Image Description: Actual banner advertising the first-ever #DeafEd twitter chat with a photo of a bunch of mixed age, but mostly youth signing in an open space at a university. in the middle of the photo, there is a white circle that says 11.25.14 @ 2 PM EST #DeafEd Twitter Chat. the attached Tweet is by @behearddc and says: don't miss our youth-led #DeafEd Twitter Chat Nov 25 @2pm EST! #Deaf #ASL #IDEA #LRE #Disability #EdRefomr @DkJLandis
Note: this blog post was drafted by TL & edited by the current core #DeafEd team: Mac Greenfelder, Heidi Givens, Lauren Maucere & Tamara Copeland-Samaripa. The author of the Daily Dot article had no knowledge or or involvement in the creation of this blog post.
Last week, the Daily Dot released an article that proposed to highlight the #DeafEd Movement. Unfortunately, the article did not capture the essence of #DeafEd and erased the contributions of countless DDBDDHH (Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing) Youth & educators.
#DeafEd has been a massive community-led and community-centered effort for two years. DDBDDHH Youth have been at the forefront of this Movement since its inception and they continue to lead, even now. For example, Derek Landis and a group of six students organized and hosted the first-ever #DeafEd Twitter chat; and Mac Greenfelder, a fourth-year DeafDisabled student, has served as host for the past two month's chats. Mac even hosts a physical space on NTID campus during chats for other students to learn the art of sharing their perspectives through #DeafEd. Importantly, Youth advocates have hosted at least one chat per semester, and have had a strong showing at every single chat. The erasure of DDBDDHH Youth leadership and centering of hearing individuals seen in this article is counter to everything that #DeafEd stands for and a misrepresentation of the #DeafEd Movement.
The author, who is d/Deaf, originally approached our core team---which is made up of five people, Mac Greenfelder, Heidi Givens, Lauren Maucere, Tamara Copeland-Samaripa & me--genuinely interested in covering the "#DeafEd Movement." The author even went so far as to interview four of our five core #DeafEd chat team members, so we were thrilled at the prospect of having a d/Deaf person write about this incredible Movement. Perhaps this is why the article, as edited and published, was such a let down.
After the article was published, it was revealed that the editor, who is hearing, made edits to the article without the author having signed off on those edits. The result was a feel-good, oversimplified article that centered hearing individuals instead of the fullness of the Movement. Look no further than the title to see for yourself: “Deaf education lacked attention—so this teacher started a movement."
After raising our concerns, the author admitted to having similar concerns and agreed to forward our concerns to the editor to see if modifications could be made to the article based on our feedback. The editor's response was troubling and demonstrated that the editor had no intention of going back to include quotes from the interview of our Youth core team member; of changing the title to attribute the Movement to the entire Community; or of centering the DDBDDHH community members instead of hearing community members. Here is the response in full (yes, the "editor" misspelled my name):
I'm [name of author removed]'s editor at the Daily Dot and [the author] forwarded me your email about your concerns. I'm sorry you were disappointed in how the piece turned out, but we believe the piece is factually sound and stand by it. Moving forward, however, we will be more conscientious about a balance in d/Deaf and hearing voices when publishing similar stories, because our intentions are for those marginalized voices to be heard.
In short, this response illustrates the problems inherent in having token representation of marginalized writers with little or no representation of marginalized in the editor's board room--especially when editors have not done extensive work to examine and unpack their own privilege and power. Not only is this editor unwilling to admit error and make changes to the article to reflect the truth, the editor has no problem with allowing a marginalized person to take heat for the editor's errors.
Despite a clear indication of the harm that these misrepresentations bring to our Community, this editor is more concerned about publication views than how the article misrepresents and possibly sets back a Movement that the publication claims it set out to honor. Instead, the editor resolves to, "be more conscientious about a balance in d/Deaf and hearing voices when publishing similar stories" while knowing full well that there will not be another opportunity.
