Planned Parenthood Illinois Action participated in the Chicago Disability Pride Parade for the first time on July 22. | Photo: PPIA

When Planned Parenthood Illinois Action initially hired Claire McNorton to assist in the opening of the organization’s Waukegan health center, a storm of monumental events hit that forced her to pivot.

“When the pandemic happened, place-based organizing was really challenging. I couldn’t go up to Lake County,” she explained.

Between the pandemic, the 2020 election, the Dobbs decision leak and the overturning of Roe, the group decided to switch to constituency-based organizing. There were already established teams focused on Black and Latinx initiatives, but McNorton asked if she could start a disability-centered program when she realized there was no focus on this community, even though they face increased barriers to accessing healthcare.

“I am disabled myself and I noticed that there was a lack of conversation around disability, both in our affiliate at Planned Parenthood, but then also within reproductive rights and reproductive justice as a whole,” she said.

The Disability Advocacy and Organizing Program (DAOP) was born.

“[It] only exists in Illinois. I’m the first one to do it – it’s unique to our affiliate,” said McNorton, the DAOP Manager of Planned Parenthood Illinois Action (PPIA).

Since this is the first program of its kind within the organization, the goal is to start the conversation internally and work outwards, establishing partnerships with disability organizations in the state.

“We’re really starting at square one,” she said.

Rianne Hawkins, Deputy Director of Advocacy Campaigns, Public Policy of PPIA, said that McNorton’s idea led the organization to update the accessibility of their health centers. The changes necessary to follow ADA guidelines were made during the program’s first year.

“We couldn’t accurately ask the disability rights community for support if we ourselves weren’t accessible,” she said.

The organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team will have an all-staff training on disability culture and accessibility this fall. They’ve created a coalition with disability and reproductive rights organizations, and recently participated in the Chicago Disability Pride Parade.

“Disabled people are often taught to feel ashamed of their disabilities. However, disability is a natural part of life and human diversity and it deserves to be celebrated along with any other diversity. I myself was told not to discuss my disability as it would only hurt me professionally. I find this ironic as being open about my disability is what gave me the opportunity to find my passion and flourish as a professional,” said McNorton.

McNorton said she sees ableism in the reproductive justice community through the emphasis of physical protests and gatherings, which can deter people with disabilities in many ways. 

“A lot of rallies and marches don’t have ASL interpreters, which is pretty basic. In addition, for people who experience sensory overload, those events are not welcoming at all and just the concept of marching, if you have a mobility disability, you really are going to have a challenging time participating in something like that,” she said.

However, there is major overlap in the missions of the disability rights and reproductive justice rights movement, which both boil down to bodily autonomy. 

“[The movement is about] disabled people’s rights to make medical decisions and just decisions about their lives for themselves. And then, of course, reproductive rights is also all about your right to make decisions for your body and your future,” she explained.

Hawkins pointed to one similarity that’s always present between disability rights and reproductive rights – the work is never done.

“There’s always something else, there’s always another campaign. There’s always a new hill to climb,” said Hawkins.

Other groups are working towards intersecting the work between these two movements as well. In January, the Center for American Progress released a Collaborative Agenda for the Disability and Reproductive Justice Communities in 2023, which included increasing disabled people’s access to reproductive healthcare and autonomy. In 2017, The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRPD) published a piece urging the movement towards intersectionality inclusive of disabled folks.

“The CRPD recognizes that disability rights and reproductive rights are interdependent and indivisible: one set of rights cannot be realized without, or at the expense, of the other,” it reads.

With the continued wave of abortion restrictions exacerbating the challenges marginalized groups face, DAOP hopes to inspire their peers to follow their lead towards including people with disabilities in their work.

“A dream of mine would be to expand it out to other Planned Parenthoods and eventually have a national body as well,” said McNorton.