What is DisCrit? Understanding disability critical race studies

Critical disability theorists have long argued that racism and ableism operate jointly, intensifying and borrowing from each other

                            What is DisCrit? Understanding disability critical race studies
Seniors walk in line to shop for groceries during special hours open to seniors and the disabled at Northgate Gonzalez Market in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This year has seen Republican lawmakers start a battle against critical race theory (CRT) with renewed vigor, branding it 'un-American' and 'racist', arguing that it will further deepen divisions in the country's populace. Lawmakers are pushing harder and harder to ban CRT in classrooms. Critical race theory is an intellectual movement that emerged from critical legal studies, an analysis of the law questioning “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law”. CRT studies racism at the systemic level, examining how policies, laws, and court decisions can perpetuate racism even if they are seemingly race-neutral. 


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Members of the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics basketball teams rally at the MLK Memorial to support Black Lives Matter and to mark the liberation of slavery on June 19, 2020 in Washington, DC . Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when a Union general read orders in Galveston, Texas stating all enslaved people in Texas were free according to federal law (Photo by Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

Conservatives remain obtuse about what CRT really stands for in its essence and continue to use it as a straw man to impede any conversations around race that they don’t want to explore. There is a world of critical studies outside of what is currently being debated and one of those offshoots is DisCrit — the combination of disability studies and CRT. 

Critical disability theory or critical disability studies, as per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, refers to a diverse, interdisciplinary set of theoretical approaches that analyze disability as a cultural, historical, relative, social, and political phenomenon.  Critical disability theorists have long argued that racism and ableism operate jointly, intensifying and borrowing from each other. Thus, there is a need for intersectional analysis — through investigation of the multiple, intersecting power relationships that affect stigmatization and exclusion. Disability scholars explain oppression as exploitation that occurs within the process of labor; marginalization or the inability or unwillingness of the system to incorporate the group into political, economic, and cultural life; powerlessness or the lack of authority over one’s own life; cultural imperialism; and violence. 

Tonette Rocco of Florida International University argued in 2005 that the conceptualization of critical disability theory is built on the work of disability scholars. But since it borrows from the work of CRT, the principles in itself bear a stark similarity. For instance, DisCrit underlines that disabled people have a unique voice and complex experience; disability should be viewed as part of a continuum of human variation; disability is socially constructed; ableism is invisible; disabled people have a right to self-determination and that the commodification of labor and disability as business combine to maintain a system of poverty and isolation. 

People with autism chant slogans during the first annual Disability Pride Parade on July 12, 2015 in New York City. The parade calls attention to the rights of people with disabilities and coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

The intersections between race and disability appear at diverse sites of experience and oppression. DisCrit theorists have and continue to tackle topics ranging from pedagogy to incarceration to immigration to violence. DisCrit focuses on ways that the forces of racism and ableism circulate interdependently, often in invisible ways, to uphold notions of 'normalcy'. The foundations of DisCrit lie in Black and critical race feminist scholarship and activism. 

Activism around disability studies engages with a variety of topics, from immigration and unjust hiring practices, ableism, economic oppression, and exclusions in higher education. The more one explores the central tenets of these studies, the clearer it becomes that when it comes to race and disability, the overlapping issues are enormous and unambiguously similar. 

Shelley Tremain, a disabled feminist philosopher of disability who specializes in feminist philosophy of disability, Foucault, social and political philosophy, and biopolitics, conducted 50 interviews with disabled, queer, and POC academic philosophers about their experiences, their subject positions, and how ableism impacts their work. The series of interviews she did is called Dialogues on Disability.

In these interviews, the range of topics included the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession. It also dives into more personal accounts like experiences of institutional exclusion or instances of gaslighting in one-on-one encounters or structural gaslighting.

It also looked at how those with disabilities show resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power, accessibility, and how to practice an anti-oppressive pedagogy. While Tremain may not necessarily refer to the work as DisCrit, the interviews often explore the ideas that fall under its ambit. Yet, the field is small and often faces resistance. But like any new intellectual paradigm, DisCrit is growing and scholars who work dedicatedly in this field like Subini Ancy Annamma, David Connor, and Beth Ferri, are optimistic.