In response, our current core #DeafEd team wants to set the record straight by sharing our responses to the author's interview questions so the Community can have a clear understanding of the origins of #DeafEd, the contributions of our diverse community members--especially those of our Youth and DDBDDHH educators, parents and professionals. This Movement has been a true, grassroots, youth-led and community-inspired and -driven effort.
The author asked each of us seven questions and we provided responses. Below are our unedited responses (note that Tamara was unable to contact the author for contribution in time for publishing but has since provided responses which we have included below). The questions from the author are in bold below and were labelled Q1-Q7 to mimic the format of Twitter chats. Our responses are just below each question in no particular order.
Our collected responses are long, but they are particularly helpful in understanding the #DeafEd Movement, and what it means to and for so many people. As such, we have decided to make this a three part series to ensure that it is digestible. Part One will include our responses to questions related to #DeafEd History; Part Two will include our responses to how the #DeafEd Movement has evolved; and Part Three will include our perspectives on impact the #DeafEd Movement has had and some of our goals, including, why people should continue to care & join the Movement.
Our responses are below:
Q1: Tell me about yourself and your affiliation to the #DeafEd movement.
MAC: I am a 4th year Deaf+ student at RIT/NTID, focusing in areas of Criminal Justice, Psychology, Sociology, and Visual Culture. I have grown up in a mix of different educational settings, although the majority has been in a mainstream setting. I now advocate for a more intersectional approach to Deaf Education and share my experiences where I can during #DeafEd events.
Note: Deaf+ (pronounced "Deaf Plus," and also known as "Deaf+Disabled") is an identity in which the person identifies as Deaf with other disabilities such as also having mental illnesses and/or another physical disability.
TL: I have taken to calling myself a social justice engineer because I do not know what else to call myself. I organize spaces in university classroom communities where hearts and minds are opened (my own included), but I do not consider myself to be a "professor." I am a recent law school graduate, but do not see myself as an "attorney." I have spent the past decade as a volunteer working to end mass incarceration, abuse of incarcerated deaf/disabled people; and to preventing and overturning deaf wrongful convictions. I am trying to do right by the world by using my privileges to end all forms of violence against multiply-marginalized individuals and communities. This brings me to the #DeafEd Movement (I love that you call it that!).
The volunteer work that I do (See #DeafAccessToJustice, #DecriminalizeDisability, #DeafInPrison & #DisabilitySolidarity) is inextricably tied to the #DeafEd Movement in ways that should stoke rage in the hearts and minds of us all. Mass incarceration literally feasts upon those who have been denied access to meaningful education and economic opportunity. At least 60% of adults and 85% of our youth incarcerated populations are functionally illiterate. Additionally, we find that youth with disabilities, including deafness are disproportionately represented in low and no income populations and in the foster care population.
During my first semester as a “professor,” I was searching for ways to engage course co-leaders (co-leaders is one of my words for “students”) in advocacy that would allow them to share their perspectives on issues of importance to them and that would serve them and our communities long after our semester came to an end. I had been active on Twitter for several years and thought that having students live tweet during class and for other assignments would be a good way to support them in gaining access to information and learning about and supporting different causes that were important to them. Course co-leaders had never used Twitter, so we started from the ground up.
Unfortunately, there were no accessible videos on how to use Twitter. This sort of unexamined hearing privilege is typical in our majority hearing society. I noticed that there were hundreds of education-focused twitter chats, but none related to DDBDDHH communities & decided (with the consent of the co-leaders, of course) that our end-of-semester projects should include three things:
1. A community-wide #DeafEd Twitter chat;
2. The creation of ASL signs for Twitter-related content; and
3. ASL vlogs to educate others in the community about how to use Twitter for social justice advocacy.
In preparation for this finale, I hosted course-wide Twitter chats on varied topics so we could all share our perspectives on federal disability rights laws, audism and other oppressions. The most important part of this journey was the fact that students were able to share their lived experiences & see immediate response and feedback from people outside the walls of the university. Each “like” or “retweet” signaled for these young people that people were listening and valuing their contributions—that their lived experiences were important. Co-leaders also joined other Twitter chats throughout the semester. By the end of the semester, they were thrilled (and anxious) about the prospect of having their own chat that would allow them to share their perspectives on a topic that would impact them and those who come behind them.
