from one world to the other, you sort of become the link with the world. You start noticing things that you never noticed.

So, in this process, I realized that women with disabilities faced challenges but I have been one of the privileged few, I think in a country like India, who has a lot of support, especially a lot of family and infrastructure support. I think this consciousness of just privilege coupled with the reality that the more I got aware, and realized that women with disabilities faced multiple discriminations, issues, and nobody’s sort of addressing it with that lens. The lack of support that they see is the issues that they see, so I think that consciousness pushed me into activism after working in media and my post-graduation. That’s how I started, really about thinking about creating this support that I had for those women with disabilities, not knowing in which way, but with the thought that I wanted to create the support.

Preeti: You work at various levels – through art, public speaking and stand up comedy, writing, and you also have been working on UN advocacy on disability rights. Would you tell us a little bit about your work on the UN advocacy and what you have found, both as opportunities and challenges, in using international human rights framework and working on disability rights?

Nidhi: My path is peppered with both incredible opportunities and terrifying challenges. Let me begin with how I started getting more active. As someone whose country has ratified multiple conventions of the United Nations, you’re automatically engaging with UN human rights mechanisms. But, as an activist, as a disability and gender rights activist, I started engaging with the mechanisms about two or three years ago more actively. The idea was to work with organizations, like CREA, which is primarily a women’s rights organization, to see how the global and local linkages could be forged. That’s where I work right now. So it seems a very common phase, making the connection between the global and local, but it’s very true. The existence of such UN human rights mechanisms and UN conventions is incredibly crucial but it also shows the glaring disconnect between grassroots activists and those who have access to UN spaces, advocacy and funding.

What’s important is that the UN mechanisms or conventions trickle down and influence national policies and hold governments more accountable. At the same time, what is equally important is for the grassroots issues to go upwards. That sometimes doesn’t happen because, particularly in a very complex landscape like South Asia or India. We just have such a diverse demographic. The demographic distribution is so diverse that issues don’t remain the same. I think the strength in this kind of grassroots activism to come up and enter the world of UN mechanisms and advocacy can be really daunting if you’re sitting in a rural part of Nepal or Bangladesh.

I think my work really began with CREA on making some of these connections. I think for us in the disability movement, and I still say in the disability movement because I am a woman with a disability; the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) that the United Nations crafted. That was really, really revolutionary. It was a landmark mechanism, which also enabled many countries to push for legal reforms. That’s where the United Nations has been able to create a lot of opportunities, but I feel that we still have a long way to go. Are they sort of keeping the other conventions in mind while they’re making recommendations with nations and states when they’re presenting their issues or list of issues?

So thinking around some of that, and also getting very specific here. So if, you know, we already, as a woman with the disabilities and…the cost, or the connection, or the intersection of directly gender and disability…so when we look at CEDAW and when we look at CRPD, taking two conventions as examples, are they talking to each other in the way they should? Are they addressing the people who stand at the intersection of these identities? I think this is a real challenge and there is quite a bit of a gap that I see with these mechanisms.

Also, another very important thing that I feel is that we cannot assume that committees or the bodies that have been instated there do not carry the various ideas and perceptions about disability, about women, about groups not being homogenous. So are we really focusing on dialogue and sensitization? I wouldn’t really call it training, but more like a dialogue and sensitization with these bodies or the people that run these committees, etc. I think these are some of the challenges that I see, and I really hope that some of us or many of us with our work will be able to push for addressing these gaps.

Preeti: Can you share pertinent statistics around disability, just to get a perspective of numbers? I think intersectionality is a big buzzword now. We talk about it, theorize about it in feminist academia, but practicing it so hard, both in our lives and the work we do. So do you see that shift slowly happening?

