Meet Eleanor Wheeler, a badass disabled 17-year-old queer activist from Orange County working to erase ableism from activist spaces. Founder of We Exist Collective, The Superhero Project, and a social media queen on Twitter and Insta @elliewheels – the Mack In Style team was dying to know more about this badass lady in action. This week, I was fortunate enough to chat with Eleanor about her story, her movement, and the fact that the disabled communities aren’t looking for any “saviors.”
Q: What started your fire for activism? Which causes are you fighting for? How long have you been into activism? Do you have any influences in your life who taught you about activism or did you start researching causes on your own?
A: I was raised in a feminist household with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. echoing throughout the house. My single mother instilled a foundation of activism and feminism in my from a young age, teaching my brothers and I about white privilege, about the injustices people of color face particularly, and about our responsibility to fight for what’s right. So I’ve always identified as a feminist, but it wasn’t until I was about fourteen, so about three years ago, that I really got into activism. This was also when my genetic disease was triggered and I got sick. I had a really unique experience in that everything changed almost overnight where I went from being abled to disabled. I saw first hand the injustices placed on me and my friends on the basis of disability; something I hadn’t even thought about before. It infuriated me, maybe even more than the ableism itself, the fact that the people claiming to be fighting injustices seemed to forget completely about disabled people. I never heard discussions about ableism and how to be a better disability ally and that made me angry, but I didn’t know exactly what to do so I just started sharing my story.
Q: When did ableism in the activist space become apparent to you – was it at a specific rally, protest, or just how things are organized in general?
A: It definitely started with me noticing that in online activism spaces, there was rarely ever even mention of disabled people and the ableism we face. So-called “intersectional” feminists totally ignored our existence and our fight. Then, when I started getting more involved with activism in my community, “irl activism” I realized just how much ableism was involved. It started with the people there invalidating the online activism I had done, saying it wasn’t “real activism,” when in reality it was the only even remotely accessible activism.
I remember that I went to a protest days after the 2016 election at LA City Hall. Someone had a mic on the steps and asked if anyone had anything to say. I did so I raised my hand but I was a few rows back, behind other people who were standing. I am in a wheelchair so no one could see me raising my hand, wanting to talk to the crowd. In that instance, it really hit me. That was a perfect example of activism as a whole forgetting about and not seeing disabled people. They didn’t purposefully leave me out, but they did not go out of their way to ensure that all oppressed voiced, including disabled voices, were heard.
Instances like this have happened over and over again at the Women’s March, pride parades, and even just any kind of activism gathering. I tried to speak out to the organizers of these kinds of events, offering to help ensure accessibility, but my pleas were ignored. They were brushed off with responses like, “Well we’ve never had this issue before so it’s not of importance to us at this time,” and “Well we can’t make everyone happy, maybe you should just stay home.” This is obviously not okay.
Q: Tell me about your movement, We Exist Collective, and its amazing website. When did you start this, and was it in response to something specific of the time (political climate, health care, women’s rights, lgbt rights, etc.)?
A: After all of these instances of erasure and being barred from my own communities, I was incredibly frustrated and disheartened. I felt like I spent all my time just telling people “We exist!!! We are here!! See us!! Include us!!” but was getting nowhere. I actually made a sign for my wheelchair wheels for the Women’s March that simply said “Include disabled people in activism — WE EXIST.” That was the real start of the We Exist Collective, which we then launched in April of this year. It mostly just in response to this experience of frustration of seeing overlooked and left out and ignore, an experience I found to be shared widely by many other disabled people. I was sick and tired of abled activists and feminists ignoring the needs of the disabled community and never fighting ableism with us, and honestly just being incredibly ableist themselves without even noticing it because they just don’t listen to disabled voices.
So We Exist was created in response to all of this as sort of a space in the activism community where disabled people can go and know their voices will be heard and bolstered and they can know that their rights matter and we will fight. It’s also intended for abled people to go and educate themselves on how to be a better ally, on the basics of ableism, and on their responsibilities as an abled activist. We Exist is for all disabled people, disabled PoC, disabled women, queer disabled people, trans disabled people, muslim disabled people, and everyone in between. We are still just in the beginning stages of the project but we do have some really, really exciting things coming up, including a collective of writing and art pieces by disabled people, more informative zines, and ways for disabled activists to be compensated for their tireless work.
Q: What is the Superhero project? Can you tell me a little about that?
A: The Superhero Project is my first project. It is an initiative dedicated to empowering the fights we all face and being your own superhero. We send free handmade Superpower bracelets around the world as a reminder of the strength you have within, and as a reminder that you can save yourself. To date, we have sent just over 750 bracelets worldwide.
This was inspired by the beginning stages of my illness as well as simply growing up as a girl. I was constantly told that one day a boy would swoop in and save me from my woes of being a disabled woman. I hated this because this notion is incredibly heteronormative and made it that much harder coming to terms with my own sexuality and because I wanted to save myself, I didn’t want to rely on anyone else to save me.
Q: Are there any disabled activists who inspire you?
A: Yes! So many!! I absolutely love the community of disabled activists and there are too many to name here but some who inspire me the most are, Alice Wong of course, Eman Khan (@punnysamosa), Ellie (@sappicly), Shira Strongin (@shirastrongin), Annie Segarra (@annieelainey), and Karin Hitselberger (@Karinonwheels). But there are so many more than just these few who are doing incredible work and deserve all the recognition in the world.
Q: What do you have to say to activists who claim intersectionality but speak over disabled activists?
A: I say that they are not real activists at all. They claim to be fighting injustice while perpetuating it even further in their efforts. I say they need to take a step back and just really listen and get educated before saying anything. I feel like there’s this culture in the activism community where you always have to be saying something, and while it’s important to use your voice and speak out, sometimes it’s more important to listen to other voices, especially the ones you claim to advocate for, before saying anything that could be exclusive, harmful, or problematic.
It’s also important to realize that you’re not doing us a favor. You’re not a savior for speaking over us. We are perfectly able to speak for ourselves, just pass the mic, the whiteboard, a piece of paper, or whatever else we need for our voices to be heard.
Q: What do you have to say to those who maybe don’t know they’re being problematic – how can they be a better ally?
A: Again, take a step back and listen. Diversify the voices you’re hearing, often the best way to do this is by diversifying your social media feeds. Follow disabled people and make sure that the disabled people you’re following are diverse themselves. Seek out education about ableism instead of waiting for a disabled person to inform you, because while many of us will, it’s not our job.
I would also just say, please do not use “differently-abled” or any other condescending label for us unless specifically asked. Disabled is not a bad word. Differently abled and person with a disability and all the other various labels were created by abled people for their own comfort, because they are uncomfortable with disability.
It’s also important to know that there is a 99% chance that your activism/feminism is ableist in some way without you noticing. Educate yourself and change that, but do not then go and act like you’re a savior for doing so.
Q: I saw #KillTheBill was trending, do you have any thoughts on that?
A: I think it’s great! Because we either kill the bill or we kill and endanger millions of disabled americans including myself. I am so incredibly encouraged that there has been so much noise around this bill because we cannot let it pass. Please, call your representatives and tell them to vote NO on the new healthcare bill, there are literal lives on the line. Calling works and it’s important.
For more from Eleanor, make sure to follow her journey on her Insta, Twitter, and check out her website We Exist Collective, for some amazing informational zines and educational resources on accessibility.