Interview with Dr. Lynn Gehl: NWAC Shadow Report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Collaborating with the Native Women's Association of Canada, we've produced a Shadow Report for the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It addresses 17 key issues faced by Indigenous women and 2SLGBTQQIA people with disabilities. We recently interviewed Dr. Lynn Gehl, who worked as an Advisory Committee member on the report, to discuss the issues outlined in the report and more! The Shadow Report is available for reading on the Live Work Well website.

Can you introduce yourself, and describe the work you do?

My name is Lynn Gehl, and I'm an Algonquin from the Ottawa River Valley. I've never lived in my territory, resulting from issues of colonial genocide, land denial, and sex discrimination in the Indian Act. I have a rare vision limitation. People don't really understand it, I think in part because of the work I do – they don't see me as having limitations to reading, writing, and learning. I also think this is in part because all too often humans allow the eyes to appropriate reality and my vision limitation is not visible to them.

How does your work relate to/inform your role as an Advisory Committee member on this report?

I've always talked about issues of disability. I've always been very open about having vision issues. I refuse to be embarrassed about it. I learned how to read and write beyond the primary school level in my 30s. I wanted people to be fully aware of my skill as a reader, especially in the academy. I did not want to lie or deceive people. I have seen this done before where people try and hide their inability to read and write behind the oral tradition.

In my life and in my work, I always serve the most oppressed. I'm trained as a critical theorist, and as an Indigenist scholar, I felt this brought a valuable vantage point to the discussions with the advisory committee. Indigenous women and girls with disabilities have largely been excluded from previous discussions and reports such as in the MMIW final report, and this UN Shadow report presented an opportunity to centre their experiences.

In the report, the authors highlight that there is a disconnect between Western and Indigenous knowledge systems that affects and shapes how Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people with disabilities experience each of the key issues outlined in the report. Can you give an example of this kind of disconnection and the potential barriers it can create?

Western knowledge resides centrally within the humanistic paradigm, whereas Indigenous knowledge sits closer to the naturalistic paradigm. This is an important shift. We value that before humans, there was the Land, the Animal Nations, and all the other beings. Humans are not the tip of the triangle. As Kiera Ladner previously stated, western culture and ways of knowing suffer from “paradigm paralysis”.

I also think it's really important to talk about the difference between gifts and disabilities. There are a couple of reasons why I say this, because, first of all, a lot of Elders and community people who are not within a critical theory framework criticize the discourse of “disability”, because there's a teaching that says we are born with gifts. In the contemporary context, we have to talk about, and use the language of, disability if we're going to advocate for persons who have limitations to the point that they are unable to manifest their gifts Creator bestowed them with. Again in an Indigenous worldview, children have gifts and the goal is to nurture those gifts. But critical theory must be harnessed.

I think another big difference between the Western world and Indigenous world is that in the Western world, we're individuals; in the Indigenous world, we're individuals within relationships. While some people rely on false dichotomous reasoning saying “It's individuals versus relationships”, this is not quite right. It's ‘individuals’ versus ‘individuals within relationships’. In the Indigenous worldview, we nurture the individual and their internal gifts, but we also nurture who they are within relationships. The reason this is important is because our family members and communities are usually our supporters. In western culture we are treated only as individuals.

In the Indigenous worldview, we value knowledge as subjective, experiential, introspective, and felt. We value embodied knowledge, practice, and doing. Through practice/s it sets in our subconscious; it becomes embodied. In short, people with disabilities live their daily life, where from the practice of living with a disability, the knowledge sets in an embodied way. They have the knowledge, not outsiders. I think the emphasis on consciousness, reason, and objectivity in the Western world is a hugely limiting and narrow understanding of the human condition and the knowledge that it produces. We have a respect for what's unknown, yet known to others. There is so much more to be said here.

This shadow report uses an intersectional analysis, recognizing that this is essential to understanding the complex barriers and systemic oppression faced by Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people with disabilities. Why was using an intersectional analysis important?