We wanted our chats to be fully accessible, so students created ASL vlogs for each question in addition to the typical English question format. Others created their responses to questions in ASL in advance of the chat, while others created infographics that they created on #DeafEd. Derek Landis (@DkJLandis), a co-leader of one of the classes who did not have a Twitter account at the beginning of the semester, brilliantly served as lead host for that first #DeafEd chat. We sat in my office during this first chat. He led and I supported. Witnessing all of the work that he and the co-leaders put into that final (& first) chat, and seeing his sign of relief and smile at the end of that first chat was, for me, the most gratifying moment of #DeafEd history. They knew that they had created something great—something greater than themselves. That was November 25, 2014.
Soon thereafter, a brilliant educator from Kentucky named Heidi Givens contacted me asking when the next chat would be. After sharing that this was an end of semester project with our classroom communities, Heidi asked if she could keep the chats going. The rest, as they say, is history.
DDBDDHH Youth advocates from my courses have been deeply involved with each chat—often taking the leading roles with planning, promoting or hosting. Mac, for instance, has hosted and storied the past two chats.
HEIDI: For 21 years I taught deaf and hard of hearing students, most of those years in Kentucky where I am now. Two months ago, I transitioned to administration in a new school district in KY as the Director of District Student Services. I am still a strong advocate and ally of the Deaf community and Deaf education. Last year I served as the moderator and co-organizer of the monthly chats working collaboratively with Talila Lewis. This year, the co-organizing and questions development is done by TL, myself, a few other teachers who are regular contributors, and a Deaf college student.
LAUREN: A Deaf by-product of a hearing education system, I am currently a high school teacher at Marlton, a day school for the Deaf in Los Angeles. In 2015, I was asked to join the #DeafEd Team by Heidi Givens as a host moderating on a topic related to ASL Literacy. Since then, I have continued to be part of the organizing team to provide direction. I will be co-hosting the upcoming January #DeafEd chat with Heidi.
TAMARA: My name is Tamara Copeland-Samaripa and I am a Literacy Coach for the high school at the Texas School for the Deaf. I have been in the education field for over 13 years in various positions from teacher’s aid, instructor, department chair, and now teacher support. I am what is considered late-deafened, though my hearing loss most likely began from birth. I was diagnosed with a unilateral loss at the age of 3 (deaf in one ear), then gradually lost hearing in the other ear. I grew up in the mainstream environment where I was the only deaf student in my school. I grew up speaking and listening. I didn’t wear hearing aides until I was 13. I learned sign language in high school and met many deaf friends through Jr. NAD. That was when I started to understand what it meant to be culturally Deaf. Through my involvement in Jr. NAD, I decided I wanted to learn more about ASL and Deaf Studies. I double majored in Deaf Studies and Psychology at Boston University. I immersed myself in Deaf culture and spent time studying interpreting. I continued my studies in Deaf Education at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX. I realized I’m still not proficient enough in ASL to choose interpreting as a profession, so I answered the call to become a teacher.
I became involved with #DeafEd after meeting Heidi on Twitter. I mentioned to her that I hope the #DeafEd Twitter chat was something that was going to continue. I started to attend frequently and becoming very “vocal” within the chat. I naturally became a part of the team as I shared my ideas and even hosted a discussion on how Deaf Professionals can partner with Deaf Ed programs.
Q3: What is the origin of #DeafEd and how has it evolved into what it is today?
MAC: My understanding is that #DeafEd originally started as a safe space for DDBDDHH college students (from a course that TL was co-leading) to gather to share their experiences, ask questions they might not have otherwise been comfortable with regarding their education, and to share resources on what has been a great role in getting them to where they are today. This has spread into a large resource of its own, in which parents and professionals are able to learn from the actual experts of Deaf Education as well as share tips from their experiences.
