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Say their names. Don't erase their disability

guest letter

As a kid, I recall clumsily steering the front of the grocery cart for Nana as she follows along behind, tightly gripping its metal handle. As I guide the cart, I offer up an apologetic, “Excuse me,” to other shoppers as we squeeze through the congested aisles. With only a glance, I’ll be silently affirmed for my patience or scorned for inconveniencing the shoppers as we awkwardly navigate around the flour, spices and sugar. I stop and read each of the food labels to Nana to help her find the items on her grocery list. At some point, I’ll need to find my older brother, who will probably be running up and down the snack aisle, excitedly proclaiming his happiness about grabbing the family-sized pack of Doritos. The shoppers we encounter in the grocery store aisles quickly form their own unwelcoming, isolating judgements of their disabilities.

You see, my grandmother, Nana, is blind. My older brother, Remington, has autism. Everyday activities present a new level of challenges for my family members and me.

My encounters with discrimination have made me conscious of the social handicaps placed on minority groups. Communities existing at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities experience differential treatment when accessing resources, like healthcare and education, and within daily life. As we strive to build a new type of inclusion resting on the foundation of movements like #BlackLivesMatter, I am reminded to consider those like Nana and Remi who find themselves at the intersection of color and their disability. 

At home, racial injustice is a coffee-table discussion. It’s projected through the T.V. when we watch the evening news, as gut-wrenching images and bravery of protestors linger in our minds long after we’ve changed the channel. Remi will often comment, “When will this be over?” What I see in the media is not new, but that does not soften the heartbreak. To see images of people who look like me brutalized by law enforcement and mocked by politicians day after day is like reopening a wound and not allowing it to heal. 

I am the middle child between two brothers, and I live with my parents and my grandmother. My parents strive to protect their children from injustice and have laid out for us appropriate ways to act, “simplified,” like steps in a weight loss program. Step 1: Always comply with law enforcement. Step 2: Don’t wear your hoodie over your head in public. Step 3 (for my brothers): Keep a short haircut. Step 4: Wear mainstream clothes and speak clearly. The love behind their intentions should be enough to shield us from pain—or worse.

My brothers both grew up in the same household, attending many of the same schools. Despite their shared upbringing, we can’t ignore the nuances in how others perceive them. 

I share my family’s reality to paint a picture of how everyday encounters look different for people with disabilities. This is because people don’t understand how to accept deviant behavior, especially from someone who presents “normally” or neurotypical like my brother. Sometimes I find myself worrying about the outcomes of a potential interaction between him and law enforcement. A person with autism may struggle to comply with police orders or panic and appear to be resisting arrest. A schizophrenic person may become upset and be seen by police as a threat. My apprehension about a hypothetical encounter between law enforcement and my brother may seem unnecessary, but there is data to support my concern.

A 2016 study published by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that one-half to one-third of all people killed by law enforcement had a disability. In an op-ed piece about the disability community supporting Black activism, Jennifer Burgmann advocates for unity because of patterns in systemic oppression causing a likelihood for the communities to “live in poverty and have less access to education, job, and healthcare…[and be] misrepresented and underrepresented in media and entertainment.” Burgmann—a deaf white woman—recognizes that her perspective reinforces the need for inclusivity and that the effects of discrimination are doubly compounded for Black people with disabilities. For me, this further contextualizes the importance of movements like #BlackLivesMatter because discrimination against members of the disability community mirrors the experiences of Black Americans. The same ideologies that sustain racism also permit ableism, systemic discrimination on the basis of disability.

I bring attention to Black people with disabilities because I am inspired by my fellow Blue Devils, and those at Duke and in Durham who are activists in their own communities. I write this message encouraging people to be mindful of inclusivity and accessibility as they continue their advocacy on campus and beyond.  

There are organizations on campus like Duke Disability Alliance which are committed to intersectional activism. I am grateful for their support as I endeavor to be an active ally for a community near and dear to me. I hope the perspectives I offer inspire others to reexamine approaches. For more information about ways to get involved, please visit this resource guide.

The official statement from Black Lives Matter asserts that “all Black lives matter, regardless of... ability [and] disability.” If we demand justice and equality for all Black lives, we must examine our meaning of the word “all” and affirm its inclusivity. In an interview with the National Black Disability Coalition about their experiences with protests, disability activist Anita Cameron expresses that in spaces of activism, the disability community feels “left behind literally and figuratively.” 

As we seek to amend and progress beyond the legacies of racism and white supremacy that affect people of color today, we must look into the avenues of intersectionality and elevate the voices of populations who find themselves smothered by the overwhelming discrimination experienced by people with multiple marginalized identities.

Dakota Douglas is a Trinity junior who studies biology and global health. She has an interest in health disparities, inspired by her family, and wants to use her voice to speak on issues affecting underserved communities.

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