Tag Archives: own voices

An Interview with Fran Odette

An Interview with Professor Fran Odette, George Brown College

By Derek Newman-Stille

Q: To start off our interview, could you tell readers a bit about yourself?

Fran Odette: Wow, this is always a challenging question but here goes…I am a professor at George Brown College, in the Assaulted Women and Children’s Advocate Program as well as in the Social Service Worker Program. I identify as a queer, cis-gender female, settler and I have multiple disability experiences. I am a wheelchair user and am also hard of hearing, so I use hearing aids.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your relationship to disability?

Fran Odette: I was born with a genetic condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, Latin for ‘imperfect bone development’. It was hoped when I was young that surgery referred to as ‘rodding’ would allow me to be mobile and walk with braces and a walker…at the pace slower than a snail. This did not provide a good quality of life for me and so I opted for using a wheelchair for mobility and never looked back. It’s interesting that my relationship to disability started very early where my parents were told that when I was born that they should take me home because I did not have a long life expectancy – I think they told my parents maybe three months and now I am almost 58 years old. In many ways, that also affected bonding with my parents who were always worried about when the next ‘shoe’ would drop and something dramatic would happen to me. The influences of the medical model was alive as a young child as my life was always seen as somewhat precarious, in the eyes of others, whereas I saw my life very differently.

Q: How did you get involved in Disabled activism?

Fran Odette: I think much of my involvement around disability activism came from my own experiences of having to fight to be included and seen as someone who was capable as anyone else to do whatever; go to school, perform well on my job, be seen as someone who was a potential partner, a future parent, etc. When I was finishing my degree, I was dealing with an emotionally abusive partner who had followed me from one city to another. In my efforts to get out of the relationship, I met a wonderful counselor who supported me to see that in spite of my efforts to be the best that I could be, I was not going to be able to change my partner… that was up to him.

I came to realize that a lot of what I was experiencing was not only internalized sexism but also ableism. It was hard to tease out the complexities between the two, but I thought if I was struggling and was someone who was articulate, was able to advocate for myself, what about all the women with disabilities who were staying in abusive relationships because they did not have access to supports that could facilitate getting them out of the abuse and into safer spaces, such as shelters or other kinds of housing where they were not reliant on their abusive partners. It was my own experience in seeking supports, that I later became interested in wanting to learn more about other cis-gender women’s experiences who were dealing with violence in their lives. As a result, I later worked as a research assistant on the first official province-wide research for Office for the Status of Women (Ontario), looking at issues impacting women with disabilities in abusive relationships.

Q: Much of your work involves the exploration of the intersection of gender and disability with a particular focus on disabled women. What interests you about the exploration of disabled women’s lives?

Fran Odette: While I was completing my Masters, I was the only visibly disabled student in the program. Oftentimes, I would be asked by the faculty to comment on the experiences of disabled women. Perhaps it was unintentional, but I felt like I had somehow become the ‘spokesperson’ of disabled women… I began to wonder what were the experiences of other disabled women and so I took it upon myself to start reading anthologies by disabled women such as The Power of Each Breath, and began to see myself within the pages. I later ended up doing research on the DisAbled Women’s Network Canada, a grass-roots response to the failure of the mainstream women’s movement and also the disability rights movement to include disability and gender as part of their overall analysis leading to disabled women having to organize collectively to ensure that our issues were on the agenda.

Q: Some of your research explores institutional and personal abuses for Disabled people. Are you comfortable telling us a bit about what trends you have noticed?

Fran Odette: Yes, when I returned to Toronto I ended up working with the Disabled Women’s Network, Ontario where I shadowed mentors who had been the founding ‘mothers’ of DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), Canada. Ms. Pat Israel, was/is a mentor and wonderful colleague/friend who I feel indebted to for the incredible learning I gained from my early days as a ‘baby’ activist. While I was with DAWN, I met other non-disabled allies who felt that the conversations needed to be expanded as it was not just disabled women experiencing violence, but rather disabled people were vulnerable and at a higher risk for abuse by family, caregivers and other professionals. I later went on to work for the Ontario Provincial government where I worked on addressing the creation of policies and practices so as to ensure safeguards against abuse for persons who were institutionalized.


