As my and our collective understanding of ableism is ever-evolving, I hope to offer periodic edits to the working definition of ableism I released in 2019.
The updated version is edited for length and clarity. It also names colonialism as central to the construction, conception and application of ableism, and also more explicitly acknowledges reproductive in/justice and productivity. Finally, the image explicitly names Dustin Gibson and Black and other negatively racialized Disabled people as having been central to my understanding of ableism and development of this working definition.
Study and discussion of imperialism and its relationship to ableism is ongoing. . .
Image Description: Brown square with the following words in white and yellow: ABLEISM a·ble·ism \ ˈābə-ˌli-zəm \ noun A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and "behave." You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. a working definition by Talila "TL" Lewis in conversation with Disabled Black and other negatively racialized folk, especially Dustin Gibson; updated January 2020
Black people have never lost touch with how disability lives in and flows through and out of us. We have always found ways to tell the truth about how the conditions we live, love, and survive in [in]form our bodies and minds.Though we rarely use white European language of “disability” to explain our truths, through our art, we have created entire cultural catalogues to capture and commemorate the Black disabled experience.
For example, Black music has always been a forum to broadcast the intricacies of the Black disabled experience. Our artists tell these stories by unearthing the complex relationships between deprivation, violence, disability, trauma and poverty—which are all causes and consequences of one another. We also have reclaimed and recreated words that were used to pathologize Blackness and disability, and boldly tell the story of how generations of deprivation, violence, trauma and oppression are to blame for a great many of our sorrows, struggles, sacrifices, symptoms, selves.
Even still, as is true for almost every country, ableism permeates every aspect of our culture including our music. For example, hip-hop musicians often use disability as metaphor, disablement as threat, and ableist slurs to establish dominance in the hyper-masculine “rap game.” As a result, there is no shortage of ableism (and other ableism-inspired oppressions like sexism) in an art that is often a mirror of the society in which the art lives.
Rather than continuing to engage with stagnant conceptions of disability, we must lean towards our questions, challenges & complexities. These will animate the [art]work of creating a world that centers the love, access & freedom we all deserve.
This living Disability Solidarity playlist is part of a multi-form project borne of heartwork of Dustin Gibson and Talila “TL” Lewis--Black Disabled comrades in lifelong struggle for liberation of all people.
Deep gratitude to Black artists who are brave enough to hold up the mirror and share our truths.
Our venerable griots.
Hold us up.
Hold us down.
Keep holdin Black.
Listen to the playlist here: bit.ly/displaylist
I provided an explanation of my concerns with white disability/deaf rights communities responding to police violence pushing for more training, more fingerspelling police officers, more registries of deaf/disabled people, more deaf/disabled driver cards, more police-led "trainings" for deaf/disabled people, and more.
If you are seeking solutions to police violence, you will have to look much deeper. These proposals perpetuate dangerous ideas about people who are policed and about policing systems.
Please review and study this resource and the links here: bit.ly/policeviolencePWDresponse
This post serves to provide context, clarity and grounding for my February 19, 2019 Longmore Lecture at San Francisco State University, Stolen Bodies, Criminalized Minds & Diagnosed Dissent: The Racist, Classist, Ableist Trappings Of The Prison Industrial Complex.
Content warning: genocide, enslavement, eugenics, racist/ableist slurs, and various other forms of violence. Please exercise discretion.
By design, most people living on the stolen land known to many as the “United States” have not learned much at all about this nation’s violent and sordid history. Specifically, there is very little, if any, study of or engagement with past or current U.S. genocides, enslavement, wars, institutionalization, incarceration, or other atrocities. True depictions of the horrors that perpetually oppressed and terrorized peoples on this land experience are, for the most part, intentionally discredited, hidden away and undercut. Narratives that surface in their place are much more genteel renditions of the grotesque and irredeemable truth of the history of this nation. This “violence void” makes it difficult for U.S. inhabitants to process information related to U.S. history. In this way, violent U.S. history is invited to continue to form and inform violent U.S. present and future.
My Longmore Lecture was an attempt to fill this void--to bring U.S. past and present into conversation with one of the oldest, most pervasive, and least understood systemic oppressions the world has ever known, ableism.