Nidhi: Statistically, this is one of the biggest issues that we see from the movement, and particularly as girls and women with disabilities, that we are invisible as far as data is concerned. So I’ll give you a couple of examples. Globally, WHO and World Bank had this research. They published numbers in 2010 or 2011, and it was 15 percent of the world’s population is living with a disability. When you look at countries like India and you look at the latest census report, it says that we’re just 2.12 percent or 2.2 percent of the people in the country living with disability. There’s a stark difference. There’s a gap. There’s disability, and that’s for sure. There can’t be such big discrepancy in the numbers in the countries when, if we just total up a couple of us in a city, it comes to more than that.

When there is no data, unfortunately, a lot of our policies work on data, and so the biggest challenge becomes that, if they’re invisible in numbers, then we become invisible in policies. And then the circle continues because if you’re invisible in policies, who’s going to sit and count us again? There’s a very human example, that some of the women’s rights movement initially would be, like, “We want to talk to women with disabilities, but where are the women with disabilities? We don’t see them, so how do we talk to them?” They just get left behind because how do we talk to them? Where do we talk to them? We don’t see them.

And the idea is that we’ve created such an inaccessible infrastructure and inaccessible mindset that how do women with disabilities then penetrate that space? This creates a circular problem! If they don’t come forward, you don’t talk to them. And if you don’t talk to them, they don’t come forward. That brings us to the intersectionality question. What are we understanding with intersectionality, and how do we see it? I agree that it’s a big buzzword, but I somehow feel that we’re struggling a lot to go beyond the buzz and really go deeper in the understanding of it.

For example, every year, when the CSW happens, how many women with disabilities do we really see? Who’s getting funded? Whose voices are getting heard? How many indigenous women do we really see? And so these bring so many different human issues that women all over the world…so if you take, for example, women’s rights and women with disabilities, women all over the world have very limited resources, opportunities. There’s a huge marginalization, discrimination that still exists. I think it’s a sad lack of data collection, and a fight for limited resources. It’s the idea that we somehow developed that we are actively including somebody else, and so we have to deal with the most inconvenience.

I think what’s important is to shift the lens to understand that we are not including anybody. It is everyone’s space, right? And so we are just being a little more, either proactive in some cases, or friendly in some other cases, and joining hands with people who are not like us, and, you know, the understanding that nobody’s like anybody. I think a couple of things, if they shift in the mind…for example, feminist spaces often don’t think about accessibility when they host meetings, when they host gatherings, and it’s so imperative because, not from your minds and hearts shutting someone out, but you physically shut someone out. So what kind of message does that leave someone with?

Then I comes to resource constraints because accessibility can be expensive, but so can, you know, reaching meeting. I have this very common example which I give people because we think that finding inclusive spaces, accessible spaces, hosting it in certain ways can be expensive if you want to include people with disabilities, and the idea is that they need these extra accommodations. But, if you had to look at everything, these extra accommodations, and you flying to India or me flying to U.S., would also be an accommodation. It’s our limitation that we can’t walk across continents, and that’s why we need airplanes. It becomes so common that we don’t see it as an accommodation, whereas maybe we don’t give disability that much of visibility so it becomes like an extra step. For us to really think, “Whose space it is, who does it belong to?” are we making space for somebody else, or it’s just all of us living in harmony? Once we answer some of those questions, I think intersectionality becomes an automatic part of our praxis. Feminist collaborations (like FAR) enable us to also achieve intersectionality more intentionally than the lip-service that has tended to happen.

Preeti: I think it is also important to acknowledge that everybody gets disabled. at some period of our lives or the other. Nobody is strictly abled or strictly disabled, so just to acknowledge that.

Nidhi: Yes, absolutely. There’s a common term called Temporarily-Abled Bodies (TAB). We just introduced that idea. It’s not necessary that you now start calling yourself a TAB. Understand that you may tomorrow slip down the stairs and you may be temporarily disabled. You may age and you may your lose your eyesight. You may become disabled. This is something that we do discuss a lot, about the fluidity of the concept of body and your relationship with the body and the body’s relationship with the society. I think if extrapolate and think about disability in those conversations.

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