As Black History Month comes to a close, I’m reminded that some of y’all are fake as fuck. Every February, as Black folk take the opportunity to be EXTRA in every way, my joyful extraness is often disrupted by the erasure – sometimes blatant or deliberate, often not – of Black disabled folk from Black history (and present) narratives.
Of course, most of this erasure comes from people who ain’t Black, but I’m not talking to them right now.
Ultimately, it is disrespectful to the legacy of our ancestors – many of whom were disabled (sometimes directly because of anti-Blackness – see: Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer) – to act as though Black disabled folk don’t exist, to act as though we don’t have agency and power, and to exclude us from movement and community building because spaces – digital and physical – aren’t accessible to us in various ways.
The fact of the matter is, you can’t claim to be anti-racist, fighting anti-Blackness, or pro-Black if you ain’t including disabled Black folk in your work – and that means centering accessibility in every aspect of our movements.
Now, I may be angry (and rightfully so), but I love Black people. As Son of Baldwin recently said, unless a Black person gives me a reason (or several reasons) to drop them, I trust and believe that most of y’all are not trying to harm us, “heal” us, or make us invisible on purpose. I believe that individual people can be canceled, but I’m not about “cancel culture.” Because of that trust, I’m gonna make it easy for y’all, exerting some emotional and intellectual labor to outline the ways that my people can make amends.
Are you planning a Black ass social gathering? Do you hold meetings or events (secret or not) that tackle political or social issues? Are you a leader in your place of worship? Do you have a blog, admin a Facebook group or page, a Youtube channel, or a podcast? Great!
Is your work thinking about the accessibility needs of disabled people? Do your videos (or the videos you share from others) use captions for deaf/hard of hearing Black folk? If the technology you’re using doesn’t allow for captions, do you provide a transcript? Do you describe images (including the text) for blind and low-vision Black people? Does the space you’re renting have a working elevator for Black folk with mobility and other issues? ADA-compliant bathrooms, hallways, and inclines for wheelchair users? Will your space be scent-free or low-scent for Black folks with multiple chemical sensitivities and other respiratory issues? Will there be an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter? Are your meetings always in the morning? Do you use content warnings for subjects that could be triggering to Black folk with PTSD? Do you make light of trigger warnings?
These are just some of the questions we need to not only be acknowledging and thinking about, but actively addressing if we’re truly committed to liberation for all Black people. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind.
If you believe that we shouldn’t, then I strongly encourage you to heed the voices of Black disabled people about our varying needs and how lack of accessibility, particularly to Black spaces, harms us physically and mentally.
Disability is arguably the most diverse and varying of all marginalized groups. There are literally thousands of disabilities in existence, ranging from blindness and Deaf community (note that not all Deaf folks consider their difference to be a disability), autism, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), various phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, celiac disease, lupus, various cancers, various causes of chronic pain, cerebral palsy, and many others. Some are common and some are pretty rare.
I don’t expect you to know everything right off the bat, but taking the time to educate yourself – and then apply what you’ve learned to whatever work you do, or just your everyday life – is a good start. As soon as you decide to plan or share something – in physical space or online – one of the first things you should be thinking about is “How can I make this as inclusive of disabled people’s needs as possible?” We should never be an afterthought. That’s not how you treat someone you supposedly love.
ADVOCATE FOR US!
I don’t expect everyone to know the ins and outs of disability-related laws (I don’t even know all of them), but you should at least know a few and the basics of what they do. That’s just practical. We live in a nation of laws and, when it comes to civil liberties protections, sometimes those laws come in handy. Look up the ADA, IDEA, and other legislation. Get connected to disability lawyers and organizations. You can’t advocate for us without knowing the basics.
But it’s not just about laws, especially not for Black folk in a “justice” system that hates Black folk.
Did you know, for example, that many in the autistic community actually hate Autism Speaks? Like many nonprofits, they’re a shitty organization that doesn’t actually care about the community it claims to serve. You can easily google why they’re viewed with disdain.
Do you know about the social model of disability (as opposed to the medical one that most people are familiar with), and what disabled activists are saying about that?
Did you know that a significant amount of Black folk who are either imprisoned or killed by the “justice” system are also disabled? That if you are Black and disabled you are more likely to have negative interactions with the police (and be incarcerated) than Black folk who aren’t?
These are the things our community needs to be aware of so that we’re fighting holistically. It is always the most marginalized among us who are the most impacted by systemic oppression.
HIRE US (AND PAY US FAIRLY)!
Whatever stock you put in studies from the colonized U.S., according to a pretty recent government study (2018, data from 2017), along with white folk*, Black folk are the most disabled racial demographic in the U.S. In other words, of all of the disabled people in this country, the majority of them are Black. Furthermore, 81.3% of disabled people in the U.S. are unemployed and of those who are employed, most of us work part-time or, like yours truly, we’re forced to work for ourselves, often as freelancers/independent contractors.
Yes, it’s true: Black folk aren’t doing most of the hiring on this stolen land. But many of you are. And while we’re forced to conform to capitalism, the least we can do is, to the best of our ability, center the most marginalized among us. And that means not only hiring us (as landscapers, editors, secretaries, managers, executive directors, keynote speakers, whatever), but also paying us a fair wage. Don’t follow behind white folk and use our faces and bodies to push a narrative of “inclusion” while exploiting us behind the scenes.
START UNLEARNING BIAS AND ABLEISM
And, of course, it’s hard to do all of the above without first acknowledging that you’ve been fucking up. And y’all have been.
Are you quick to offer up a prayer of “healing” when you find out a friend has been diagnosed with a disability? (Oop, I know I stepped on a few toes there.) Do you look down on an elder with pity when you see them using a walker during your morning commute, grateful that that ain’t you? Do you call people “dumb,” “stupid,” “moron,” or “retarded,” just some of the language rooted in systemic and historic ableism? Does your fear of vaccines stem from a desire to prevent autism in your children? Do you think disabled children deserve to die or shouldn’t be born? Do you often characterize people as “lazy” without thinking about the implications? Do you share “inspirational” videos of disabled people to regular ass shit or being treated “nicely” (instead of with dignity) by abled people? Do you think providing accessibility is “too much work” or that your Blackness absolves you from doing your due diligence because we are less likely to have access to financial and other resources?
These are just some of the ways that ableism shows up in society, and Black able-bodied and able-minded folk are not exempt from internalizing these beliefs and behaviors.
We need to do better. And that means acknowledging our mistakes, making the effort to learn from them (by learning from Black Deaf, disabled, and chronically ill folk), and pledging to do better. No apology is complete (or sincere) without that last part.