Q: What inspired your interest in narratives of the abuse of disabled people?


Fran Odette: I think that hearing the stories from people who have the lived experiences around violence are so important… and oftentimes it is those of us who are the most marginalized whose voices are erased or taken up in specific ways that are created by non-disabled people. Similar to when we are talking about supporting ‘victims’ or what I prefer to say are ‘survivors’ of violence, we need to remember that as providers we are not the experts. We have not lived with the abuser nor do we know the ways that survivors have ‘survived’ til now and what we need to do is ensure always that the person is in control. Similarly, I think that when reading texts about ‘how to work’ with disabled people oftentimes there is a particular ‘spin’ on the narrative, which may contribute further to seeing disabled people as ‘victims’ whose lives are already ‘tragic’ because of living with a disability. For many of us, we have had few opportunities perhaps even before getting into the abusive relationship, where we have not had control over our lives because of the dominant narratives that exist around disability, gender and violence. I feel that it is critical if we are going to make change and if folks who are committed to working in allyship with disabled people, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, we need to listen and hear what people need and want because we are the experts of our experience and the role I think of service providers is to facilitate opportunities for folks to get the kind of supports that work best for them.

Q: Disabled people are frequently de-sexualized in our society, yet we are, of course, sexual beings. You have done work exploring sexuality and disability. What were some of the things that stood out to you as important?

Fran Odette: When I think about sexuality within a Western context, I would say that much of how we have come to think about sex and sexuality has been skewed by the media. The messages about what it means to be ‘sexy’ or ‘desirable’ are dominated by unrealistic expectations and images which are unattainable at the least and damaging for all of us. I think that in actuality we live in a world that is quite sex-phobic. When we think about “disability” and “sexy”, these two tend not to be in the same sentence. It’s hard to find good sex-positive information that speaks to the experiences of disability and what it means to be desired. In looking at this issue, I joined with Dr. Miriam Kaufman and Cory Silverberg to co-author a book called The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability. It really isn’t the ultimate guide, but it was meant to be a resource that spoke not just to disabled people. Throughout the book, the voices of disabled people were interwoven.

Q: Much of your work has focused on the importance of Disabled people’s narratives and of us speaking our own narratives instead of Abled people speaking over us. Can you tell us a bit about why sharing our stories is so important?

Fran Odette: I think that what is key is that disabled people have always been here; we have been part of community centuries before medicine, the church and government influenced the ways in which we have come to understand the concepts of disability and impairment. We also know that many of us have experienced a history that speaks to a long legacy that has not been kind to us, that has actively worked towards eliminating or excluding us from being part of community. I think that because of legislation and proactive policies and practices, we are seeing more disabled people being part of the community and there is a demand that we take our rightful place in society and that we are no longer willing to be hidden away because of our differences.

Q: You have a passion for teaching about disability. What are some of the important things that you want your students to learn about Disabled people?

Fran Odette: I love it when there are the ‘aha’ moments; when students come together and are seeing the connections between their own experiences of marginality and that of disabled people. To hear from students who have never heard our history and have wondered ‘why’ it is only in this course that I teach that this history is becoming known? Why is that? I also love it when students are able to make connections about their own experiences of disability and take up those connections in a space that felt safe to unpack their own assumptions and to start seeing disability as an ‘identity’ could be something that could be positive.

Q: Is there a way that readers can find out more about your research and social justice work?

Fran Odette: I would imagine, you might be able to do a google search with my name. Even I am amazed where I will find my name and the connections that exist.

#UHateDisabledPeople

#UHateDisabledPeople

By Derek Newman-Stille

Twitter may seem like a strange place to create community with its short word counts and inclination toward simple answers rather than complex explorations, but it has become a space for disabled people to share our experiences with one another and to share experiences that we may have felt were ours alone. Disabled stories by disabled people are rare. Frequently publishers would prefer stories ABOUT disability written by abled people rather than narratives about disability by those of us in the disabled community. Yet we know there is a need for us to share our stories and to use our stories to advocate for change.

