Close and Candid with... Daphne Enns

Interview & Article By: Anja Kohlman Sawa


Daphne Enns was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and attended the University of Manitoba where she received a bachelors degree in interior design in the faculty of architecture. She is an artist, a mother, a masters student at the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies at U of O and is outspoken on social media about issues surrounding gender and disability.


Q: What is it like living with SMA?

I don’t think that discussing the specifics of an impairment is nearly as relevant to the conversation as people tend to think.

By focusing on a diagnosis and labels conversations tend to focus on the medical model of disability, which continues to perpetuate the pathologizing of disabled bodies/minds, focusing the ‘problems’ of disability as an entirely individual issue while ignoring the socially constructed conditions that marginalize disabled people. In other words, like racism, homophobia, and sexism, ableism is tied into a system of marginalizing practices and attitudes. The first theoretical model of disability, called the social model of disability, was developed by disability studies scholars (and disability rights activists) to address the medical lens that dehumanized disabled people and presenting them as objects to be studied, corrected, normalized or cured, while failing to recognize us disabled folks as human subjects with the same rights and desires to exist in society.

This isn’t to say that diagnosis are irrelevant, or that treatments are unnecessary, however, quality of life isn’t solely defined by what our bodies can or cannot do, or what they may do differently- quality of life includes access to affordable accessible housing, access to public transportation, accessible urban design, etc.

Q: What kind of experiences have you had with discrimination because of your disability?

During my undergrad, as a disabled student with a mobility impairment and muscle weakness just getting around campus was exhausting, especially because the campus wasn’t particularly accessible. The heavy course load was exhausting, so after my first year I had to try to reduce my work load, but it was difficult to manage being a part time student in a department that only offered a full time course load. It meant that while my peers continued to move into each new year with one another, I was left behind in a lot of ways.

I had to get to know a new year of students—most of whom assumed that I must have failed a year, and was therefore taking courses over again. That perception resulted in me struggling to be invited into group assignments, of which there were many. It was an incredibly competitive program, and looking back it was designed for a narrow group of people, certainly class and ability figured strongly in how it was organized—students were discouraged from taking on jobs during the school year, which meant that they had to rely on student loans, their parents or summer jobs to pay for their tuition, supplies, rent, food, etc.

As for me, I received funding through a provincial program that supported post-secondary education for disabled students. It was financially supportive, but it limited, to some degree, what disciplines a student could study. I wasn’t necessarily ready to commit to a specific program right out of high school, but at the time I was interested in interior design as well as fine arts. I couldn’t receive funding to be a fine arts student because it wasn’t considered a ‘viable profession’.

I think that the main takeaway of this story is that my while my disability presented challenges for me in terms of mobility and energy, it was the inflexibility of the department programming that resulted in other barriers. The entire year was built for all so that every class complimented another. I was constantly playing catch-up, and I was stigmatized and isolated for not following the conventional route. My self-esteem was at an all time low by the time I graduated, so when things didn’t work out at the firm I was working on my confidence was at rock bottom.

I only worked as an interior designer for a brief time as I experienced devastating emotional abuse of an ableist nature primarily from my boss. At the time the term ableism did not exist, and although I was well aware that my disability was the main source of her criticisms she probably didn’t. Although I had been clear about the physical aspects that I would not be able to perform I was eventually forced to try to do them anyway. I was denied a permanent position in the firm apparently because the department didn’t have enough work to commit to another salaried employee, however, a week after I was informed of this a non-disabled graduate was given a salaried position. It was clear in a number of ways that I was being singled out, but the final straw was when my boss had another designer assign me a project that involved walking to a high rise building a few blocks away, where I had to get the dimensions of an office and all of its contents and then return back to the firm all while being timed-I was given 30 minutes to carry out the entire task.

I began taking art classes in the evening and even earned a certificate in computer animation and special effects, but I wasn’t sure how to move into making art professionally and it was only after I became a mother that I finally began my art practice. Accessibility to the arts is incredibly challenging-it isn’t just that many galleries and co-ops are in inaccessible buildings, or that gallery openings are primarily held at night when I’m usually tired, or that galleries generally assume that everyone can stand up while chatting and looking at the art. If I was lucky enough to find parking close enough to an event that was only the first hurdle in attending an event, after walking around a gallery to view the art I would end up too tired to try and strike up a conversation with new people-and really, I didn’t have an arts vocabulary to feel comfortable talking to other artists.

