The Missing Piece of the Movement: Black Disabled Activism
Globally, like-minded individuals are teaming into the streets in protest to draw attention to the state sponsored violence committed against Black folks in the USA and beyond. The strength of the current time lies in the borderless fluid solidarity heavily facilitated by social media.
With so many resounding voices, how do we know who to listen to? How do we ensure that voices are not subsumed by the crowds of opinions and ideas? How do we amplify and bring attention to a cross-section of Black experiences beyond the accepted norms? As a disabled Black person, I fear us being left out of the conversation; with so few ready to listen to us and understand our role in liberation.
Direct action is a powerful tactic habitually employed by movements that emphasises utilising the physical body in protest. As such, it is not readily associated with disabled people. Efforts to keep Black disabled people out of the conversation on liberation is an enduring practice in our communities, upheld by superstition, respectability politics and ignorance. Disability (like mental health) is often posited as a ‘white’ thing, internally disassociated from the Black experience. Too often, Black disabled people have to overcome labels projected onto us, such as ideas that we are ‘feeble’, a ‘strain’ or ‘liability’, in a community that already struggles against so much oppression. Disability however is not an ‘appendage’ to the Black experience, it is an essential aspect of our liberation.
The context of enslavement meant that being disabled was a common reality given the brutal conditions Black people were subjected to. To understand the relevance of this, the social model of disability, coined in the 1980s by UK Disability academic Mike Oliver, must be highlighted and contextualised.
The concept, which predates the term, reveals that disability is in fact a social construct. An ‘impairment’, the diagnosis you’d get from a doctor/specialist (MS, Downs Syndrome, etc), should not actually impact how you relate with wider society. With the right infrastructure and social equity everyone can access society irrespective of their perceived ‘ability’. A common example I have previously stated is: someone who wears glasses is visually impaired to some degree, but with glasses they are not disabled because they can access their environment without hindrance.
Scholars have uncovered the duality of the experience of enslaved Black disabled people throughout history. Black bodies were considered commodistised labour. However, Black disabled people challenge this idea. Malnourishment, violence and overexertion led to a number of longstanding impairments that had to be factored into production on plantations. Often the disabled enslaved would overemphasise their injuries to reduce their workload and use acquired time to see loved ones and rest. Remembering the role of smaller covert forms of resistance during slavery is important to how we conceptualise fighting oppression today.
Another pertinent example of disabled resistance is the 1977 504 sit-ins. Widespread protests were undertaken by disabled people and allies to push for regulations to be added to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (precursor of the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990). The Black Panther Party (BPP) collaborated with disabled protesters in San Francisco, providing food for the entirety of the protests. Arguably more powerful than material support was the acknowledgement of Black disabled folks by the BPP.
Throughout the sit-ins, the Black Panther newspaper covered the stories of Black disabled protesters like Dennis Billups, a blind protester who famously said: “To my brothers and sisters that are Black and that are handicapped: get out there, we need you...We need to show the government that we can have more force than they can ever deal with—and that we can eat more, drink more, love more and pray more than they ever knew was happening.”
The amplification of Black disabled voices by the Black Panthers demonstrates that Black disabled people were thriving and active members of the Black and disabled movements.
The visibility of disabled Black Panther Bradley Lomax, who was part of the 504 sit-ins from their inception, incentivised the BPP to support disabled protesters. Lomax, a wheelchair user, was also at the forefront of BPP community-led programmes that promoted independent living for disabled people within the Black community in California. The success of the 504 sit-ins in California is inextricable from the role of black disabled activism by individuals like Lomax and BPP support.
These events highlight the feasibility of Black disabled activism within the liberation movement. Protest is multifaceted and today’s resources outnumber those available to the above actors. Though these examples are USA-based, Black liberation is indeed a global phenomenon in which black disabled people play a tangible role. Black disabled people bring a unique skillset and perspective to the table that should not be overlooked because of ill-informed conceptions about our existence and abilities.
As we continue to fight against the systems that oppress us as Black people, we need to ensure everyone is present. That means accessible spaces, educating yourself on able-bodied privilege, listening to Black disabled people and being comfortable reforming your world view. This is to ensure that at the end of this, all Black live matter.
Written by Katouche Goll