By Amita Bhakta
I had the honour and privilege of delivering a keynote lecture for the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Disability Speciality Group at their annual international conference on 24th March 2023. This blog shares some of the key highlights from my talk, “Intersectional disability justice in geography and beyond: exploring race, disability, gender and the perimenopause”. This lecture was based on my life experiences as a British Gujarati woman with Cerebral Palsy, and drew on my PhD research on the WASH needs of perimenopausal women, and my recent experiences in Gujarat, India in the first months of 2023, to demonstrate the relevance of intersectionality to the field of geography. The lecture highlighted the need for geographers to look at hidden issues, the need for race and disability geographers to collaborate further, and the ways in which intersectionality can positively play into post-colonial responsibility in development fieldwork.
Geographers need to look at hidden issues
I used the first part of my lecture to demonstrate why geographers need to look at hidden issues to achieve intersectional disability justice, with a story of my PhD journey, which began with me sitting at a library computer almost 10 years ago and failing to find any literature or evidence of the WASH needs of perimenopausal women. I used this example to highlight how intersections of gender, being part of a hidden group globally, sanitation being one of the ‘last taboos’ and poverty, have all contributed to the needs of women making the transition to the menopause being hidden. Using feminist techniques were key to working my way through these layers of intersectionality, and identifying their needs for ‘engineered infrastructure’ including bathing and laundry facilities and drainage. But there are also hidden issues among researchers to consider as well. In my lecture, I highlighted how For me therefore, intersectional ‘disability justice’ as a researcher has long been about ensuring that I am recognised as a researcher who predominantly does not research on disability, but on gender. Over the years, I have sought to emphasise this through my academic work. As a researcher looking at gender issues relating to the perimenopause, I feel that my experience as someone with a disability has made me more attentive to hidden issues faced by others, and the need to look to solutions. A lot of my work, and the work of others in my field, has focused on menstrual hygiene and how we can deliver inclusive services for women and girls around the world. I used these experiences to highlight how intersectional disability justice requires geographers, planners and others to pay key attention to factors like age, poverty, class, caste, where people live and the services they can access and more, beyond the most obvious markers of identity. Justice is about ensuring that all stakeholders can convey their realities and for planners and service providers to ensure that these voices translate into delivering urban infrastructure that addresses issues that are rarely discussed.
Race and disability geographers need to collaborate
The second part of my lecture turned to a journal paper I published in Area in 2019 on race and disability intersections, to highlight the need for geographers and other disciplines to pay more attention to them. In geography societies such as the American Association of Geographers and the Royal Geographical Society, there are speciality groups which focus on race and disability as separate identities, but as yet there are no groups for geographers whose issues lie in between them. I drew on being ‘misrecognised’, or not being given equal value, in different spaces. I reflected on how misrecognition of my physical limitations as a researcher with Cerebral Palsy has created challenges in being responsible for field assistants in Ghana and conducting fieldwork to the same extent as able-bodied colleagues. Overcoming these challenges requires geographers with disabilities and from different ethnic backgrounds to at times ‘let go’ and delegate field duties to safeguard wellbeing and economic income for local research teams. There are also challenges within the field of geography that can only be addressed through collaborative efforts between geographers in the fields of race and disability, including making conferences held by the American Association of Geographers and the Royal Geographical Society more inclusive. I used the lecture to reflect on experiences of growing up in Leicester, UK, where being in a city with a significant population of people of Gujarati heritage like myself requires me to overcome a range of challenges. Misrecognition of my intellectual capabilities within the Gujarati community, as well as contempt for my drooling can make areas of the city feel more hostile. To bring this section of my lecture to a close, I called on geography as a discipline to identify and actively include geographers with disabilities of different ethnic backgrounds in shaping research agendas going forward. I called for improvements in inclusivity practices in the field of geography and the wider academy by highlighting the hiddenness of academics of different racial backgrounds with disabilities. I concluded this section of my lecture by asking geographers to engage directly with communities to shift perceptions and visiblise disabled people of different ethnic backgrounds, gender, and class, as active participants in the academy and society as a whole.