HEIDI: A few years ago I joined Twitter as a way to connect with other professionals and to increase my access to professional learning. I participated in some education chats which were so educational. At the time there was not a #DeafEd chat and not many people were even using that hashtag for sharing information. It was sporadic. Then November 2014 I see a tweet advertising a #DeafEd chat being led by students at RIT/NTID as part of a course culminating project. The experience was exhilarating and I wanted more, but because it was a final project, there weren't plans for future chats. I reached out to the students' professor Talila Lewis about continuing the chat. With TL's support and from feedback from people on Twitter, we created a monthly #DeafEd chat with featured hosts each month who were experts in specific topics. We have had participants from across the U.S. and even from some other countries as far as Saudi Arabia. IN fact, the teacher from Saudi Arabia started her own #DeafEd chat in Arabic, though they have only had one chat. There are participants who show up each month and those who are sporadic depending on the topic and their availability. The great thing is that the hashtag is being used a lot more throughout the months as a way for people to connect, share resources, showcase their student's work and learn from each other just like most other educational hashtags.
Part II will be released tomorrow, November 11, 2016.
For centuries, community builders, social justice engineers and freedom fighters--most of whom are multiply marginalized--have been doing exhausting and traumatizing life-changing & life-saving work with and for no money; with no sleep, health or mental health care; and with no institutional support.
[Video: For more context about this video, please review the "info" section at the YouTube video link above. The video abstract, which also provides info about the varied identities of the signers in this video, can also be found here: goo.gl/HG4mxL. Still shot of a Brown South Asian Deaf man with short black hair wearing a navy shirt standing in front of a gray wall with the following words: Even though people with disabilities are just 20% of our population,]
When a Black Disabled person is killed by the state, media and prominent racial justice activists usually report that a Black person was killed by the police. Contemporaneous reports from disability rights communities regarding the very same individual usually emphasize that a Disabled or Deaf individual was killed by the police — with not one word about that person’s race, ethnicity or indigenous roots.
In the wake of Charles Kinsey taking a bullet marked for Arnaldo Rios this week, I am renewing the call for Disability Solidarity. Disability solidarity means disability communities actively working to create racial justice, and [non-disability] civil rights communities showing up for disability justice.
Arnaldo Rios is an Autistic Latinx adult who likely belongs to various race, ethnic, gender, disability, and other communities (I am maintaining gender neutrality here because I do not have first-hand information from Arnaldo about their gender and I want to honor and respect their identity). Charles Kinsey is a Black behavioral therapists who was supporting Arnaldo during what seems to have been a sensory overload or emotional crisis that landed him stimming with a toy in the middle of the street.
According to the police union, we have only the poor marksmanship of a North Miami police officer to thank for Arnaldo and Charles not being lost to us. The union could give some credit to Charles Kinsey’s swift thinking, calm demeanor and intense emotional labor in the most traumatic of conditions for their lives being spared. But hey, I guess that may be asking a bit too much.
All I know for sure is this: two people were grounded at an intersection. They posed no threat. A police officer shot at one, hit the other, & traumatized both for life.
I also know that this happens time, and time, and time again to Deaf and Disabled Black, Indigenous, Latinx & brown people. And somehow, police are never held to account.
Now, as much as I want to address how irresponsible, inappropriate and incorrect media and activists have been regarding even the most mundane information they share about disability and autism, I simply do not have the capacity (i.e., spoons) to do so. Seriously, the fact that in 2016, people continue to refer to an autistic adult as a child; and continue to equate autism with mental illness, and sensory overload with suicidal is beyond astounding and exhausting. Alas, our society and institutions are wholly run by able-bodied, neurotypical people. So it comes as no surprise to disabled and neurodivergent people that ableism abounds in reporting on, responding to and organizing around disability. But it is utterly exhausting.
Radical societal ableism also explains why police officers and alleged 911 callers do not understand the difference between homicidal and suicidal. Here’s a hint: too often cops are the former, and those killed at their hands, the latter.
