What is Intersectionality?

Published September 24, 2021

In 2021 it is estimated that over 61 million Americans live with a disability. As the country continues to improve access for all citizens, the use of People-First Language has been widely adopted throughout the country. Here we examine the term, its use, and the concept of intersectionality and its implications throughout the community.

Defining intersectionality

Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which describes how a person’s various marginalized identities work together to impact a person. For example, if someone is working class and has a disability, the combination of both factors together shape a person’s life experiences. As Crenshaw put it:

Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things 

If an individual is low-income and lives with a disability, their life experience is first changed by the fact that they have scarce resources. However, they may also have less access to expensive diagnoses and services because of their financial status. In turn, the person’s experience with poverty is affected by their disability. The person may not be able to work because they cannot afford a disability diagnosis. A formal diagnosis would legally entitle them to workplace disability accommodations they cannot work without.

Both factors—class Disabled persons and disability—are inseparably connected in how they affect each other. If the person described was middle-class and had a disability, their experience would not be the same. Similarly, if the person was in poverty and did not have a disability, their experiences would, again, not be the same as if they both were in poverty and had a disability at the same time.

Countless factors can intersect with disability to alter how someone experiences that disability—race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and much more.

What does intersectionality means to society

What is clear about intersectionality is that it is dynamic both in interpretation and evolution. How individual's identities intersect over the course of their life will change. For a person with a disability, it may be difficult to deconstruct the source of discrimination, leaving them to ask  "was I denied access because of my disability, my race, or something else entirely?" 

Understanding how intersectionality affects others and its impacts on society is critical to removing barriers to discrimination. How members of society successfully build a cohesive and collective purpose, innovate, and grow, can hinge on its understanding of a shared vision among its citizens; which means it must embrace adversity. 

After all, as Sheri Byrne-Haber, Senior Staff Architect of Accessibility at VMware, recently said of intersectionality through the lens of disability in a recent Accessibility Matters interview: 

disability is the one intersectional identity that everybody is always pretty much guaranteed to have at one point in your life for another

In other words, we're all in this together. 

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