Q: What can we do as a society to reduce the impact of unconscious bias around disability?

Representation is incredibly important in the creation of unconscious bias and consequently imperative to bringing about a conscious awareness of one’s biases. Television, movies, theatre, literature, advertising tends to present disabled people as tropes, meaning that their characters are based one dimensional stereotypes of disability.

Education is also imperative. I believe that we should be discussing disabled people, and bringing in historical and contemporary issues into our school curriculum so that at the same time we’re teaching students about Canada, about human rights and social movements, about segregation, institutionalization, forced sterilization, etc. we’re also bringing discussions about disabled people into our cultural discourse more generally, but also more naturally. And that’s just a (partial) Canadian perspective.

Q: Do you believe women with disabilities face any special challenges as compared to their male counterparts? Does/how does disability pose intersecting experiences and challenges along with being a woman?

Absolutely! As you know women earn less money than men do for the same work, and women don’t get placed in positions of authority and power as often as men are.

The same goes for disabled men and women, except that overall disabled people earn less than their non-disabled counterparts, and levels of unemployment are significantly higher. So, disabled men usually earn more than disabled women do, and if you then consider disabled people of colour or other intersectional perspectives then issues of employment and standard of living are further reduced.

At the same time, sexual violence against disabled women is higher than that of non-disabled (white) women, and yet, the #MeToo movement has essentially ignored this issue.

Q: As a woman with a disability, do you feel included in the feminist movement?

More often than not I feel excluded from the movement. Events typically continue to be organized without consultation from disabled feminists and feminist articles continue to argue for intersectionality while failing to mention disability as a feminist issue.

Now that I am getting older I am considering ageism and the challenges that will arise as a result. Although I’m only in my forties there are already a number of opportunities that are unavailable to me as a disabled person because resources for programming are always limited and the focus tends to be on physical, social and cultural programming for disabled youth. We need to invest in youth initiatives, however, to some degree I suspect that disabled folks who are my age or older lacked these kinds of opportunities when we were younger and I’d like to think that we can still make up for lost opportunities.

What this means for someone like me who is in the arts and is also a graduate student is that I can’t access a number of programs and opportunities that now are available for younger people. To some degree I think that this remains a lack of awareness that having a disability often means that our schedules may need to be more flexible, which by extension means that our goals may take longer to achieve-and when goals take longer to reach there is also a greater financial cost.

Q: How does the feminist community respond to issues around disability (socially, and academically being a grad student in gender studies yourself)? Do you believe feminists talk enough about intersectionality?

Feminist studies and critical disability studies are necessarily intersectional; thinking through how race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship, immigration status, and age (etc) impact the ease with which we exist in society. Systemic barriers pile one upon another like financial, educational, employment, housing. I’m exposed to so many different voices and perspectives in feminist studies and feminist disability theory guides my praxis and necessitates reflexive thinking-engaging in a reflexive process originated in feminist theory. I am constantly asking myself who I might be forgetting in my research. I think that this is a result of my own experience of reading a lot of second wave, but also plenty of third wave feminist work that ignores disabled women in their research while arguing for intersectional thinking. This has been a difficult experience, and reading it in a relatively condensed amount of time during my first year of grad studies meant that it was a meta-experience of reading brilliant feminist work that seemed to forget that disabled women existed-that I exist. Second wave feminism was still very much based on binary thinking-men and women, heterosexual or homosexual, black or white and that type of thinking doesn’t allowed for the complex investigations needed to address social conditions. So for me, the feminist movement still has a lot of catching up to do.

When we see pink pussy hats who are we excluding or continuing to render invisible? We could minimize what the hats mean, but they reflect social biases. Are we adequately representing women of colour? What about people who identify as women, but don’t have the prescribed female genitalia? In our marches are people in precarious employment or economic situations, people living in rural communities, and/or those without transportation able to attend marches? And if not are they being recognized and represented?

At the same time, while disabilities can be visible or invisible we should always work to include disabled people in our event planning while being cognizant of the fact that not everyone can attend meetings or events in person, but that they want to be a part of events, they still want their voices heard, and that they have valuable insights, experiences and knowledge to contribute to the movement.

As for disabled women, are we being included in sex education programs? And how? Disabled women, but men too are treated as non-sexual, and child like, and yet we are having sex and we are getting pregnant, but are we able to access reproductive health services? Are the clinics actually accessible in terms of ramps, or level entry and are there any accessible gynaecological tables?