Introduction to Disability Justice

by Ayesha Tariq

Image of Ayesha- she has long black hair and a blue top on smiling at the camera

What is disability justice? When I think about it, it makes sense, but I’m not sure it’s as clear for others. It makes me think about this conversation I had with a faculty member, Dr. R, at my school. There was some talk among students about other students who were getting additional time on exams. Many comments were negative, calling it ‘unfair.’ But I think it was really a lack of understanding. Though it seems the students receiving this accommodation of additional time had an advantage, they really didn’t. Dr. R put all of this in perspective for me. She said the student’s accommodations were really a way to ‘level the playing field, so to speak.’ The additional time would put the students at the same starting mark as the other students. This is what’s meant by equity. Equal is giving all the students the same exam. But equity is giving all the students the same means (or accommodations) to take the exam. This made perfect sense to me. 

That conversation gave me a glimpse of what disability justice stands for. To me it is giving the tools, resources, treatment to those who don’t have the access and who are treated unjustly. Disability justice stands for equitable and fair treatment. Because what’s justice if it only includes some but not all? Not to be corny, but doesn’t this country’s Pledge of Allegiance itself say, “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”1

The Oxford English Dictionary chronicles the definition of ‘disability’ over time starting from 1545 where disability was defined as the “lack of ability (to discharge any office or function); inability, incapacity; weakness.” 2 The word evolved over time opening doors to legal jargon. In 1571, disability was “a restriction framed to prevent any person or class of persons from sharing in duties or privileges which would otherwise be open to them; legal disqualification.” 2 Disability rights appeared in the OED in 1921, defined as “the human, civil, and legal rights belonging to disable people; spec. the rights of disabled people to be treated without discrimination and to enjoy equality of opportunity with abled people.” 2

It always baffles me when I think about how we can fight for something, win it, and then forget all about it. Isn’t that why history always repeats itself? Even the early uses of the word disability pointed to the discrimination going on at the time! If the definition existed during that time, then an event must’ve occurred to spark the definition into existence in the first place. And after all these centuries, we’re still fighting for rights for all including the disabled. 

If the concept of disability justice still isn’t clear, then read the different descriptions of disability justice below.

The Disability Activist Collective 2010 defines disability justice as,

“…the cross-disability (sensory, intellectual, mental health/psychiatric, neurodiversity, physical/mobility, learning, etc.) framework that values access, self-determination, and an expectation of difference. An expectation of difference means that we expect difference in disability, identity, and culture. To be included and part of society is about being able to be our “whole self” (all of our identities together). Disability Justice includes space for self-care, reflection, and hard discussions.”3

Disability justice attempts to secure rights for disabled people including those in marginalized communities such as people of color, immigrants, LGBTQIA+, homeless, incarcerated, ancestral lands stolen.4 Mia Mingus explains that disability justice does not mean that ‘everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own,’ which she calls the myth of independence. Instead, Mingus claims that “no one does it on their own” and points to interdependence being the key to fighting for disability justice and not independence.5 Similarly, Patty Berne highlights that the framework of disability justice understands “that all bodies are unique and essential” having strengths and needs. All bodies are bound in ways of “race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, nation state and imperialism” and cannot be unbound or separated.6

Disability justice has been around for longer than I knew. But despite it being around for a while, it seems many people aren’t aware of what it is. That each person deserves to be treated fairly, equitably, and with respect should be common knowledge, if not rudimentary knowledge. Having a disability of any kind shouldn’t exclude someone from having these basic rights. What perplexes me are those people who believe they should be excluded. 

I’m still learning about disability justice. And on this path of learning, I plan to bring awareness and advocate for disability justice.

Ayesha Tariq is a medical student at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine. She plans on pursuing psychiatry as her intended medical specialty. In addition to the required medical school curriculum, she is studying Medical Humanities and Health Humanities at the medical school and is currently a fellow of the Health Humanities and Disability Justice (Lab) at the University of California Riverside. Ayesha first became involved in healthcare justice after starting medical school where she learned from faculty about how deep health disparities are in medicine and academia, and then witnessing these health disparities and injustices firsthand while rotating in hospitals and clinics across the country in her third and fourth years of medical school.


  1. “The Pledge of Allegiance.” Historic Documents. April 1, 2024.
  2. ‘Disability’ etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2023.
  3. Ortiz, N. (2012, October 25). Disability Justice Framework. Disability Activist Collection 2010.
  4. Hudson, H. (2021, September 8). Moving from Disability Rights to Disability Justice. World Institute on Disability.
  5. Resource Library, Disability and Philanthropy Forum. “What is Disability Justice?”
  6.  Berne, P. (2015, June 10). Disability Justice – a working draft by Patty Berne.


Would you like to join our efforts in making a more inclusive world? 
The National Center for Disability, Equity, and Intersectionality has a broad range of opportunities and/or groups for you to join- from blogging with us to our Community of Practice to short-term committees that are focused on specific issues and topics. If interested, please feel free to reach out to Leah Smith @

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