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Decolonization as a Strategy for Accommodating Disabilities

Decolonization as a Strategy for Accommodating Disabilities

Rachel Setzer

Content notes: colonization, genocide, intergenerational trauma

Plain language summary

The story of my disabilities starts hundreds of years ago, when colonization began to disrupt the way my Ancestors lived (or in many cases, didn’t).  The trauma of this changed the way the original inhabitants of Turtle Island (also known as North America), related to the land, water, air, and to each other; and the ghosts of that trauma lives in the blood of the descendants of those who survived it. Now, my mom says that we can’t blame all of our problems on The Colonizer, but I think it’s safe to blame colonization for the high percentage of Native Americans with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Not just because of the Centuries of Genocide, but also because of the everyday stresses of having to survive in a world that wants to pretend you don’t exist in order to ease the guilt over said Centuries of Genocide. 

Colonization, (the ongoing, organized attempt to homogenize all cultures in order to exploit the resources of those cultures), does have a role in how and why people become disabled. If we rely on the Social Model of Disability , and start from the idea that disability is less about the limitations caused by health conditions a person is either born with or develops during their life, and more about the societal barriers a person faces because of those limitations, then it becomes clear that decolonization can be a tool for creating and providing accommodations for Native Americans with disabilities, Indigenous disabled people around the world, and non-Indigenous disabled people.

Before I go on, let me clarify: there are Indigenous cultures surviving to this day on every inhabited continent. Many of the cultures I’m referring to as Indigenous were colonized during the Centuries of Genocide we know as the 15th to 19th centuries of the Common Era, but there were Indigenous cultures in Northern Europe colonized by Rome, and in Northern Asia colonized by Mongols. For a long time, colonization spread traditions and stories around even as it was seeking to obscure the cultures of origin and make everyone more or less the same. But the settler-colonialism of the Centuries of Genocide intentionally broke up entire societies in order to punish those Indigenous people for living where (mostly) white European people wanted to live and for not using the resources of those spaces the way colonizers thought the Indigenous peoples should be. You can still see that sort of theft happening today .

Some of what was stolen, particularly from Native American peoples, was community control over everyday things like housing, medical care, and education. Towns built of, by, and for groups of extended families were replaced with forced resettlement of everyone in one place by a government that decided what the People could and couldn’t do with their own time. Religious ceremonies, (many of which are also direct healthcare for Natives), were banned along with anything else that helped our Ancestors pass down sacred knowledge. In my family, I didn’t grow up speaking Cherokee, or with any official ties to our Tribe, just some Knowledge, a wicked sense of humor, a handful of traditions, and the unintended consequences of generational trauma that resulted in Native members of my family having chronic, sometimes disabling illnesses

In my mid-20s, I started having to face the reality that my limitations were too much for how I was expected to perform in society. I physically couldn’t get up every morning, commute to a job, focus for 8 hours, and expect to be able to get up and do it all again the next day. I had to choose work or health. And I did. At first, I went the conventional route, thinking that pharmaceuticals would help me function. “Ah ha,” you’re saying, “she’s not really Native, she went to white doctors and used white medicine.” Of course I did. My whole life I had been simultaneously denied the traditions of my People, and promised that Western Allopathic Medicine had all the answers to every health problem. It wasn’t until I got sick that I realized this is definitely not true. 

Several years into this experiment with Western Allopathic Medicine, I realized that my mom had been right yet again: not only were these drugs not helping me (although I fully admit that there are many pharmaceuticals that DO help many people), they were making me feel worse. I had to get off them and try something different. Coupled with that, I desperately needed to know more about my own history. I watched documentaries, read books, and joined clubs of Native people online. I became a Real Renter  to make sure that I never forgot the importance of the People who lived in my home city before there was a city to call home; and eventually it dawned on me that I was participating in decolonization. When I realized what I had begun, it got much easier because that meant there were resources like the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB)  that could help me and didn’t require me to negotiate with insurance to get help. I could just… get help. That also meant I had to give help as well, which is part of why I wrote this essay.

Some amount of decolonization has to happen on a macro level. Lands must be returned to their original caretakers in order to make sure that the land and air and water are still there for future generations. Some amount of decolonization can only be done by Indigenous peoples and individuals; non-Indigenous people partaking in our sacred ceremonies isn’t an act of decolonization. But there are some acts of decolonization that can be undertaken by anyone, and one could argue that everyone taking these actions would benefit our Planet as a whole organism. Decolonization is essential to building any future at all, but especially one where everyone is cared for. 

