Yolanda Muñoz on the challenges faced by people with disabilities

"When I teach, I try to tell my students that things can be different. That ableism can be eliminated, and they can be agents of social change.”
Yolanda Muñoz is a course lecturer at the McGill Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies.

December 3 is International Day of People with Disabilities, an observance proclaimed by the United Nations in 1992. Every year since, millions of people with disabilities and their allies around the world underscore this day with celebrations and protests, pointing to the accomplishments that have contributed to the promotion of their rights as well as creating awareness about all that still needs to be done.

One such person is Yolanda Muñoz, a hidden gem at McGill and a well-respected thought-leader in the disability community, locally and internationally. Muñoz’s earthy warmth and her passion for the ideals and the causes she believes in contribute to her charisma. Her deep knowledge and experience on topics ranging from institutional and systemic ableism, disability and gender, climate change and disability to name a few, make her a force to be reckoned with. Her career path illustrates her varied interests, whether as a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, Global Greengrants Fund and UNICEF as well as course lecturer at the McGill Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies.

Invisibility and disability

Born in Mexico, Muñoz has been living in Montreal for almost 20 years. She completed her PhD in Mexico and later spent a couple of years as a guest researcher at the University of Tokyo. While there, she focussed her research on the Indigenous people of northern Japan, the Ainu, particularly with regards to gender. And Muñoz was already exploring the intersection between gender and disability as far back as 1995 when she was completing her Masters in Mexico.

“Back when there was nothing about rights for people with disabilities, a group of disabled friends and I discovered that we were not part of the agenda on gender equality. And we tried to promote the inclusion of women with disabilities, particularly in terms of protecting disabled women experiencing domestic violence in Mexico,” she explains. The topic of domestic violence experienced by women with disabilities is one dear to Muñoz‘s heart but unfortunately does not get much attention. “Many disabled women experience violence from their partners or caretakers. Most shelters for women are not accessible to people with disabilities. All of this goes unseen, is invisible.”

Invisibility and disability are subjects Muñoz is very familiar with. Her research about women with disabilities in Mexico included an important focus on the Indigenous Nahua women in Cuetzalan. These women practically never left their home.

Muñoz remembers the day the women came to a research group meeting. The principal researcher, from the National Institute for Women in Mexico, burst into tears, saying “How is it possible that I’ve been working with Indigenous populations for 30 years, and I have never seen an Indigenous woman with a disability?” What Muñoz’s research found was that this invisibility led to extreme isolation, neglect, and abuse. “It can be very hard doing this kind of research. I have seen things, heard things…”

Disability and climate change

Three years ago, she began working with Global Greengrants Fund (GGF), a leading organization based in the US supporting grassroots-led efforts to protect the planet and people’s rights. GGF wanted help implementing strategies to include disabled people in their grant-making practices. “But we quickly hit a wall,” explains Muñoz, “because not many organizations of persons with disabilities were familiar with the topic and it wasn’t part of the disability rights agenda. That was in 2018 and we’re still trying to build that bridge between the two movements, to build capacity within organizations for persons with disabilities on what environmental justice is and how it relates to disability rights.”

Her work with GGF eventually led to a collaboration with the Disability-Inclusive Climate Action Research Programme (DICARP), where she became a consultant in Professor Sébastien Jodoin’s lab. Based at McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at the Faculty of Law, DICARP works with disability and climate activists and experts from around the world to generate and share knowledge on how efforts to combat climate change can be designed and implemented in ways that respect the human rights of disabled persons.

“In a nutshell, […] the Disability Rights Agenda has addressed climate change specifically in relation to disaster risk reduction, in line with Article 11 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” says Muñoz. “So, what we have done as part of our mission as producers of knowledge is to start encouraging reflections among organizations of persons with disabilities who are already engaged in disaster risk reduction on how to include climate action, why it is important to make it not only for catastrophic scenarios but also for mitigation strategies. Why it is important for people with disabilities to have a thorough understanding of what climate change is and how this affects them.”

During COP 26, the recent Glasgow Climate Change Conference, DICARP organized a side-event on disability and climate change. Among the participants, the presence of Indigenous people with disabilities from Nepal was key, as well as other allies and members of DICARP’s Advisory Network. “This includes members from the Pacific Islands countries who are experiencing dramatic consequences of the climate change. I mean, they are disappearing, period,” she insists.

The advocacy efforts of several international organizations of persons with disabilities were fruitful, and earlier this year the UNFCCC Secretariat proposed to create a Disability Caucus. “What is meaningful is that climate change and disability are now on the agenda of organizations of persons with disabilities, and of donors interested in this area.” This is key to build capacity and support efforts to a healthy environment, according to Muñoz. “This will also allow our community to participate in decision-making processes.”

Systemic discrimination 

When asked about the younger generations of people with disabilities, Muñoz is hopeful. She notes that young disabled people have greater access to education than ever before, access to information on an unprecedented scale. But she worries about the systemic discrimination they face, which she feels is one of the biggest problems the disability community needs to address. “If you want to write something important, it’s that systemic discrimination is real, it is everywhere,” she explains. “And it is never openly acknowledged.”

Muñoz considers that we must stop fearing the frailty of the body. Indifference, segregation, a lack of opportunities, systematic pity, not acknowledging disabled people’s potential, “for me, that’s more painful than a spinal cord injury.”  Her message to future generations is unequivocal. They must dismantle ableism. They must question where they learned that disability should be avoided, should not be discussed, and that it is merely an “individual problem.” She feels that it is important to learn about disability as a human rights issue to start with, as a social justice topic, and as something that needs to be included in every educational setting.

“So, when I teach, I try to tell my students that things can be different. That ableism can be eliminated, and they can be agents of social change.”

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Joyce Mainland
Joyce Mainland
11 months ago

As a senior and as a mother and primary caregiver for my adult daughter with a disability, my greatest challenge these days is to find the answer to the question…”what is going to happen, when I no longer can care for my daughter?”. This generation of adults with disabilities is the first generation who are outliving their parents, for whom many rely on for their supports or overseeing their support. There is also the challenge of “aging out” for persons with disabilities….what is their next step. Are retirement facilities prepared for them? Can persons with disabilities even afford to live… Read more »