As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the month of July holds dual significance as Disability Pride Month and BIPOC Mental Health Month, two topics demanding thoughtful reflection and robust discourse. In a society where different identities often intersect, it’s essential to acknowledge and understand the experiences of us who embody both these identities — disabled individuals within the BIPOC community. Disabled BIPOC encounter unique challenges fueled by historical and contemporary structures of ableism and racism, yet also engage in a shared fight for justice and inclusion with many marginalized communities.
By The Numbers
While various factors, including socio-economic disparities, limited access to quality healthcare, and exposure to health risk factors contribute to a higher prevalence of disability among some BIPOC communities compared to whites, it’s important to delve deeper into the data. According to an article by the Brookings Institution in 2018, of working-age adults, Native/Indigenous individuals have the highest rates of disability at 16%, Black adults are at 11%, followed by Latinx at 7%, and Asians at 4%. The same article states that whites are at 9%. The numbers also may be influenced by cultural factors around seeking outside support and “diagnosis” for disabilities amongst BIPOC communities. It’s highly possible that the number of disabled individuals in BIPOC communities is actually higher. With that in mind, despite the lower prevalence of reported disability in Latinx and Asian communities in this age-range, the outcomes faced by disabled people of any race other than white are generally significantly worse. The numbers below reveal stark realities and shed light on the dual marginalization faced by disabled BIPOC individuals.
Employment rates among working-aged disabled BIPOC individuals highlight the disparities. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, 17.8% of Asian and 18% of Black disabled working-age adults were employed, compared to 21.9% of whites. This data is notably missing a category for Native/Indigenous, however, which seems to be the case in many of these studies (unsurprising, yet infuriating).
Educational attainment for disabled adults varies similarly across racial lines. As per a 2020 report from The National Disability Institute, in 2018, only 11% of Black, 10% of Latinx, and 9% of Indigenous disabled adults hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 17% of white disabled adults.
Given the rates for education and employment, it’s no surprise that living in poverty is prevalent for disabled BIPOC individuals. The same 2020 report from The National Disability Institute reveals that, in 2018, of working-age individuals, 36% of Black, 28% of Latinx, and 34% of Indigenous disabled individuals lived in poverty. These numbers stand in contrast to the 23% of white disabled working-age individuals living in poverty at that time.
Furthermore, the report indicates that the net worth of working-age disabled Black individuals was only $1,282, compared to disabled Latinx who were at $13,340, and disabled whites who were at $27,100 in 2016. (As an aside, my jaw dropped at the figure for the non-disabled white folks which is at $132,400 in this report. This is around 6.7 times the amount for non-disabled Latinx [$19,800] and 9.25 times for non-disabled Black folks [14,321]!! See this image to have your jaw drop too.)
However, despite the bleak statistical data, it’s important to remember that we are making progress, albeit slowly (and in some cases, regrettably too late for some folks). We can be angry at the same time as we are cultivating small bits of hope.
Where We’ve Been: Historical Fights
Understanding the experiences of disabled BIPOC communities requires a knowledge of the historical context. This includes appreciating the significant movements, legislations, and individuals who’ve shaped these narratives.
Both the BIPOC and disabled communities have historically faced barriers and systemic oppression. Still, these experiences are magnified at the intersection of these identities. The struggles for civil rights and disability rights were watershed movements that have indelibly shaped the disabled BIPOC experience.
Landmark Legislation and Activism
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark moment in American history, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This laid the groundwork for future activism and advocacy for equal rights, including disability rights.
The disability rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s championed equal treatment and accessibility for disabled individuals. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was an early victory, which included Section 504, the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities. This law prohibited federal agencies, programs, or any activity receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating against people with disabilities. The 504 Sit-in, a nearly month-long protest that took place in the San Francisco Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Over 150 people refused to leave, turning the federal building into their home for the duration. This occupation played a crucial role in getting Section 504 signed into law.
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA), was another milestone. This act required all public schools accepting federal funds to provide equal access to education and one free meal a day for children with physical and mental disabilities.
These movements culminated in the historic passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places open to the general public, and mandated public accessibility. This was a huge stride toward inclusivity and equal opportunity for disabled individuals.
In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) was passed to provide a broader definition of disability, extending protections to more individuals. These amendments underscored that the definition of disability should be interpreted in favor of broad coverage of individuals.
Despite these landmark legislations, the struggle for equal rights continues, as there remain significant challenges and disparities, particularly at the intersection of race and disability. These issues underline the importance of sustained activism and comprehensive, intersectional policies.
Notable Historical BIPOC Disability Activists
While the disability rights movement had many active participants during the 1970s and 80s, information on BIPOC disability activists from that time can be hard to find due to the intersection of race and disability often being overlooked historically. As the importance of intersectionality in activism becomes more widely recognized, the stories of BIPOC disability activists from all eras are being brought more into the light. Here’s an overview of a few of them:
Johnnie Lacy was a pioneering African American disability rights activist who used a wheelchair due to paralysis brought on by polio. In 1975, Lacy established the Minority Concerns Committee within the National Council on Independent Living to address the unique and intersectional needs and issues faced by people of color with disabilities. She believed that disability rights could not be fully achieved without also addressing racial and economic justice, and thus focused on these intersections in her work.
