The murders of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor have sparked a firestorm of collective grief, anger, and protests against structural racism and the resulting systematic oppression and widespread violence. The Disability History Association (DHA) stands in solidarity with anti-racism activists and their fight for racial justice. We affirm that Black Lives Matter.
Our response to this moment demands a complex approach that is committed to both anti-ableist racial justice and anti-racist disability justice.
The rallying cry of the anti-racism movement, I can’t breathe—also the last words of too many Black people dying at the hands of police—emphasizes the ways Black disabled people’s health and well-being are disproportionately affected by white supremacy and social and environmental injustice. Chronic illnesses such as asthma, hypertension, and diabetes disproportionately affect Black communities. Systemic racism has created healthcare disparities through discriminatory diagnosis, institutional barriers, and lack of access. Structural segregation has also ensured that Black people are more likely to live in food deserts, areas without clean water or air, and high-poverty areas without access to green spaces. Moreover, Black adults often work in low-paying frontline jobs that expose them to greater occupational hazards and, thus, chronic illnesses or disabilities. Black disabled people also encounter law enforcement officials—including for welfare checks or during a mental health crisis—at disproportionately higher rates.
According to the National Disability Institute, fourteen percent of working-age Black people have a disability compared to Non-Hispanic Whites (11 percent) and Latinxs (8 percent). Furthermore, because both disability and race are determinants of socioeconomic inequality, Black disabled people remain one of the most vulnerable groups. Having a disability is costly, and ableism itself can severely limit disabled people’s economic opportunities. In the United States, to obtain disability benefits and health coverage, an individual has to prove they are incapable of work; at the same time, welfare programs require applicants to be employed, forcing disabled people to make difficult financial choices. These material realities can further exacerbate chronic conditions and delay/restrict necessary treatment and support. We have seen, time and again, the tragic results of these intersections.
The DHA recognizes the entanglement of racism and ableism, and that a multiplicity of historical processes created these conditions. We are aware of the ways that Black communities and Black disabled people have been targeted by the violent, racist, and ableist systems of white supremacy, in both the past and in the present. The legacies of U.S. racial chattel slavery remained entrenched in local policies, state laws, and federal legal decisions. They remained entrenched, as well, in the U.S. Constitution. Merged with eugenics, which gained remarkable popularity between the American Civil War and World War II, these oppressive forces have systematically targeted Black disabled people for institutionalization, immobilization, and violent interventions. Cases like those of Junius Wilson, a deaf man incarcerated in the Jim Crow South for a crime he did not commit, were not uncommon. After the Second World War, eugenics persisted in old and new forms. Eugenic philosophies and practices permeated debates about genetic counseling, public education, and the provision of healthcare, perpetuating the constitutive claim that white, able-bodied people were superior to Black and Black disabled people.
The impacts of these racist and ableist projects persist into our current moment. As a lethal and disabling pandemic grips the world, disability and Black communities across the United States have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The deadly combination of systemic racial injustices, spatial and economic discrimination, lack of equitable access to healthcare, and institutionalized ableism have proven especially dangerous for Black and disabled people. Not only are Black people more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, they are much more likely to die from COVID-19 than any other group. In New York, for instance, the COVID-19 death rate for Black populations was as high as 92.3 per 100,000 population, which is substantially higher than death rates for Hispanic/Latinx (74.3/100,000), white (45.2) or Asian (34.5) populations. Meanwhile, disabled people—Black and otherwise—have faced shortages of life-sustaining medications, been targeted for abandonment through resource scarcity protocols, and had do-no-resuscitate orders (DNRs) issued without their consent. There is also growing evidence that people who survive coronavirus may also have long-term disabilities, which are also likely to have disproportionate impacts on the Black community.
Despite these historically consequential connections between racism and ableism, Black disabled people’s stories have been erased from the annals of history. As activist Vilissa Thompson has asserted, without Black disability history, the political and societal developments that many of us take for granted might not have occurred. We need to spotlight histories of prominent Black disabled figures — such as Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Mary Church Terrell — and also acknowledge the roles many Black disabled people have occupied in the pursuit of justice. Members of the Black Panther Party not only aided disabled activists during the 504 sit-in protests, but also created networks of healthcare centers and food programs to address the disabling effects of medical and educational racism. Black and Latinx activists contributed significantly to twentieth-century efforts toward deinstitutionalization. And Black, disabled activists have been at the frontlines of American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT).
The DHA promotes the study of disabilities throughout history. We are committed to advancing Black membership and leadership within the DHA, and to cultivating partnerships with Black institutions and organizations. Our mission is to foster various perspectives, representations, and policies on disability, including the ways that disability and race are intertwined. We commit ourselves to anti-racism and the dismantling of white supremacy by:
- Critically reflecting on the DHA’s practices in order to identify the ways in which it participates or is complicit in the racist and ableist structures of higher education. This includes an examination of how we can dismantle implicit bias and systemic oppression in practices and uphold the DHA’s mission and anti-racist, anti-ableist stance.
- Supporting, promoting, and amplifying historical work by Black and Black disabled people. We also strive to promote the documentation and dissemination of information about the history of Black disabled experiences, the intersection of racism and ableism, and Black disabled activism and resistance. We will continue to use our social media to elevate Black creators’ hashtag campaigns, including #BlackDisabilityHistory and #BlackDisabledLivesMatter.
- Supporting, promoting, and amplifying research into the historical intersections of race and disability, as well as the intersections between past and present experiences of being Black and disabled. We will continue to use our blog, All of Us, to encourage conversations about the connections between past and present Black disabled histories.
- Seeking diverse leadership, membership, and partnership in our organization. We commit to actively striving to recruit BIPOC historians of disability to join the DHA and to positions of leadership within the DHA. We also commit to inviting BIPOC historians to be interviewed for our podcast series, submit articles to our blog, and apply for our awards.
Readings on Disability & Race
Christopher M. Bell (ed.), Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011.
Liat Ben-Moshe and Sandy Magaña, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color,” Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2.2. (Fall 2014): 105-114.
Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner, Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Chris Chapman, Allison C. Carey, and Liat Ben-Moshe, eds., Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada. New York: Palgrave, 2014.
Arida Imada, “A Decolonial Disability Studies?” Disability Studies Quarterly 37.3 (August 2017).
Angel L. Miles, Akemi Nishida, Anjali J. Frober-Pratt, “An Open Letter to White Disability Studie and Ableist Institutions of Higher Education,” Disability Studies Quarterly 37.3 (August 2017).
Therí A. Pickens, “Blue Blackness, Black Blueness: Making Sense of Blackness and Disability,” African American Review 50.2 (Summer 2017): 93-103.
Ellen Samuels, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
Jorge Matos Valldejuli, “The Racialized History of Disability Activism from the “Willowbrooks of this World,” Activist History Review , Oct. 2019
Resources on Disability & Race
Museum of Disability History virtual exhibit on disability & the African American experience: https://www.museumofdisability.org/disability-and-the-african-american-experience/
“An Open Letter to the Disability Community on Why Black Lives Matter and Allyship” letter to disability groups about Black Lives Matter
”Ramp Your Voice!” “ an organization dedicated to issues of race and disability
Rooted in Rights, “Race and Disability”
National Disability Institute, Financial Inequality: Disability, Race, and Poverty in America (2019).
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups” (2020).