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Human rights and intersectionality: I see you | Oksana Romanov

Tuesday, August 04, 2020 @ 3:06 PM | By Oksana Romanov

Oksana Romanov %>
Oksana Romanov
Pursuing social justice increasingly requires advocates and lawyers alike to be able to see the issues of identity, social roles, available legal remedies and jurisdictional complexity as interconnected. This is possible if the matters of having, enjoying and infringement of human rights are framed and addressed through the prism of intersectionality.

When Kimberlé W. Crenshaw identified this method and coined the term, she hoped to empower the legal community to show how multiple problems and barriers faced by marginalized persons overlap and compound to discrimination cases involving multiple grounds.


First, let's take a look at identity. It encompasses multiple things: personal, professional, cultural, ethnic, sexual, ability, relation to others, etc. Identity is not simply how we see and present ourselves in society but rather a two-way street, where society, institutions and structures of power interact with persons by placing them either in the mainstream or on the margins.

For example, an identity of a person with disability is complex. Society, however, instantly sees them as less able and less valuable. Ableism is pervasive and stigmatizing. Historically, persons with disabilities struggled to be seen as equal before the law and worthy of having and enjoying a full roster of human rights.

Even after the introduction, ratification and adoption by the member states of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it took another international effort to reaffirm the rights of persons with disabilities. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities reframes our thinking and helps us “view[ing] persons with disabilities as ‘subjects’ with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.”

Valued social roles

Our society is obsessed with value creation. Despite multiple pieces of legislation in place and corrective actions against infringement of human rights, persons with ability identity are being systematically devalued in society. They are seen as unable to contribute or unproductive, hence their access to meaningful and valued social roles is limited or even actively restricted.

It is a fact that people perceive certain social roles as more valuable than others. Individuals who play valuable social roles are treated with respect and dignity. Furthermore, they receive unfettered access to goods, services and opportunities. They simply enjoy their human rights. In a nutshell, “all good things of life” happen to them.

The legal community in pursuit of social justice has a unique role to play in helping others see persons with disabilities as clients playing valued social roles despite being placed on the margins by society. Advocates and lawyers must apply the lens of intersectionality to demonstrate the diversity and complexity of the issue and frame their disability as one part of their identity. Once the intersection of barriers is remedied the persons with disabilities would be able to fully enjoy their human rights.

The law

What are the available legal remedies?

Internationally, persons with disabilities are afforded recognition as persons before the law and granted equal human rights as others. In reality, violation and infringement of human rights of persons with disabilities are seen worldwide. There is a lot of work to do — one country at a time, unfortunately.

What about at home? In Canada, the recently passed Accessible Canada Act (2019) and the Canadian Human Rights Act address the issues of accessibility and ableism within the federal jurisdiction. In Ontario, discrimination based on disability is framed as a discourse on discrimination involving multiple grounds, access and duty to accommodate (i.e. Ontario Human Rights Code, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) policies).

Furthermore, the OHRC adopted intersectional approach to addressing discrimination cases and identified unique dilemmas of “discreet and insular minorities.”

Advocates and lawyers seeking social justice for persons with disabilities must take transformative action and consciously apply intersectionality in each jurisdiction. They can help others see persons with disabilities at the intersection of ability, age, race, ethnic origin and gender, whichever one or a combination of that apply. The lawyers can be successful in bringing the claims with multiple grounds forward.

Finally, lawyers of the 21st century have a moral obligation to work collaboratively and across different disciplines and sectors to effect social change. Only these conscious efforts, co-ordinated approach — seeing persons with disabilities at the intersection of barriers yet playing valued social roles — will facilitate achieving social justice for them and ensuring their full enjoyment of human rights.

My example

My life is a series of stories that empowered me to choose a career in law. These are the stories of academic excellence and tenacity, overcoming adversity with entrepreneurial spirit and a quest for inclusion while embracing technology as a tool for social change.

Although it took me 25 years to get where I am now, I am thankful for all my life-enriching detours: multiple immigration barriers, being ethnically Russian and female, and my son overcoming the symptoms of autism.

My son's story deserves to be mentioned in light of the discussion of human rights and intersectionality. Advocating on his behalf for access to inclusive education and funding for behavioural therapy brought me closer to understanding the plights of discreet and insular minorities. Advocacy work included looking at my son’s identity and framing him as a treasured child and beloved son, curious learner and exceptional pupil with rights, empathetic friend and good neighbour. It also involved me quitting a well-paying full-time job to case manage his recovery journey (i.e. risk of poverty).

While on the path of helping my own child meet his full potential and become a valued member of our society, I realized that I can do more by helping other parents, caregivers and self-advocates overcome multiple barriers, navigate access to community resources, sources of funding and encourage positive advocacy in the education system and beyond.

Oksana Romanov is an aspiring lawyer, who is passionate about fostering inclusive communities, effecting social change and advocating for human rights of persons with disabilities in order to remove attitudinal and environmental barriers to their full participation is society. In September, Oksana is starting the first year of law school at Ryerson University, Faculty of Law. To learn more about the author, you can visit her LinkedIn profile.

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