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Notes on “Access Washing”

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Written by: Stacey Milbern, Disability Justice Activist and Organizer

Notes on “access washing” (similar to pinkwashing or greenwashing):

We are seeing access washing more and more lately. We must recognize it for what it is: leveraging “accessibility” as justification to harm communities of color and poor & working class communities. If accessibility is made at people’s expense, we have to question and challenge that as access. Access for whom?

Examples of access washing:

  • City government implementing anti-homeless measures under the guise of making streets more accessible to people with disabilities, with no consideration that those most harmed by this — houseless community members losing access to public space without alternative safety nets — are people w disabilities themselves. Sue Schweik, who penned a book on Ugly Laws, recently named a City of Berkeley policy for what it is — an ugly law, or ordinances that make it illegal for people considered “unsightly” to be in public space.

  • Citing the Americans with Disabilities Act as a reason to close down polling places, with no consideration that many of the voters being suppressed are disabled. Lead Democrat Stacey Abrams said recently in Georgia that this is creating a false dichotomy where opponents pit people with disabilities against everyone else.

  • Allowing a need for improved accessibility to justify gentrification and displacement, with no consideration that those being forced out have some of the highest rates of impairment. Disability access and access for cyclists are frequently used to support campaigns that ultimately contribute to displacement, attracting higher income people at the expense of people who have been in the neighborhood for generations, frequently people with chronic health conditions.

  • Understanding giving vouchers for students to attend private schools as the best way to create access and choice for students with disabilities. Allowing disabled students to be used in a campaign about public dollars funding private schools does not really create more access and opportunity, and if it does, again we must ask: for whom?

Whenever these kinds of issues are brought up, people in power try to frame the social question as “conflicting needs” between communities. Disabled people know a lot about conflicting access needs. We navigate clashing access needs every day in our lives and relationships. We find cooperative solutions that could never be dreamed in abled imaginations. Access washing is not that. Access washing is really a question of complicity — whether we will allow disability access to be wielded as one of the master’s tools.

In disability justice community, access is a critical part of how all of us get free. In disability justice, access is about turning towards each other and figuring out how to collectively create an environment where everyone, especially those historically excluded, can participate. Access washing is the antithesis to disability justice.

Single issue movements are easy to fall prey to this kind of manipulation because they don’t naturally regard houseless people, displaced people, suppressed voters as part of their body, but rather an appendage. This is not a critique of individual people in an individual movement, it is a critique of movements structured to think of all of the issues that make up the quality of our lives as separate.

We need intersectional movement leadership — now. Not because intersectional leadership is a move in the direction of “diversity”, but because having queer/trans poor working class survivor immigrant disabled people of color in movement leadership will be what saves us from these kinds of trappings. We are our best strategy to win.

Stacey Milbern has short hair and round glasses. They are smiling at the camera, and wearing a black sweater with white text: Catalyst for Change
Stacey Milbern is a writer and organizer in Oakland, CA. She’s been privileged to be at the forefront of disability justice with other disabled people of color for 14 years. You can find out more about Stacey’s writing by following her on Facebook. here: Image description: Stacey Milbern has short hair and round glasses. They are smiling at the camera, and wearing a black sweater with white text: Catalyst for Change


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