Intersectionality has a positive role to play in fieldwork
I used the final part of my lecture to reflect on my recent experiences working with colleagues in Ahmedabad, India, where I was based in Gujarat where my family originates from. For many years and for the reasons around cultural perceptions about my intellectual capabilities, I had shied away from doing fieldwork in India, actively dodging it when trying to decide where I’d base my PhD study. Yet, here and now aged in my early 30s, I realised that I travelled to Ahmedabad this year both to get a new perspective on India, and to be ‘seen’ differently and challenge misconceptions that I don’t do fieldwork because of my disability. I used the lecture to reflect on my experience with the Faculty of Planning at CEPT University. When teaching a workshop at the faculty about the WASH needs of perimenopausal women earlier this year, being called ‘Ma’am’ by my students was my first ever explicit recognition as a lecturer, and demonstrated to me how they valued me equally to any of their other teachers. No questions were asked about my Cerebral Palsy. During the trip as a whole, working with colleagues at CEPT gave me a sense of confidence to not only travel but to work in India- that too in the academy, where people with disabilities are rarely seen. Being at CEPT with fellow academics somehow created that space for dialogue on a new level in terms of negotiating my physical needs. No longer was the dynamic of conversation in the university from the perspective of me as a student, but with faculty members, it was colleague to colleague, for the first time in my life, having never held an academic position yet.
But I also used the session to highlight how there is still a long way to go to overcome misconceptions of disability in the wider Gujarati community. I recalled how on a visit to my family village in the south of Gujarat in late February 2023, I was met with gasps and astonishment from relatives that I had managed to get a car arranged from Ahmedabad and make the 5-hour journey there – by myself. This was a stark contrast to the sense of inclusion I felt at the university in Ahmedabad. Whilst yes, I was the sister, niece, aunt, in the context of the village, there were still many challenges in overcoming a degree of misrecognition about the fact that I had the capacity to hold normal conversation as a person with Cerebral Palsy and people seemed reluctant to talk.
Call to action
I ended my lecture with some key action points for geographers to take forward:
- Achieving disability justice requires geographers to take intersectional approaches to understand hidden issues. This means recognising the intersectionalities of researchers with disabilities and their ability to pick up on issues related to other markers of identity such as gender, and building on this to improve the practice of geography and urban planning more broadly, by enabling all stakeholders to convey their realities.
- Within the field of geography, scholars working on race need to come together with those working on disability to take an intersectional lens on how disability justice can be achieved. This requires us as geographers to take action such as research and forming research or speciality groups in organisations such as the AAG and RGS to recognise how these intersections shape the experiences of fieldwork and performative activities such as conferences for geographers from ethnic minority backgrounds who have disabilities, as well as experiences of life more broadly.
- Geographers need to think about how we can make academic activities more accessible, situating this within the context of different cultures globally
- We need to use our platforms as geographers to engage with communities where microaggressions arise for academics and people in society more broadly due to the intersections of race, disability and gender
- Geographers need to recognise how place and space, such as the academy of the global South as an example, can be used to visibilise people with disabilities within these contexts. This means on the one hand acknowledging the spaces of misrecognition that shape our experiences beyond universities in these countries, whilst also highlighting and exemplifying our positive interactions and experiences as equals in the academy in contexts such as India.
We need to show what can be done in a sensitive and positive light without fetishising it, but enabling others to build these practices in. Only then I believe will we find routes to globally achieving intersectional disability justice in geography and beyond.
Thank you to Stephanie Coen (University of Nottingham) and Diana Beljaars (Swansea University) for inviting me to give this lecture at the AAG, and to the Disability Speciality Group and the Feminist Geography Speciality Groups of the AAG for co-sponsoring this session.