#DisabilitySoWhite: Reflections on Race and Disability on ADA Day
In 2016, Vilissa Thompson created the hashtag #DisabilitySoWhite to shed light on the ways Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) are consistently marginalized and often silenced in disability justice spaces. Today marks the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA,) and Vilissa’s battle cry rings out truer than ever before.
The ADA was a Godsend for most disabled people/ People with Disabilities (PwD). It set in place policies that required employers, schools, and public places to become accessible — Meaning, workplaces, classrooms, parks, and more would need to make accommodations to their structures and operations so as many people who had been figuratively and literally left out of these spaces could be included. The law allowed for millions of disabled people/ PwD to enter the workforce, get an education, attend events, enjoy nature, etc. However, like nearly all social movements that become established without an Anti-racism lens from the start, disparities among disabled people/ PwD along intersecting identity lines began to increase — especially along lines of race, ethnicity, and citizenship.
In a Diverse City LLC Learning Series video on Race and Disability released earlier this week, I briefly shared how my spirituality, race, and disability coalesced into a moment of singularity where my mostly White, South Jersey, public high school called a D.A.R.E. officer to remove me from school and placed me in involuntary institutionalization after a battery of investigation. There were several reasons the school cited as the basis for this reaction: My socialization didn’t seem up to par, I wasn’t speaking as much in class, I hid out in bathrooms and closets throughout that day, my hygiene and eating habits were not the greatest. All of these instances were likely due to intense bullying, poverty, othering by faculty and staff, and — most of all — I was an autistic kid with no insurance and therefore without support services. Fifteen years later, the moment is still fresh and throbbing in my mind. It felt like the message I got as a disabled BIPOC was: Take them to the juvenile detention center, take them to the hospital, or take them to an institution; But just get them out of here. All my guidance counselor told my mom was that I “crashed and burned.”
My story is not rare. In a recent AP News Article, research from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed that disabled BIPOC/ PwD are disproportionately disciplined or removed from schools, and that the intersectional discrimination has “plagued education across the United States for decades.” The commission went on to say that “zero-tolerance polices and school level factors like a principal’s perspective are often behind the disparities,” or in my case, a guidance counselor. In the commission’s report, they state “Many schools, especially in low-income and urban communities, rely on policies that have students of color with disabilities removed from classrooms for even minor infractions… Students with disabilities are about twice as likely to be suspended as those without disabilities, and Black, Latino and Native American students receive harsher and longer punishments than their White peers for similar offenses.”
This sort of racialized ableism — Intersectional discrimination based on racism and ableism — not only traumatizes, but can be a carpool lane on the School-to-Prison pipeline. In 2015, Black and Latinx folks made up 32% of the US population, and 56% of all incarcerated people. It is also important to mention here that the United States makes up around 5% of the world’s population, and holds 21% of the world’s prisoners. Intersectionally, a report from the Center on American Progress in 2016 found that people in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability, and four times as likely to have a cognitive disability like Down Syndrome, Autism, Dementia, Intellectual Disabilities, and Learning Disorders; Those in jails are four times as likely to be disabled, and six times as likely to have a cognitive disability. One in five prison inmate have a serious mental illness. And while these statistics are startling, they don’t stop there. A follow-up report by the Prison Policy Initiative shared how the intersection of Race and Disability affects one’s involvement with the criminal justice system on the whole. They highlight the story of an Ethiopian Deaf man who was denied an Ethiopian Sign Language interpreter, which led to six weeks of jail time for a crime he didn’t commit. They also speak to the intersectional barriers to re-entry once released from prison.
All people who have a documented criminal history face incredible barriers to surviving, let alone thriving, due to legal discrimination in some of the very areas the ADA aims to protect: Access to education, housing, employment, and access to public services and spaces. The additional lenses of racism and ableism can create triple jeopardy when trying to access vocational and release planning programs, (or quadruple or quintuple jeopardy with more marginalized identities onboard like gender, class, citizenship, or sexual orientation.) The 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium showed that, out more than 3 Million Disabled Black people/ PwD, less than one-third are employed, and the rate of employment for this intersection is decreasing in 28 states. A review of this data by RespectAbility featuring disabled, Black women speak to the multiple layers of marginalization and the importance of antiracism and intersectionality in the Disability Justice and Inclusion movement. Dr. Donna Walton shared, “The impact of the triple jeopardy syndrome cannot be overstated, as an African American with a disability, [one] can never can be quite sure if their race, gender or disability is hurting their chances for advancement. My experiences—being denied employment and facing financial planners who make false assumptions about my income status and earning potential because of my disability, for instance—prompt my suspicions that triple jeopardy is working against many African Americans with disabilities.”