The first dose of Medicine I received was to be reminded about the need for human connection to the land. As stated above, the story of my disabilities began a long time ago, when colonization began to change the way my Ancestors lived their lives and related to the land. Chief Seattle, a revered Duwamish Ancestor for whom my city is named, related “all things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the [children] of the earth. We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.” It wasn’t reading his words that led me there, but Knowing that the condition of my health was in direct relation with the health of the Earth completely changed my approach to accommodating my disabilities. The lessons of my Ancestors (who, to be clear, are not the same as the Duwamish Ancestors, but they all went to the same high school, so to speak), was to find balance with nature not to seek mastery over it. So I started a garden. I now grow several of the herbs I use to treat my health conditions, and have even grown some food. This is something many of my direct ancestors didn’t have access to because the plants or their associated ceremonies weren’t allowed, or because there simply wasn’t enough soil allotted to them to grow anything.

Maybe gardening doesn’t seem like a way one can adapt society to their own needs. It can be very physical, requiring strength or dexterity that a lot of disabled people don’t have, but there is another form of Medicine that can help here: community. 

In my first session with Traditional Indian Medicine at the SIHB, I was reminded that “we are all connected” isn’t just about relating to plants and animals, but it also means that humans are all connected. For the years I was on antidepressants, the message “you need community” constantly floated to the forefront of my consciousness, but it took until that moment in that first session for me to understand that collective effort toward one goal or many can effectively treat mental illness. Building community also helps when you have physical limitations, because most communities are going to have at least one currently-able-bodied person. Challenging the settler-colonialist notion that one not only can but MUST meet all their own needs without help from others is another act of decolonization. Because we’re all connected to each other and interdependent; helping someone in my community elevates the community as a whole. 

In my community, we accommodate disabilities as best we can with the resources we have. Some resources, like the time of the Medicine People, are reserved for Natives for a lot of reasons; not the least of which is that most non-Native people in my area can rely on Western Allopathic Medicine to treat their dis-ease (however, we do still need universal healthcare if for no other reason than to join the rest of the industrialized world in the 21st century). Most forms of accommodation are available to everyone, though, because of another act of decolonization that subverts the dominant paradigm. We believe there are no spare humans.

The way I understand the Ancestral teachings of my own people (as well as a number of other Peoples), life has value because it exists. You, a disabled or not-currently-disabled person have value because you are alive. You deserve to be able to meet your needs, care for your family, and be cared for by your community because you are alive. No means testing, no ability scores, no rationing of care to the “most worthy.” You are here, you are part of your community, you should be counted and cared for, and society has to be adjusted to help you get your needs met. Accommodations for your disabilities are your birthright because you were born and are still alive. This isn’t a radical idea thought up by the American Indian Movement  in the 70s; it’s an ancient teaching the bones of which can be seen in societies around the world going back to the dawn of civilization. 

Your disabilities aren’t about your personal shortcomings or individual health circumstances as much as they are about the rigidity of our current capitalist, ableist, white supremicist, mass-homogenized society. Rather, the actual thing that disables us is the fact that our society is predicated on the idea that there is One Way to Be Productive and anyone who can’t make themself fit into that exact way isn’t worth having around. Making accommodations in society is acknowledging our differences and demanding that people who can’t use stairs, read signs, work in an office, be constantly exposed to pollutants and allergens, etc. are still people who deserve room to participate in society. 

Decolonization is an essential tool in making room for disabled people in society, and returning land, water, and air sovereignty to those who cared for it for centuries would help disabled people  locally and globally. While there are things we can do as individuals to ensure that we are heard and our self-determined needs are met, each of us would have an easier time achieving this if we join together with our Indigenous neighbors to fight for the rights of the land where we live, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

Afterall, we’re all connected.



A photo headshot of a young woman with black hair smiling at the camera, wearing a white and plum colored plaid flannel shirt
Headshot of a Light skinned indigenous non-binary person with short bright pink and orange hair. She has brown eyes and a septum piercing. She is wearing a pink striped shirt with a black cardigan over top. She has two heart tattoos on her collar bones.

Rachel Setzer is an artist and activist for disability, 2SLGBTQ+, and indigenous rights, who also promotes Worldwide Indigenous Solidarity, worker solidarity, and protecting religious minorities. Originally from the Pacific Northwest (with family from the Southeastern US and Europe), she graduated from Cornish College of the Arts in 2007 and dedicated herself to art and activism after becoming disabled in 2014.

Rachel works in a number of different visual mediums including watercolor paintings, paper arts, and pen-and-ink comic art. Her series The Adventures of FibroShark is an ongoing webcomic (available on focused on the lived experiences of people who have become disabled by capitalist burn-out, as well as boosting the voices of those whose lived experiences are not valued in our current cultural climate. Meanwhile, the painting series Arborist (watercolor paintings of trees on handmade recycled paper) focused on a more general belief that anything can be redeemed and made beautiful with time and sincere effort. In time, she hopes to make the art world more accessible to disabled people by promoting understanding, representation, and cross-media cooperation. Rachel lives in Seattle with her partner, Peter, and their dog, (her service dog), Bocephus. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, hot baths, and subverting the dominant paradigm.


Read all 13 essays from the #ADA3oInColor series 


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