Frequently when people say that we need our stories to advocate for change, the assumption is that we are writing for an abled audience rather than a disabled one, however, one of our biggest tools for advocacy is our community. We have been able to achieve change through uniting as a disabled community and collectively engaging in activism.

Often we are expected to fight for disability justice quietly and accept what the abled majority tells us we are due, however, that hasn’t been effective in the past. We have never had rights “given” to us by a “compassionate” abled majority, we have always had to fight for our rights with committees, with demonstrations like climbing up the stairs of congress, and through legal action by disabled people. Being quiet has never served us, so we need to speak up and we need to make change loudly as a community. Disability justice comes from disabled anger.

Imani Barbarin has been a key figure involved in Disabled Twitter and has been devoted to disability justice through multiple fora including the Twitter hashtag #UHateDisabledPeople. Barbarin is a conversation starter, coining various twitter hashtags in order to begin conversations between disabled people and evoke change. As a disabled black woman, her work is intersectional, drawing on disability studies, but also a critical race perspective, and a feminist outlook. Barbarin has been a key figure in exploring disability representation, disability culture, and inclusion.

Barbarin’s hashtag #UHateDisabledPeople is in-your-face, powerful, and expresses the NEED for change. She expresses the idea that acts of ableism ARE acts of hatred toward disabled people. This hashtag has allowed people to come together in expressing our common experiences of ableism with a lot of responses by the community stating “I’ve experienced the same thing”

Some key tweets that have come up are:

Dr. Laura Dorwart points out in her Tweet “If you hear that a violent crime has been committed against a disabled person and your first thought is that the loved one who did it must have a good reason or deserve sympathy, #UHateDisabled People.

Dr. Dorwart points out that people often dismiss acts of murder against disabled people as “for the best” or “an act of love”, thus excusing the family members who murdered them. Frequently this is used as an excuse to get people out of murder charges when the victim has been a disabled person.

Gregory Mansfield points out further serious crimes against the disabled population in his tween “#UHateDisabledPeople if you believe that sterilization, insitutionalization or filicide of disabled people are explainable, acceptable or justifiable.”

Yet these tweets don’t only express radical acts of violence against disabled people, they also illustrate everyday ableisms and the way that the language of ableism is entrenched in every aspect of our society.

Charles Hughes points out that ableist society can only view us as “good cripples” when we are being “inspirational”; “If you love us when we’re adorable or ‘inspirational,’ but try to shut us down when we’re assertive or uncompromising, then #UHateDisabledPeople”. Hughes brings attention to the common trope of the “good cripple”, and the notion in ableist society that disabled people constantly need to be grateful for even the basics of accommodation or support afforded in our society.

Eli points out in their tweet issues around the unemployment of disabled people and the fact that it results from ableism and the entrenched belief that disabled people can’t work while ablist people still say that we disabled people should “get a job”. Eli states “When you think disabled people should get a job but you won’t hire us #UHateDisabledPeople” Eli illustrates the contradictory messages from our ableist society that we SHOULD work, but simultaneously that we CAN’T work.

Imani Barbarin observes the entrenched idea that disabled people don’t need to leave their houses and therefore don’t need to be accommodated by public spaces or public services when she states in her tweet “If you can’t think of a reason for disabled people to leave their house, other than to go to the hospital, UHateDisabledPeople”. This is a key issue since Barbarin and others on Twitter have been recently talking about rideshare and other services denying access to disabled people and then leaving us bad reviews because those services refused to accommodate our needs as disabled people (for example, denying access to people with service dogs, refusing the delivery of food to people with mobility disabilities).

Several people have brought attention to the assumption by the public that disabled people are “faking it”. For example, “Lilo the Autistic Queer” states in their tweet “if you harass strangers because you don’t think they should park in the accessible spot and/or sit in the accessible section on the bus/train #UHate Disabled People.” “Lilo the Autistic Queer” observes that people often act as though if they can’t immediately see our disabilities then we must be “faking it”.

