I am so very humbled to share this time and space with so many amazing communities.
I want to take a brief moment to thank the Governor’s Council on the Martin Luther King Day Celebration for this invitation and for making my time here so warm.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a day to celebrate our dreams and discuss radical justice openly, so before we begin, I want to center this space by sharing two of my own affirmations and allowing a moment for us to collectively dream. Inspired by Dr. King. . . I affirm the following:
We come together today, to celebrate the life, contributions & continuing legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
We also come together to learn more about ourselves and each other—about our individual and collective power to continue the journey of liberation that began before Dr. King was born and that can be felt even now in the hearts and seen on the faces of youth protesting across our nation to advance racial and economic justice, gender and trans justice, and deaf and disability justice.
Coretta Scott King once said, “I don't believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others." I interpret her words to mean that our liberation is inextricably linked to the liberation of the person sitting next to us-that none of us is free if one is still in chains.
It is my sincere hope that by the end of today’s journey, you will see the nexus between race and disability; and that equipped with a new understanding, advocates from both groups will begin to work together to achieve justice.
Why is advancing disability justice critical to achieving racial justice?
Disability is the tie that binds—it is represented across race, socio-economic class, gender, sexual orientation and faith. Black people, people of color, our indigenous and native nations, low and no income community members, and women, are all disproportionately represented in the class of disability.
Our communities experience common and overlapping oppressions that require an advocacy framework that cuts across identities & movements.
For instance, I experience all of my identities simultaneously and so cannot disconnect one from the other. I am at once, Black and Disabled. I am as proud of my disabilities as I am of my Blackness and my other identities. Dr. King himself insisted that the “black revolution,” was more than a civil rights movement: “It is forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws.”
I propose to you that it is impossible to achieve racial justice without achieving disability justice and equally as impossible to achieve disability justice without achieving racial justice
Here are just a few examples of common and overlapping oppression our communities face:
People with disabilities comprise 20% of the population, yet studies estimate represent 60-80% of our adult incarcerated population. Blacks make up 12-13% of the US population but represent nearly 50% of the incarcerated population.
States across the country have passed measures to make it harder for black people and people with disabilities to exercise their fundamental right to vote; and felon disenfranchisement laws mean that today, 2.2 million Black Americans, and many millions more with disabilities—are prohibited from casting a ballot despite having completed their sentences.
Statistics for our incarcerated youth population are even more distressing:
Suspension rates are 1 in 6 for Black children, but increase to 1 in 4 for Black children with disabilities. Children with disabilities are 3 times more likely to be placed in the foster care system, 4 times more likely to be living in poverty and 6 times more likely to end up in the juvenile legal system than children without disabilities.
Law enforcement expects and demands compliance, but when they don’t recognize a person’s disability in the course of an interaction, the consequences can be and have been tragic. Misconceptions and assumptions have led to overreactions that culminate in unnecessary arrests, and individuals being shot, injured and killed.
When people with disabilities and deaf people are arrested, they are frequently denied accommodations, and therefore never receive access to justice. After being funneled into our prisons their human and civil rights are ignored.
My journey into the world of deaf and deafblind wrongful conviction and disabled prisoner advocacy began almost a decade ago during an undergraduate internship at the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia, where I happened upon a case of possible wrongful conviction. I knew practically nothing about the criminal legal system.
And this case was unique for many reasons—most notably because this man happened to be Black, Poor and Culturally Deaf. Knowing that English is a second language for many Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing people, it was patently clear to me that it was the system’s failure to provide equal access to accommodations in American Sign Language during his arrest, detention and trial that led to his incarceration.
I was new to the legal system, a full time student with 3 jobs and an internship, but I decided to do what I could. I found and interviewed witnesses, reviewed thousands of pages of transcripts, drafted a very long innocence memo and tried—unsuccessfully—to find representation for him from disability advocacy organizations, and nonprofits that represented potentially wrongfully convicted individuals.
People began to bring me other possible deaf wrongful conviction cases from across the country that were strikingly similar. Because none of the prisons housing these individuals had accessible phones, I would have to travel to visit them in person. Stories of sexual and physical abuse, isolation, and persistent language deprivation emerged from jails and prisons across the nation.
These prisoners expressed that conditions of confinement were so bad that they preferred that I work to end abuse and discrimination at their facilities before pursuing leads on their innocence cases. The lessons I have learned in the decade since then have been invaluable—with some of the most valuable taught to me from individuals who are deaf, disabled and incarcerated.
It was my struggle to locate attorneys willing to take on these cases and the endless patterns of abuse and discrimination set me on the path of two labors of love—law school and founding the nonprofit Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf or HEARD.
Our jails and prisons are quite literally overflowing with people of color with disabilities. Long-standing federal disability rights laws guarantee equal access for people with disabilities in education, employment, justice, legal and corrections settings.
We can change this. But it requires all of us working together.
Think about how many [black] lives and youth could be saved if we all were advancing disability rights.
What can we do?
In society, talk about and destigmatize Disability.
Organizationally, diversify disability advocacy groups and advocacy groups of people of color and work together on shared issues.
In education, ensure that teachers are prepared to serve students of color and students with disabilities—both groups are impacted by structural barriers to accessing quality education.
In employment, address under-representation of people with disabilities and people of color in the workforce by enforcing federal contract requirements and ensuring that state economic investments that are made to boost the economy guarantee representational benefit to all.
In criminal justice reform, if you are looking for ways to drastically decrease mass incarceration, decriminalize disability, deescalate law enforcement situations for people in crisis, demand disaggregated data collection on disability in jails and prisons nationwide.
Ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, including the provision of reasonable accommodations that facilitate their full inclusion as direct and indirect participants, including as defendants, survivors, and witnesses, in all phases of the legal process.
Enact disability-specific post-conviction actual innocence legislation.
Provide appropriate and continual training for those working in the field of administration of justice that is led by individuals from diverse communities.
Hire deaf people and people with disabilities to work in education, justice, legal and corrections professions to ensure that there is disability and deaf cultural competency within these spheres.
Felix Garcia, one of the hundreds of Deaf prisoners I serve once asked if we can feel our freedom.
I believe that we can. We are free when we use our freedom to advance the rights of all members of our communities.
Today I invite you to dream about innovative, intersectional ways to speak to injustice in the many different contexts in which it exists—from racism, to classism, transphobia, gender discrimination, ableism, audism to discrimination against incarcerated persons and people with a history of incarceration.
Before I close, I wan to share a modified passage from Dr. King:
“Now, let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of my generation who wait eagerly for your response. Will you say the odds are too great? Will you tell us the struggle is too hard? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with our yearnings, of commitment to our cause, whatever the cost? The choice is yours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”
We know that those who came before us dreamed of things that no one thought could exist. We honor them by continuing to dream—by finding new ways to advance the rights that they gave their lives for.
• I have a dream of love-infused education that centers the whole humanity of all of our students—which by its very design will end the school to prison pipeline for all of my communities.
• I have a dream of achieving equality that touches all identities transcends all movements and infiltrates the far corners of this state and nation.
• I have a dream of achieving collective liberation through solidarity with people with disabilities and people of color.
As I look out today over hundreds gathered here today, I have more confidence than ever before: We will answer the call. We will make the right choice. Together, we will win our freedom.
"We know that those who came before us dreamed of things that no one thought could exist. We honor them by continuing to dream—by finding new ways to advance the rights that they gave their lives for."
Talila Lewis, Keynote excerpt, 2016 MLK Day Minnesota Statewide Celebration Keynote