So, you may be asking yourself what to do at this point. Whether you are a disabled person or ally, amplify the narratives and experiences of disabled BIPOC/ PwD when you see injustice. This past month, a protest was held at the annual awards luncheon for the National Council for Independent Living to denounce racist and xenophobic comments made by their President, and amplify the narrative of those who expressed their outrage in it’s wake, (Content Warning for this encapsulation by Disabled POC Activist Alice Wong.)
Which leads to the next point of what to do: If you are a Non-BIPOC disabled person/ PwD or ally — brush up on antiracism, cultural humility, Disability Critical Race Theories (DisCrit), and self-evaluate your power-over privileges. What made Bruce Darling’s comments so painful was the othering and invisibilizing of disabled people/ PwD at the border being detained, becoming increasingly ill, and dying. To hold that level of power-over, to be in top leadership of NCIL and ADAPT, the co-founder of the center for Disability Rights, Inc., and encourage disabled people to lobby lawmakers on the talking point that “Democrats care more about people who are illegally in this country than their own citizens who are disabled,” is incredibly cruel, racist, and xenophobic. It is why when his apology fell flat, with people following him calling for his resignation, which eventually came with a unanimous endorsement from the NCIL’s Board of Directors.
These actions create both inaccessible and non-inclusive spaces for Disabled BIPOC/ PwD. The way to address some of the structural issues of this leads to my final point of what to do: Put Disabled BIPOC/ PwD in positions of leadership. Fund and support us. Fiercely defend their leadership and dismantle constructs or dismiss people and groups who refuse to respect and uphold the leadership of Disabled BIPOC/ PwD. Reflect on how you regard, communicate, and interact with us. But most importantly, don’t speak for us. The latter issue I call being an “Ursula Ally,” inspired by the relationship dynamic in The Little Mermaid where Ursula made a devil’s bargain with Ariel to seal her voice in a locket to win the heart of her paramour, only for Ursula to use Ariel’s voice to take Eric for herself. Do not use the voice of marginalized populations for clout or virtual likes. That doesn’t make you woke, it just makes you an inequitable and injust person.
In the blog Tales of the Angry Negro, the anonymous author shares their experience of moderating a panel on the intersections of race and disability at the recent Netroots Nation Conference. In the middle of their panel discussion, they were interrupted by conference staff who told the group that they needed to speed along their programming so they can take the lift from the stage that was being used by one of the panelists. They were told to either end earlier or leave their panelist stranded on stage. When they pushed back, the staff loudly protested. ending their live feed, and began heckling the group until they ended. After reflecting on the situations involving Darling and others, they shared that these instances of racism, xenophobia, antiblackness, and more within the disability community “will rightly note that these events – though shocking to some – are not new thought the attention shone on them is, and that this is indicative of a disability community that marginalizes the voices of people of color and a mainstream community that equally silences disability advocacy. We as a community must come to terms with the fact that while we face discrimination, we do not have the market cornered on righteousness. We have as much as a responsibility to provide the inclusion that we demand from the mainstream community..” They went on to say, “One cannot create an inclusive community while excluding people of color or using tactics that are specifically designed to be divisive….At the same time, one cannot give a pass to leaders who blatantly violate the trust of multiple parts of our community….In this context, they would be noted as one time faux as or slip ups that are not indicative of the greater good and service that they have done or could continue to do for the community. If we do that, however we provide a justification to their actions and not only communicate the loathsome idea that the ends justify the means, but also that certain groups of individuals with disabilities are disposable in order to make justice for others.”
When I turned 29, I made it a point to undergo a year of self-reflection, recalibration, and restorative justice. I made the effort to lean into my forthcoming 30th birthday as a major chronological milestone to also incorporate benchmark and goals for emotional, social, and developmental milestones. I reviewed my social narrative identity, spoke to close friends and family members about my impact, underwent a self-audit of who I was and who I wanted to be. Three years later, I still have not completed my praxis — and I never will. I encourage those who support and benefit from the ADA to do the same. I encourage those who have been at the front lines of the disability movement and have not seen Black and Brown faces there with them to do something about it. I encourage those who are sitting at tables of power, privilege and leadership who look around and do not see any Disabled BIPOC/ PwD to speak up and say something. I encourage folks to embrace the social and intersectional models of disability, and incorporate universal design and community integration into everything they do. We have come far, but we have also barely made a dent in what is left to be done so all Disabled people/ PwD can survive and thrive. Where it seems it needs to start is dismantling and deconstructing the stubborn dynamic Vilissa Thompson called out three years ago: Disability Justice and Leadership is too White!