People who live under intersectional oppression are the most oppressed. I think it's important to include people who are intersectionally oppressed because they are like the Turtle – while they are gifted, many are often also the slowest, physically thinking, and we need to follow the slowest person as we move forward together. We must follow them. We don't stand beside them equally, because in the current paradigm they're more oppressed; we need to listen to and serve them and let them lead the way. I like to say “follow the turtle”. When they are free from oppressive power structures then we will all be free.

Colonization intersects with all the issues outlined in this report. Why is it important for governments to understand the historical and ongoing impacts of colonization when addressing these issues?

Indigenous people have a higher rate of disability, and that's a manifestation of colonization and genocide. It's the outcome of colonization and genocide! It's not because our bodies are inferior. Colonization and genocide have mapped disease and disability on our Land and on and in our bodies and minds. A lot of settler Canadians think that the colonization and genocide have ended because there's nice forked-tongue rhetoric out there being spewed by the Liberal government about reconciliation and nation-to-nation collaboration. That is not true; it is a bold face Canadian lie.

Canada's policies of genocide continue to map disease and disability on the Indigenous body. Our housing, our water, our Lands – they don't give us enough Land and resources so that we can take care of our citizens. This is the heart of Canada’s genocide. I think it's really important for people to understand the relationship between Land loss and disease and disability. They’re underfunding us and as a result, not only do we continue to have issues of disability and chronic illness, we can't even address it properly in our own communities. Yet, it's our Land – the disease and the disability will never end if Canada's policies of genocide continue. Even Parliament Hill is on unceded Algonquin Land and I grew up in the slums of inner-city Toronto without enough of the basic human rights. The French and British just took our Land. I blame Canada for my vision disability and all that it embodies. It is Canada’s fault and critical thinkers like me will always be Canada’s fault line. I think many people with disabilities are the best critical thinkers when it comes to understanding what is wrong with the current paradigm of health and medical care. I am so grateful for Neil Belanger’s work, for Cindy Blackstock's work, for Bonnie Brayton’s work, for Deborah Stienstra’s work, and for Fiona Whittington-Walsh’s work.

What messages do you hope people will take away from this report?

The medical model and the social model, while important, are limited in understanding what's going on with Indigenous people and our health issues. With the medical model we learn that it’s really important that we look at the individual and serve them when we can; and it was an important shift to rely on the social model to understand how many societal structures are the barriers that require adjusting; but, in the situation with Indigenous people we must consider what I have coined “the political model of disability” (Gehl 2021, The Gehl Report; The political model shifts attention again in that it is Canada that is mapping Indigenous bodies with disease and disabilities through its genocidal policies and laws. These genocidal policies and laws have not ended; we still cannot get our land back and we continue to be denied resource revenue sharing. Through the political model, people are able to make the conceptual shift needed to understand what Canada has done and continues to do. The genocide has to stop.

Dr. Lynn Gehl's political model of disability, informed by critical epidemiology. The medical model of disability focuses on the individual, and the social model of disability focuses on social structures and barriers. The political model of disability shifts attention to the genocidal policies and laws in Canada that map disease and disability onto Indigenous bodies.

In summary, there's a need to rethink or shift the model of disability when it comes to understanding Indigenous women and girls, and for that matter all the two-legged. The political model of disability is really important cognitively speaking because it creates a ‘basket in our minds’ where we can then put more informed and better ideas in, in order to best resolve this issue of Indigenous people with disabilities. I'm so happy the United Nations Shadow Report was done, I am happy I was a part of it, and I'm so happy people are interested in this important topic of serving intersectionally oppressed people. Chi-Miigwetch for serving.

Check out the Shadow Report on our website, and visit the Native Women’s Association of Canada website for more information on the important work they are doing.

And, follow the hashtag #IWagWid on Twitter and Facebook, created by Dr. Gehl to amplify the experiences, knowledge, and dialogue around Indigenous women and girls with disabilities.

These are Dr. Lynn Gehl’s ideas and words. © Dr. Lynn Gehl, All Rights Reserved