I digress. Arguably more important than the media and activists making flagrant errors when they finally decide to discuss disability, is the particular penchant both have for wholesale erasure of [inconvenient] identities of multiply-marginalized people who experience violence at the hands of the state. This, when we know, that the recurring tragedy is not found on one side of the road or the other. It is death at the intersection.
An intersection that far too many actively circumvent. The intersection that Arnaldo and his therapist occupy day in, day out. The intersection they occupied this Monday, when both of their lives were mere moments from vanishing into thin air —just like those of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones who occupied that intersection before them.
Thousands have been profiled, criminalized and killed by the police simply for existing at the intersection of their own disability and race or indigeneity.
Here is the cold, hard, inconvenient truth:
Over half of those killed by law enforcement annually are people with disabilities. These murdered disabled individuals also are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and people of color.
And so, I am here to remind us all that erasure of disability in reporting and advocacy is the height of irresponsibility in journalism and activism. Regardless of intention, erasure only serves to further delay the end of state violence against racialized people and people with disabilities.
All of this being said, I have very little hope of news media abandoning its long-standing and deeply-ingrained divisive, dismissive and destructive reporting tactics. And so, I pen the note below to my comrades in the struggle for collective liberation — as a warning that these single-story narratives stand in the way of everything we are fighting for. This is our reminder that freedom is nigh, and that our shackles come undone only when we move as one.
Why can so many of us effortlessly engage in nuanced discussion of white supremacist capitalist cis hetero patriarchal imperialism and yet be completely incapable of identifying ableism?
If you are attempting to dismantle white supremacist capitalist cis hetero patriarchal imperialism without actively engaging in anti-ableism work, you are doing it all wrong. Ableism, together with other more commonly discussed oppressions within social justice circles, undergird every institution. Indeed, racism, sexism, classism and transantagonism depend on ableism.
And so, our journey of unpacking privilege can not end with race, gender identity/presentation, socioeconomic or immigration status.
If your liberation journey ends short of disability justice, you too are complicit in perpetuating violence on and within your own community. Though rarely discussed, disability is represented across race and ethnicity, socioeconomic class and gender identity. Notably, and for reasons that are a matter for another piece, Black, Latinx and Indigenous people; low and no income community members; trans* and gender non-conforming individuals, and womxn, are all disproportionately represented in the class of disability.
We all lose when we are unaware of or dishonest about common and overlapping experiences of marginalized communities in education and income inequality; police brutality, wrongful arrests and convictions; and mass incarceration and rights violations in carceral settings. More to the point, we will never get free if we reduce people or communities down to a single identity for political, reporting or activist convenience.
Disability is the tie that binds. And so, it is impossible to achieve justice without achieving disability justice. Thus, if you are not naming and addressing racism and ableism in your actions, you are fighting a losing battle.
Our communities experience common and overlapping oppressions that require an advocacy framework that cuts across identities & movements. Here are just a few examples of common and overlapping oppression our communities face in the criminal legal system:
Similarly, incarceration statistics for incarcerated Black and Latinx people also are grossly disproportionate. Black and Latinx people make up a quarter of the US population but represent nearly 60% of the incarcerated population.
Our jails and prisons are quite literally overflowing with people of color with disabilities.
Or, take disenfranchisement: 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. For instance, 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. Moreover, although it is rarely discussed, disenfranchisement of people with felony records and people with disabilities can often be found within the same section of law. The exclusion of one group is often used to defend the exclusion of the other.
I could continue, but I will stop here because the pattern is the same within every institution.
Simply put, it is impossible to address the crisis of state violence without addressing the systematic failure of the state to provide equal access to education, employment, housing, and resources for people of color and people with disabilities — who, for myriad reasons, often are one and the same. These inequalities are inextricably linked.
Narratives and statistics make clear that the important and necessary conversations on racial justice that are occurring now cannot be fully had without disability justice at their center.