Catherine Paul elaborates on this entrenched belief that disabled people are faking it, stating “If when you see a chronically ill person having a good time, you think they must be faking their illness, #UHateDisabledPeople.” The social assumption that we disabled people are “faking it” means that a huge amount of money is wasted on investigations into our claims of disability and often results in huge amounts of money that should be allocated to disability supports instead being allocated to investigations into our disabilities. So strong is this entrenched belief that disabled people are “faking it”, that people on the streets frequently believe they have a role in telling us they don’t believe we have disabilities or attempting to kick our canes out from under us or push our mobility devices. Indeed, Kaitlyn @BlytheByName points out the experience of purposely being bumped into in this tweet: “When you purposefully bump into me while I’m walking with my cane to test if I ‘really need it’ UHateDisabledPeople”.

Walela Nehanda illustrates how often disabled people are assumed to be “faking” their disability or trying to “scam” or “cheat” the system by saying “If you beleive disabled people are ‘faking’ our conditions because our disabilities don’t present in a way you’re accustomed to or because you think we are trying to ‘scam’ people or ‘cheat’ the system #UHateDisabledPeople”. Frequently abled people assume that they should be able to immediately look at us and then diagnose us with a glance and dismiss us as non-disabled when they can’t see our disabilities at a glance.

Not surprisingly, abled responses have varied from dismissing disabled people’s experiences to threats and doxxing.

“Diary of a Disabled Person” states “Okay, now I’m getting actual abuse from people over #UHateDisabledPeople, mocking my assumed lack of intelligence and inability to speak. Is it going to stop me? No fucking way. Is it going to get you reported? Damn right it will. Each and every one of you should be ashamed”. “Diary of a Disabled Person” is not the only person to receive threats, comments about their intelligence, and comments about their right to speak. This is happening across the hashtag.

“Dame DuhLaurien” dismisses the experiences of disabled people by saying “I think ‘hate’ is an awful strong word for the kinds fo things I’m seeing complained about in the #UHateDisabledPeople tweets but regardless cant we get #ULoveDisabledPeople.” In this, “Dame DuhLaurien dismisses the experiences of disabled people as minor, even though many of these tweets involve discussions of physical violence, exclusions of rights, and outright murder (as illustrated above). “Dame DuhLaurien” calls these experiences “complaining”, reinforcing the idea that disabled people shouldn’t express our frustration with everyday ableisms. “Was God In The O.R.” responds to “Dame DuhLaurien” by saying “Because y’all don’t love disabled people Lauren. Disabled people are denied access to food delivery, rideshare services, and public transportation, DAILY. And when we get on the internet to vent amongst ourselves, we’re made fun of, threatened, and doxxed. #UHateDisabledPeople”. “Was God in The O.R.” points out that people often use the words “we love disabled people” while continuing to perpetuate our oppression on a daily basis, illustrating that we, as disabled people feel the constant hate from an ableist society.

“TheDisabledEnthusiast” responds to “Dame DuhLaurien”‘s post with “If you think disabled people have to call out ableism in a way that’s more comfortable to you, #UHateDisabledPeople. You didn’t even bother to understand or sit with the meaning of the hashtag before you decided you were too uncomfortable and needed to shut it down.” “TheDisabledEnthusiast” points out the snap response that abled people have when being called out for their ableism and the instant response of tone policing disabled people rather than listening and thinking about what we are trying to express.

Imani Barbarin “Crutches&Spice” responds to all of the violence against the #UHateDisabledPeople hashtag by saying “people can troll my hashtags all they want. 1. They’re contributing to the numbers. 2. They’re proving my point. 3. The people who didn’t believe us can no longer ignore how widespread the problem is. Thank you for your time”. Barbarin powerfully points out that all the people who are denying the violence against disabled people only need to look at the violent responses to our tweets in order to see the entrenched ableism against us. Yet, she also points out the power of disabled twitter by observing that when our voices come together and we express the violence we’ve experienced – even if it is only by re-tweeting or liking a post – we are illustrating the common violence that we all experience.