Brad Lomax, played a pivotal role in linking the civil rights movement with the disability rights movement. He was a member of the Black Panther Party and also lived with multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair. One of Lomax’s most notable contributions to the disability rights movement was his participation in the 504 Sit-in. He and his assistant, Chuck Jackson, another Black Panther Party member, were part of the group that occupied the San Francisco Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the Black Panther Party supported the protesters by providing food and other supplies. Lomax also worked with Ed Roberts, a white man often hailed as the father of the Independent Living Movement, to open a Center for Independent Living site in East Oakland.
Aurora Levins Morales – A Jewish Puerto Rican writer and activist known for her work on issues of social justice, including environmentalism, feminism, colonialism, capitalism, and disability rights. She has also written extensively about her own experiences with disability and chronic illness. She has multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), epilepsy, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue. She has discussed her MCS in the context of environmental justice and its impacts on marginalized communities, particularly noting the ways in which capitalism, colonialism, and environmental destruction can contribute to disability and poor health. She still works on disability justice through her writing to this day.
Lois Curtis was an African American woman with intellectual and mental health disabilities. She experienced institutionalization from a young age. Alongside another woman, Elaine Wilson, Curtis became the plaintiff in a case that argued Georgia violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by segregating them in institutions rather than providing community-based services. This decision was a significant victory for disability rights, marking a legal obligation for states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and to ensure that persons with disabilities receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.
Where We’re Going: Disability Justice
The term “disability justice” as a concept was coined and developed in 2005 by an activist group of queer, disabled women of color in the San Francisco Bay. The group initially consisted of Patricia Berne, Mia Mingus, and Stacey Milbern who felt that the mainstream disability rights movement did not address intersectionality. Later, the group expanded to include other leaders like Eli Clare, Sebastian Margaret, and Leroy F. Moore. Together, they founded The Disability Justice Collective.
The movement seeks to challenge the idea that disability is an individual flaw or defect, and instead frame it as a social construct (aka the social model of disability). Disability Justice advocates argue that ableism is intertwined with other systems of oppression like racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and therefore, all these systems must be dismantled together. The Disability Justice framework emphasizes intersectionality, anti-capitalist politic, cross-movement solidarity, interdependence, and leadership by the people most impacted.
As part of the work to realize disability justice, Berne and Moore founded an organization called Sins Invalid in San Francisco also in 2005. Sins Invalid is a performance project for artists with disabilities, providing an incubation space for them. The organization is best known for its performances, which incorporate dance, poetry, spoken word, music, and other art forms. In addition to their performances, Sins Invalid also provides education and advocacy around disability justice. They have developed a “Disability Justice Primer,” which is one of the first documents to outline the principles of the disability justice movement.
Since then, more campaigns and movements have proliferated, pushing for intersectional disability justice. For example, the hashtag campaign #DisabilityTooWhite, created by Vilissa Thompson, shed light on the lack of representation and recognition of BIPOC individuals within the broader disability community. The #CripTheVote campaign, co-founded by Alice Wong, focuses on engaging disabled people of all races on policies and practices important to the disability community at a national, state, and local level.
Initiatives such as the Disability Justice Culture Club in Oakland, California are advocating at the community level, emphasizing mutual aid and community care. The National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities (CNLD, Coalición Nacional para Latinxs con Discapacidades) is working to build a network and community among Latinx disabled individuals in the United States, focusing on advocacy, education, and support.
Furthermore, the Black Lives Matter movement recognizes the layered struggles of disabled BIPOC individuals in the broader fight for racial justice. Within this context, the Disabled Black Lives Matter movement has emerged to highlight and challenge the double marginalization faced by Black disabled individuals.
The Disability Visibility Project is another significant initiative (also founded by Alice Wong). It is a community partnership with StoryCorps, aiming to record and amplify disability stories and voices. Organizations such as the National Black Disability Coalition, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, and the Autistic People of Color Fund are also playing key roles in advocacy, policy-making, and support for disabled BIPOC.
Collectively, these movements and organizations are demonstrating the power of intersectional advocacy in addressing the unique challenges faced by disabled BIPOC individuals. By engaging with and amplifying the voices of BIPOC disability advocates and the movements they lead, we all can contribute to the possibility of true disability justice and a more inclusive and understanding world.
If you’re looking for people to follow and support on social media, here is a small list of BIPOC disability activists of note (I’ve tried linking things other than Twitter, but from what I was able to see, several of these folks are not as active on other sites):
Haben Girma, the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, is another influential figure in this space. As a human rights lawyer, she works relentlessly to break down societal and digital barriers for people with disabilities. Girma, who is of Eritrean and Ethiopian descent, embodies the intersectionality of disability and race, and uses her platform to advocate for equity for all.
Alice Wong is a Chinese-American disability activist, consultant, and founder of the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. She was also one of the founders of the #CripTheVote hashtag campaign.
Vilissa Thompson is an African American social worker, disability rights consultant, and founder of Ramp Your Voice! and the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag campaign. Thompson focuses on intersectionality and the specific challenges faced by women of color with disabilities.
Lydia X. Z. Brown, also known as Autistic Hoya, is an Asian-American disability justice advocate known for their work regarding autism acceptance, particularly within the Asian community.
Eddie Ndopu is an African activist from Namibia. Ndopu has osteogenesis imperfecta. He has worked with organizations like Amnesty International and the UN, advocating for the rights of those with disabilities.Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer disabled femme writer and disability justice activist of Burger/Tamil Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma descent.