by Khairani Barokka
As practitioners and supporters of feminist hacking and hackerspaces, we’re outspoken about shared commitments to equality, accessibility and inclusion—but what’s the lay of the land when it comes to acknowledging and including deaf and disabled feminists among us? As a disabled woman artist who still codes atrociously (hey, learning is a process), but loves working in and with hackerspaces and hackers, I often think about diversity between and among different tech communities and different disability cultures, how various groups intersect and interact, and how this manifests in the level of true equality, accessibility, and inclusion for disabled folk. So what would accessible feminist hackerspaces and hacker cultures look like, and how do we get from where we are to where to we need to be?
Personal experience has shown that ableism in the feminist hacker world often comes not out of malice, but from a lack of knowledge and exposure to disabled feminists who are pro-hacking, and to disability cultures in general. So here’s a primer: disabled people, whether or not we disclose our disabilit(ies), are the largest minority in the world, and the ills facing disabled women in particular are of crisis levels. We are overwhelmingly discriminated against more and made more vulnerable than non-disabled women. We are many times more likely to be physically and psychologically abused, economically marginalized, and shut out from rights that everyone deserves.
More basics: the opposite of “disabled” is not “unable” but “enabled”, meaning that as disabled women, we are just as likely to be happy and fulfilled and giving towards society—if that society affords us the same rights and opportunities as others. When we say “disabled”, we’re talking about having a variety of different kinds of minds and bodies in a world that excludes millions with these varieties. For starters, you’re talking about infrastructure that’s inaccessible, policies that are not inclusive of disabled communities, and lack of education about disability. While disabled feminists do share the experience of disability often seen as an inherent negative, lived experiences of disability vary just as widely depending on how one is disabled, where we live, income, melanin levels, etc., and us non-Western disabled feminists have historically had less access to large microphones with which to broadcast our stories. Those of you who are deaf feminists who do not identify as disabled have to contend with a whole other lived experience.
If this seems elementary info to go over, it’s nonetheless important, and it’s surprising how few in tech understand the above, considering how important this understanding is in making hacker cultures accessible. It’s complex stuff, considering the myriad disabled experiences out there, but it shouldn’t have to be painful, and the more venues like this one we have to share experiences in, the better. I, for one, am still learning from different disabled feminist experiences all the time, and am excited about how to evolve physical and intellectual spaces in hacking to reflect these diversities.
Before ever hearing the term “intersectional feminisms”, I knew that how environments like feminist hackerspaces included me would depend on understandings and communication about race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other markers that help us share who we are. I knew that having others embrace the different lived experiences of disability (being a significant part of my life, whilst far from the only aspect of it) would be key to accessing these worlds. Yet the issue of disability is often erased from view, or put on the backburner, “disabled” usually coming at the very end of a long list of signifiers for identities people want to include and acknowledge.
Professor Sophie Toupin of McGill University has documented the first wave of US feminist hackerspaces in the last few years, and the move towards intersectionality “as an attempt”, she told me, “to address the past compromising history of white feminism, among others… This discursive shift in the kind of intersectional feminism that is embodied is paramount to the feminist hacker movement in the USA. However, it might be a bit harder to take shape at the material level.”
We need more disabled voices to speak about our lived experiences, whether in such important overviews or multiple unique experiences of discrimination or ableism in myriad forms, whether it is the accounts of mental health struggles being ignored or physical varieties being excluded. Struggles when it comes to accessibility have been documented by, among others, the great Liz Henry, disabled feminist and cofounder of Double Union, in her amazing work, such as the article “Unlocking the Invisible Elevator: Accessibility at Tech Conferences”. Henry bluntly states what so sorely needs to be heard and understood, “Instead of complaining that disabled people just don’t come to your conference, do something that would make them want to come to it!” Everyone needs to understand what she says here: “Culture and information are an important part of infrastructure, just as much as architecture. Changing your culture to be more accessible will reveal important design patterns, useful in general for thinking about technology. I promise it will blow your mind.”
Hiring accessibility consultants are indeed, as Henry writes, key to making hacker conferences more inclusive—and the very need to have them and access in the picture at all, though urgent, is so often still elided over. When the real needs we have as disabled feminists are not understood, it is easy to dismiss them, particularly under blanket complaints that blame disabled communities for not showing up, skirting the issue of the fact that we are excluded.
Getting disabled feminists to international conferences such as TransHackFeminist, organized by Toubin in Spain last year is an important part of the picture—these conferences are avenues through which the idea of hacking the body as feminist hacking can be discussed. They also allow us to speak bigger-picture as to what values and societal structures underlie the terms “Accessibility” and “Inclusivity”. Toubin, for example, characterizes the use of these terms as specific parts of liberal ideology: “I don’t want to undermine the importance of this subject, but do want to acknowledge that it is part of a liberal framework. It goes at the heart of anti-capitalist political debates.” These debates are framed quite differently, she said, in the US and in Spain.
Opening up discourse in different countries is important, and speaking to each other across boundaries of nation and culture especially so. As an Indonesian feminist, I still see so much more connection to be made between and among the nascent feminist hackers within my country—such as Prix Ars Electronica winners XXLAB—and disabled women and feminist hackers who would not necessarily identify as either hackers or feminists. I’m talking about blind groups in Indonesia with initiatives such as ITCFB (IT Center for the Blind), run by a blind couple I know who are fabricators in a way that addresses their own needs and communities, or Kartunet, a disabled-run (new) media journalism organization, with disabled activist Dimas Muharam.
Talking to Sara Hendren of Olin College brought up the fact that many disabled people are already hackers in our everyday lives, “invisible makers”, brought to the fore by initiatives such as DIYability.org—yet in hackerspaces, the need, for example, for adjustable tables for chair users and people of shorter stature is an unfamiliar concept. This is a disconnection that I see replicated everywhere. We in Southeast Asia and elsewhere share the same struggles as those in the States or the West, yet the conversation about accessibility and feminist hacking is often constrained to Western perspectives.
When I gave a workshop on making arts and tech more accessible back in 2013, for the hacker group Lifepatch in Riau, Indonesia, it was incredibly heartening to see disabled communities, including feminist disabled activists, and non-disabled hackers come—carrying ourselves and each other up the stairs to a venue that was inaccessible, in the state art school itself. The architect of the building was in attendance, and said that for the very first time he realized he should have designed the space differently. Yet so few occasions like this, for real confrontation with the realities of access and a meeting of worlds, exist. In an era where tech buzzwords and “smart city” talk is overwhelming the sphere in “future economic leaders” such as Indonesia, the exclusion is deliberate.
To my thinking, any tech group that opens up inclusion and accessibility is feminist by virtue of its actions, even if not explicitly so. There is no true feminism that disappears us or makes us invisible as disabled practitioners. Yet we so obviously still have a long way to go, building from the ground up as we lack the ramps and lifts and understandings to get there. Let’s amplify voices, connect perspectives, and make shit happen—so the fun and furious work can truly belong to everyone.
Khairani Barokka is a writer, artist, arts and disability advocate, and PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, working on a project that combines literature, art, disabled cultures and feminist inquiry. She’s presented work in nine countries, is published internationally, and was one of UNFPA’s “Inspirational Young Leaders Driving Social Change” for her work in drawing attention to disability through inclusive, feminist arts and cultures. Okka continues her affiliation with Viennese feminist hackerspace Mz Baltazar’s Laboratory in an upcoming residency.