To be sure, disability and deaf communities of color are disproportionately impacted by state violence. Even still, most resourced disability rights organizations refuse to take action to end the crisis of racialized people with disabilities dying in our schools, streets, homes and prisons; whilst resourced non-disability civil rights entities dishonor the lives of the same people by failing to uplift their whole humanity. This, even when these resourced entities claim to be fighting for justice “in their name.”
Accountable advocacy demands more. It demands that we engage in activism that cuts across identities, communities and movements — that we understand and engage in disability solidarity wherein all of us are working toward racial justice, economic justice and disability justice.
This is not an easy task but it is necessary for life, love and liberation. I have come up with some questions for racial justice activists and for disability justice activists to help you on your journey.
If you engage in social justice actions to bring about racial & economic justice, ask yourself:
We can begin here. This will lead us to a place where deaf/disability justice activists and racial justice activists become one and the same. This is critical intersectionality. This is Disability Solidarity.
Will centering disability make your advocacy a bit more intricate? Yes.
Will you have to be more critical about your use of ableist language during your actions? Absolutely.
Will you have to ensure that your actions are universally accessible? Of course.
Will you be uncomfortable with your privilege(s) for a while? Likely so.
Give thanks. This is the gift of accountability.
You will come away with a deeper understanding of structural oppression, state violence, radical inclusion, others, yourself and your role in the movement.
We will come away with our freedom.
So, the next time you are having a nuanced discussion of white supremacist capitalist cis hetero patriarchal imperialism, please include and be honest about ableism, audism, sanism and your privilege(s) as related to each of these.
And the next time someone asks you who Tanisha Anderson, Paul Castaway, Freddy Centeno, Ezell Ford, Norma "Angie" Guzman, Milton Hall, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Natasha McKenna, Jamycheal Mitchell, John T. Williams, or Mario Woods are, tell them the truth.
Tell them the whole truth:
These are our kindred — our Black, Indigenous, Latinx Disabled kindred.
They were killed by the state.
Their lives mattered.
This summer I created and taught a course entitled Disability Justice in the Age of Mass Incarceration: Perspectives on Race, Disability, Law & Accountability. Here, I am providing my course syllabus to serve as a resource for all. There is so much I wish to share about the co-leaders (aka, students) and about my experience. Will save that for a bit later. . .
I have too many thoughts & emotions surrounding “law enforcement” killing#KaydenClarke; his subsequent (and continued) misgendering by news media & most every “community” to which he should have had a home (and received support) in life; and the legitimate outrage presently being expressed by folk who, for years, did not show up for (and still are not showing up for) countless Lives that have been (and are being) snuffed out at the whim of “law enforcement” across this country at alarming rates.
I am here for this:
Identity politics & single-issue advocacy efforts kill. Literally.
Kayden is just one of many examples of why #DisabilitySolidarity is critical to all of our liberation. These examples, hashtags, bodies will continue to mount until all of us commit to radical change in the way we go about “advocacy.”
If after thousands have been murdered by officers, it requires the murder of someone with whom you can perfectly identify to begin your righteous condemnation of police violence, you need to begin self-work straight away.
Accountable advocacy looks like showing up for all who are being oppressed, abused, killed--especially when you [think you] do not identify with those individuals.
Newsflash for the "justice will prevail when the truth comes out" folks: While you were busy looking the other way (or, more often than not, watching and sitting idly by), law enforcement perfected the art of killing innocents & getting away with it, so please stop it.
You want to know what will happen to guilty parties here? Ask the families of:
And all the others.
There is no "justice" when the state kills your loved one. Just an ever-present void and painful reminders of our collective failure to prevent injustices when we had every opportunity to act.
Justice would be life. Life & no more death.
If you are ready to end divisive, dismissive and destructive "advocacy" that ignores intersectionality, get at me. Everyone else should unfriend me immediately because you are no friend of mine.
Important edit to define #DisabilitySolidarity: disability communities actively working to bring about racial justice & civil rights advocates showing up for disability justice. Review this chat for more information: sfy.co/teF5
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.