Captioned video of my lecture is available here; and the transcript here. Due to the short length of the lecture, there was a great deal that could not be shared or that may be easily taken out of context. This brief article lays out key points and clarification; and provides important context and takeaways that may have been missed by lecturer, receiver, or both. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list and is not listed in any particular order:
Image of a black square with white writing in it that says: ABLEISM a·ble·ism \ ˈābə-ˌli-zəm \ noun A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence. These constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence and excellence are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable or worthy based on people's appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily produce, excel & “behave.” Importantly, you do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. a working definition by Talila "TL" Lewis
-Fugitive Slave Acts
*Black people were forbade from moving/migrating, reading, writing, assembling, voting, marrying, possessing anything (including their own children), and much more, by law.
-work stoppages by enslaved Black people - “dysatheia atheopica” or “rascality”
-Protecting self or another from police brutality - “resisting”/“obstructing"/"interfering"
-Resisting restraint and seclusion - “excited delirium”
-Protesting murder of our children - “rioting”
-Ships (see quote from Longmore Lecture for context)
-Prisons & asylums
-Shackles & restraint chairs
(Each of these violences affect some people in ways that they do not affect others.)
Disability Ain’t for Ya Dozens (or Demons): 10 Ableist Phrases Black Folks Should Retire Immediately
Black and white drawing of a ship packed tightly with Black African people. The words read: Plan shewing the stowage of 130 additional slaves round the wings or sides of the lower deck by means of platforms or shelves (in the manner of galleries in a church) the slaves stowed on the shelves and below them have only a height of 2 feet 7 inches between the beams and far less under the beams.
Black folks of the African Diaspora in the “United States” got jokes for days.
Humor, wit, rhymin’ & signifyin,’ and all around hyper-creative silliness is part and parcel of Black Joy, Black Culture, Black Resistance and Black Love.
May our humor never abandon us; nor us it.
That said, on this last day of February 2017, I am writing to implore my community to be more mindful of our ableism for the rest of this year and in all the years that meet us — even as we battle for our crowns.
I begin with the most basic of affirmations:
Black Disabled people exist.
Black Autistic people exist.
Black Deaf people exist.
Black DeafBlind people exist.
Black Mad people exist.
Black Depressed people exist.
Black Chronically Ill people exist.
Black Veterans with PTSD exist.
Black Youth with CPTSD exist.
Racism and intergenerational trauma exist; and thus so too do Black Disabled Descendents of enslaved African peoples.
I begin here for three reasons:
Ableism in our communities takes many forms. Let’s see, there’s:
Ableism as religious retribution, absolution or abomination.
Ableism as pity.
Ableism as disgust.
Ableism as “weakness.”
Ableism as inspiration.
Ableism as “actin’ up.”
Ableism as “actin’ out.”
Ableism as euphemism.
Ableism as “disrespectful.”
Ableism as bars, wordplay & punchline.
All of these are dehumanizing and deadly; and each perpetuates racism and anti-Black violence in ways that you probably have never considered. But we must.
Anti-Blackness and ableism are inextricably linked in large part because “intelligence” was manufactured by racist-ableist eugenicists, and in other large part because capitalism and elitism have only served to solidify this mythical notion and its related perceived white superiority and Black inferiority in the hearts and minds of even those of us who know it to be false.
Here is what I know to be true:
Violent uprooting of African bodies from African communities was disabling; the Middle Passage was disabling; theft of our native tongue(s) was disabling; every aspect of enslavement was disabling; white terror was and is disabling; Jim Crow was disabling; forced sterilization is disabling; breaking your children before the cops get a chance to is disabling; unyielding fear for loved ones’ safety is disabling; forced familial separation (including mass incarceration) is disabling; forced institutionalization (including mass incarceration) is disabling; racism is disabling; generational exploitation of our bodies, intellect and resources is disabling; forced housing, income, water, food insecurity is disabling. Importantly, before all of this, there were Black Disabled people.
Although anti-Blackness and white supremacy have made many believe that Black Disabled/Deaf people don’t exist and that there is something dishonorable about the existence of Black Deaf/Disabled people, neither could be further from the truth.
The Truth is that disability has been with us, in us since the beginning of time. Disability has held and kept us. It is in our marrow, in our blood, our sweat and tears. Disability does not make us less than, it makes us who we are.
