On the intersection of race & disability in discussing police brutality

Our society’s history of racism and ableism is eerily intertwined, ranging from the forced sterilization of disabled & black women during the American eugenics movement, to the Holocaust, to forcing people into segregated spaces, to modern day examples of systemic oppression. Both racism & ableism are forms of discrimination based on one’s body looking different than the majority– but that is not to say those of us fitting into only one of these two identities “totally get” the experience of the other. Because that is untrue. Racism and ableism are just different forms of oppression that often cross paths. The ableism I face because of my disability does not negate the privilege I carry because of my whiteness. The racism one faces being black does not negate the privilege they carry if they’re able-bodied.

Intersectionality is imperative to understand. Those who identify as both black and disabled experience the insidious intersection of both racism and ableism — and this is something that often goes unaddressed in both the Black Lives Matter and the Disability Rights Movement.

This intersection is a much larger conversation to unpack, but in this post I want to draw attention to police brutality. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, fifty percent of those murdered by cops were disabled. Fifty percent. Disability is defined broadly in this sense: mental health conditions, physical disabilities, chronic conditions, blindness, deafness, etc. And according to Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, black people are more likely to experience disability. (This is due to environmental and institutional barriers to healthcare, socioeconomic disparities, the psychological effects of discrimination, and a number of other factors).

People of color are far more likely to be stopped by the police than white people. If you are a black person in America, it is likely the police will already think you look suspicious for merely existing. Then on top of that, if you also happen to have some underlying condition that affects the way you relate in the world, you are deemed even more suspicious.

(Trigger warning for following paragraph: specific examples of scenarios disabled POC can have with law enforcement.)

Consider the following scenarios: A black person in an encounter with the police gets asked to put their hands up, but cannot because of a physical disability. A black person in an encounter with the police does not hear the command to turn around because they are deaf. A black person in an encounter with the police does not stay perfectly still because they are blind and cannot see the gun aimed at them. A black person in an encounter with the police does not respond quick enough to their liking because of a cognitive disability. A black person in an encounter with the police has an uncontrollable reaction because their PTSD was triggered by the sirens and yelling.

How many seconds do you think it takes to try to get caught up & explain? How many seconds do you think they’re granted?

Stephon Watts was a black, autistic fifteen year old that was murdered by the police. Laquan McDonald was seventeen. Quintonio LeGrier was nineteen. Kajieme Powell. Ethan Saylor. Brandon Bragg. Jeremy McDole. Tanisha Anderson. There are countless other black people that had underlying physical, invisible, and/or mental health conditions that have died at the hands of law enforcement. I can go on.

Recently, some in support of the police force were attributing George Floyd’s death to his ‘underlying condition,’ implying that someone ‘healthier’ would’ve survived the eight minutes with someones knee pressing down on their neck. Apparently in America we blame people for their own death, all the while circulating videos of them lying on the floor begging. Screaming that they couldn’t breathe. In America, we apparently use ableism to justify racism.

We are tired of hearing stories like this. We are tired of black disabled lives being treated as if they are disposable. If your disability rights or police reform discussions do not include the intersection of race & disability, that is not justice.

As allies we help educate others on these matters– but we must be mindful to not take these stories away from those affected & profit/gain notoriety off of their struggle. It is 2020 and we have no time for white saviors. We are here to share the stories people want the public to hear, join the fight alongside them, and spread awareness in whatever way we can. Recommended next steps for you, my dear readers:

  • Find readings on the intersection of race & disability here.
  • Check out & follow these Instagram accounts run by disabled people of color: @rollinfunky | @Aaron__philip | @wheelielovely | @theseatednurse | @janiralisbeth | @shelbykinsxo | @she.is.rish | @girlschronically_rock | @crutches_and_spice | @youlookokaytome | @fidgets.and.fries | @capricekwai | @itslololove | @garrisonredd | @keah_maria | @itswalela 
  • Check out & follow these blogs/websites run by disabled people of color: Ramp Your Voice |Black Disabled and Proud | Black Disability Coalition | Disabled POC tag in the Disability Visibility Project
  • If you are aware of more accounts/websites/readings, comment below & share.

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