Hashtags like those created by Imani Barbarin illustrate the power of our collective voice as disabled people. They are a way of creating community and collectively pouring out all of the violence and hatred we have experienced. Sharing a Twitter thread like this is confirmational for us, illustrating that we are not alone in our experiences. #UHateDisabled people is a strong hashtag because strong language NEEDS to be used. We are experiencing systemic violence and are constantly told to be quiet and accept the violence we are experiencing every day. Hashtags like this illustrate the power of collective storytelling, the power of sharing our narratives together and giving voice to everything that has happened to us. They create community as they advocate for change. As Barbarin states “The people who didn’t believe us can no longer ignore how widespread the problem is”.

Why We Need Crip Fic – A Love Story to Nothing Without Us

Why We Need Crip Fic – A Love Story to Nothing Without Us

By Derek Newman-Stille

As disabled people, we are written about constantly. We are shaped by texts. We have been written about by our doctors, by our schools, by our therapists, by our politicians…. We have been layered and layered with texts, and these texts are generally written by people who are NOT US – people who consider themselves experts on our experiences, who tell us that they have knowledge that is beyond our knowledge of our own bodies and selves. Indeed, we even need to rely on these experts to gain access to spaces and resources as disabled people. We need governmental policies to give us rights we should have as citizens, we need medical doctors’ reports to be considered disabled in the first place, and we need accommodation forms to get access to school resources. We are not only turned into text, we are made to DEPEND on text by other people.

Even fiction is often ABOUT US, written by people who are abled and trying to capture our experiences without talking to us. We get turned into tropes, into stories, into fictions… And we get told that these fictions represent us, and we get told by editors or publishers that our stories don’t “feel authentic” because they don’t match the tropes – they aren’t inspirational, they aren’t about overcoming, they aren’t about suffering, they aren’t about being lesser. Our stories are frequently rejected because the tropes are far more powerful than our voices.

That’s why I am excited about the collection Nothing Without Us – because it centres our voices. It is a collection of Crip voices, disabled voices, about us expressing ourselves and not being talked about. It is edited by two disabled people – Cait Gordon and Talia Johnson. It is published by a disabled publisher. And the way it is shaping up, it looks like it will be an anthology that speaks back to all of those narratives, texts, and stories imposed on us disabled folks.

So, what does it mean to write back? What does it mean for us to speak our own stories, to tell our own tales, to speak from the Crip body and mind?

I use the term “Crip” intentionally. I use it the same way as I use “Queer”, to speak back to a system that has sought to use these words to oppress us. “Crip” is a way of reclaiming the language… but it isn’t just another word for “disabled”. It is an intentional response to attempts to pacify us through language. It is a resistant word, a word made to disrupt, to challenge, and to speak back. It is meant to make people gasp and then to think about why that word is used. I call myself a Queer Crip because I don’t want to conform. I don’t want to be pacified by words because so many of our systems are based on pacifying us with words. Words are so often used to contain us, to confine us, and to render us Other. We wrestle with words because they are used to oppress. So, what happens when we share that wrestling with words? What happens when we tell our own stories and tell the world that OUR WORDS HAVE POWER?

Nothing Without Us is a complicated engagement with our words. It is shaping up to be an anthology that lets us, as disabled people, resist the confinements of hegemonic texts. It engages with realism because we have had so many narratives written about us that claim truth… but it also engages with imaginatory texts, with speculative texts. It recognizes the need for there to be an exploration of the imagination, because our rules, policies, and ideas about disability are shaped in the imagination, in the minds that ponder what disability means.

Nothing Without Us is a multi-genre text because, as disabled people, our lives don’t easily fit into one genre and we bristle at boxes or confines that try to imagine us as only one thing.

Nothing Without Us is a resistant text, a set of stories that provide a counter-narrative to narratives about us. It is about us telling our own stories and the power of our own stories to tear apart the stories and diagnoses and polices that have been written about us.

To discover more about Nothing Without Us, whose Kickstarter is happening right now, check out https://nothingwithoutusanthology.wordpress.com and support the kickstarter at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/renaissancebp/nothing-without-us?ref=ksr_email_user_new_friend_project&fbclid=IwAR2-S8WRjKGuogbKi6aXSo6kvcUcYiQu4KXPW4Z2o9T8bpKfz-szxHJR1KA