Language note: “Disabled” is used throughout this article in accordance with the Social Model of Disability. To quote activist K Toyin Agbebiyi (they/them), “I say disabled instead of person with disabilities, because I believe that calling myself disabled is as much about describing my physical pain as it is a critique of capitalism, ableism, and the systems that lead to the disabling aspect of my life.”
At a recent event, Dr. Sami Schalk (she/her) said, “There is no Black liberation without disability justice. There’s no way we can fight racism and anti-Black racism without addressing ableism because the systems depend on each other.” Many other Sick, Mad, Deaf, disabled QTBIPOC (queer and/or trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color) have highlighted a similar trend and call to action, noting that racism and ableism are interconnected and intertwined, thus dismantling one necessarily requires dismantling the other.
The Black Lives Matter principles don’t explicitly address disability (and The Harriet Tubman Collective, which is a group of Black Deaf & disabled individuals, has written about this in their piece “Disability Solidarity: Completing the “Vision for Black Lives”), but that doesn’t mean that as educators, we shouldn’t be including disability justice in our work, if we truly believe Black Lives Matter. From an educational standpoint, many of the same curricular, pedagogical, and systemic changes that need to be made to benefit Black students would benefit disabled students, and vice versa, not to mention disabled Black students.
First, we must start by educating ourselves, especially if we don’t hold these identities and/or are not from these communities. Some resources about disabled BIPOC by disabled BIPOC to get you started are listed below:
Learning more will help us continue to be intersectional in our work. As Audre Lorde has written, “I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only….And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination.” This will also help us attempt to understand our students with these intersecting identities better. “I cannot separate my non-binary genderqueer identity from my Black identity. I cannot separate my Black identity and my genderqueer identity from my disabled identity,” writes Phoenix Gray (they/them), so addressing only some of these issues in our learning spaces is simply not sufficient.
Representation within our curriculum is one easy way we combat ableism and racism. Erasure is one issue when it comes to the representation of disabled BIPOC. For instance, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were disabled, as are over 50% of people murdered by the police (including Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and most recently Walter Wallace, Jr), and yet their disabled identities are frequently erased.
Keah Brown (she/her) has also written about the importance of representation as follows: “People don’t often think of people of color or of LGBTQ+ people when they think of [disabled people]. Instead, they think of cis white male wheelchair users who hate themselves, because that is so often the way pop culture depicts us. I’m not a cis heterosexual white male wheelchair user, so in pop culture, I don’t exist. That’s not okay because it’s not reality. I exist, I am a real person behind these words, and I deserve to be seen.”
When considering including representations of disabled BIPOC in our teaching, we must be intentional and mindful in order to avoid tokenism, one-dimensional representations, or application of a white and/or non-disabled gaze. This also includes centering joy, interdependence, and community. These inclusions should not have the tone of “a very special episode.” One way is to normalize disabled QTBIPOC, so it can be something like changing the images your students are exposed to– like using this coloring book from the Center for Cultural power or using stock photos from Affect the Verb in your Google Slides.
The real work comes in changing our pedagogy and our systems. BIPOC students are consistently identified as being disabled disproportionately– both in overdiagnosis, and in underdiagnosis. Either way, disabled BIPOC are more likely to be stigmatized, segregated, and generally involved in the school-to-confinement pipeline (increased involvement with law enforcement, dropping out, face harsher disciplinary action, etc).
Many of these systemic changes will take lots of work, and it also necessitates a change of mindset away from capitalist and white supremacist ways of viewing students. It means “Recognizing Wholeness [which means] that we value our people as they are, for who they are, and that people have inherent worth outside of commodity relations and capitalist notions of productivity” (Patty Berne, she/they). It means allowing students to define themselves for themselves. It means accepting and celebrating differences authentically and meaningfully, which often comes from less hierarchical teaching. The more we can co-create and co-construct with our students, and genuinely learn from them, the better. It also means considering accessibility in our learning spaces, in the way that Eddie Ndopu (he/him) has stated: “I am not just talking about ramps, braille and sign language…This is also about giving people with disabilities access to things like joy, love and intimacy.”
I need to mention that as a cis, white, non-disabled femme, it is not my place to be leading these conversations. I ultimately decided to write this because it is free labor, and it’s unfair to burden disabled QTBIPOC folx with it…but if you’ve learned anything from those quoted (who are all disabled QTBIPOC) and/or other people with these identities, please support them! Finally, as Ki’Tay Davidson (he/him) has said, “It is our obligation to make a shift of not just acknowledgment, but inclusion of all. It starts with me. Inclusive advocacy must be lived to be reflected in our work.”
Black Disabled Lives Matter logo by Jen White Johnson (jenwhitejohnson.com).