Ableism and anti-Blackness are the enemy.
Disability is our kin.
While the world has convinced itself and the Black community that disability is a bad word and a bad circumstance. It is neither. Disability and Blackness is pride. Disability and Blackness is innovation. Disability and Blackness is brilliance.
Disability and Blackness are part of the identities and lives of most of the Black community in the “United States.” This is why true liberation calls for a certain kind of dismantling that leaves neither oppression untouched.
This brings me back to the theme of this piece: Regardless of the type of ableism you espouse, your ableism is anti-Black and violent. So when we support ableism, we also are supporting anti-Blackness; and vice versa.
The Black community is well known for our jovial nature, our tendency to use words that we think are less demeaning for family members and relatives with disabilities, and for invoking religion in response to revelations. Turns out that none of this uplifts our people’s humanity. Not only does it contribute to stigma and discrimination against Black/Disabled people, but these make it that much more difficult for Black people to be loved, cherished and at peace within our own communities. Moreover, it perpetuates the violent oppression visited upon us by white people.
What we know is that people with disabilities are disproportionately represented in Black, brown and indigenous communities. We also know that Black Disabled people are disproportionately represented in suspensions, expulsions and arrests in schools; forced institutionalization; mass incarceration; and and police violence.
Our words, thoughts and intentions carry weight. We must take care not to contribute to stigmatization, discrimination, isolation, incarceration and genocide of Black/Disabled people.
Below are some of the phrases that I hope we all will retire today with helpful links to guide you on your journey to understanding disability justice as racial justice:
1. “Special,” Special needs, special cousin, special anything.
There is no such thing as “normal” and no such thing as “special needs.” There is just interdependence. Read more from the late Ki’tay D. Davidson, who said "We are all interdependent. The difference between the needs that many disabled people have and the needs of those who are not labeled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their need normalized."
2. Handicapable, Differently-abled, diffability, mentally challenged, etc.
Contrary to popular belief, not saying the words disabled/deaf/autistic/wheelchair user/etc. is offensive. Euphemisms are harmful and disrespectful. They presume that disability is inferior. It is not. Read more from Meriah Nichols.
3. Slow, dumb, stupid, idiot, imbecile, r*etarded, etc.
These words are rooted in racist-ableist violence and should never ever be used. Read more from Lydia X. Z. Brown.
4. Disease is not your metaphor, hook or jab.
You can be witty and funny without perpetuating ableism. Try it out sometime. Read more from Cyree Jarelle Johnson.
5. Hearing impaired, they do that hand stuff, etc.
The proper terms are Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled and Hard of Hearing. Sign language, or, if you are referencing a specific sign language, use the name of that language: American Sign Language; Lensegua, etc. See/read more in Indian Sign Language from Alim Chandani.
6. Cray; cray cray; crazy; insane; etc.
Annually over 50% of the people killed by cops are people with psychiatric disabilities (these victims are disproportionately Black and people of color). These kinds of words are not funny and they further stigmatize people with mental illnesses — who more often than not are the victims, not perpetrators, of violence. Read more from the Harriet Tubman Collective.
7. That ain’t nothing but the devil; that depression is a demon, fast and pray about it; I’ll pray for you to be delivered from . . . ; he is just testing you; be in the word, etc.
This is dangerous and deadly. Stop it. Read more from Darnell Moore, also review the #BlackSuicide on Twitter.
8. Suffering from . . .
People are not “suffering from” disability/deafness. People are simply autistic, disabled, deaf, etc. Don’t place value judgments on other people’s existence. People could be living with a specific disability, but you are not free to declare disabled folks to be “suffering from” anything. This goes back to honoring the whole humanity of all of us. Please take some time over the next year to learn more about disability pride, deaf pride, disability justice, disability solidarity, etc.
9. Crackhead, drunk uncle, etc.
Addiction is a disability. People with addiction disorders/disability need support & love, not ridicule. Learn more.
10. Any other ableist puns, jokes or religious phraseology.
This is your free space. It’s here so you can fill it with any other terms that are ableist, audist, sanist, etc. & stop using them.
May we be more generous with unconditional love, more affirming of disability and all manner of identity intersections found in Black communities; and may we mind our words and reign in our own violent words and actions to honor and protect our own.