“Organizations that support an African American stakeholder base are positioned to highlight that disability is a part of life–some experience it earlier and others experience it with age—and that it’s not something to be ashamed of, feared, or ignored.”
February is Black History Month and though there has always been a connection between race and disability matters, recent events in the African-American and Disability Communities have placed new emphasis on understanding the joint identity of being a person of color with a disability. This month we had the opportunity to sit down with our own National Advisory Board Member Cynthia Overton, Ph.D., and discuss her unique perspective on standing at the intersection of race and disability.
For you what does it mean to carry both identities of being Black and a person with a disability?
I grew up identifying as Black before any other personal characteristic. Most of my family was Black, as was my social and professional circle. My only connect to disability was an education course that I took on exceptional children in general classrooms. I was so oblivious to disability issues that even after becoming paralyzed from the waist down in my 20s, I didn’t understand that the descriptor, “disabled,” applied to me until my physician volunteered paperwork for accessible parking. With my new identity came new interests and passions, as well as a new community and a sharper lens to view the world.
Many of us were taught that we had to choose our issues to stand for, but we could only do one at a time. To talk about race, disability, gender, or class all at once would dilute our message. How have you defined your identity in spaces that may expect you to only advocate for one part of your identity?
My experience being Black in the disability universe has been a bit different. This engagement is tied heavily to my professional life as a researcher. I’ve been fortunate to lead a few important projects involving disability issues throughout my career. However, I’ve noticed very few African Americans with disabilities in prominent professional positions in my work. For example, I meet with about 100 researchers in health disciplines tied to disabilities a few times a year. Of those hundred, only about 3 of us are Black. It’s rare to see African Americans in leadership positions at non-profit organizations that focus on equity and disability. And of the few people with disabilities portrayed in the media, the number of those who are Black seems miniscule. With representation of African Americans with disabilities in prominent positions often come lived experiences shared by others from the Black community. This experience can help shape strategies for addressing social inequities, how information is packaged and distributed, and even how people receive and act on information.
Being Black and having a disability has been like navigating two sides of a family for me. Within each, there are shared experiences, a common history, and a special connection to others. Its almost as if different parts of you come to the surface depending on the family you’re with—you adapt according to your surroundings. For the most part, the two families operate independently, and there’s not much overlap. You and a small handful of relatives are the only common elements that connect each side. Likewise, my experiences working with groups around issues of concern to African Americans and other groups focused on disability issues either limit or overlook the link between the two. But even though the connection between race and disability is often underexplored at the macro level, each informs the actual experiences of individuals who live in both worlds. As someone who identifies as both Black and a person with a disability, its hard to avoid the feeling of partial isolation when engaging with either group, particularly when it comes to making progress in social equality.
I’ve privately suggested to leaders in organizations with a significant Black constituency that they explore issues related to disability on a few occasions. Reactions have ranged from politely affirming its importance, but then not responding to my follow-up emails to pursue ideas, to outright, “We don’t do disability work.”
Advocates in the African-American community have historically not discussed disability for fear of double indemnity – having to work and live in a society that devalues their race and their disability. What must be done for better disability engagement in the Black Community?
In addition to significant social concerns related to race and disability, it is also important for Black business leaders to understand opportunities and responsibilities connected to the disability community. People with disabilities represent $544 billion of disposable income in the United States, and there’s a good chance that they’ll spend their money on items and services they can actually access. In addition, Black business owners and government officials are responsible for complying with various federal legislation, which as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for those receiving federal funds, the Rehabilitation Act.
The intersection between disability and African Americans is significant. Its recognition, however, is a different story. Given the connection between disability and African Americans, I’ve privately suggested to leaders in organizations with a significant Black constituency that they explore issues related to disability on a few occasions. Reactions have ranged from politely affirming its importance, but then not responding to my follow-up emails to pursue ideas, to outright, “We don’t do disability work.” It is extremely rare to see people with disabilities reflected in media outlets like magazines and television networks that target a Black audience. It’s even uncommon to hear Black elected officials to talk about disability when discussing different populations within the Black community. But this limited perspective means underserving the needs of an entire group within the Black community, and in some cases, inadvertently perpetuating inequalities.
Recently some activists of color have called on the disability community to become more vocal on issues of race and for diversity orgs to not exclude disability. Some have been supportive while other suggest that these activists are muddying the water. Is there a unique experience to being a person of color with a disability that we should recognize?
Disability is often overlooked in the reporting of fatalities of Black men involving police interaction–Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, and James Boyd each had a disability.
I came to understand issues related to race and disparities differently, and that I am one of many African Americans with a disability, with about 30% of non-Hispanic Blacks having a disability, compared to approximately 22% of the general U.S. population. Given this prevalence of disability among African Americans, it’s important to recognize how individuals linked to these demographic groups experience a greater risk of social inequities across many factors of society. Consider, for example,
- Black or African students are two times more likely to be classified as having emotional disturbance and intellectual disabilities than students of other races
- African Americans earn 25% less than their white counterparts and people with disabilities earn 37% less on average than their white counterparts
- Among adults with a disability, 47% of African Americans report fair or poor health, compared with 37% of their white counterparts
- As a whole, people with disabilities represent 40% of those who have difficulties getting the transportation they need. African Americans with disabilities are less likely to have access to a vehicle and more likely to experience a longer commute time than their white peers. Among urban residents, African Americans are more likely to be dependent on public transportation than their white counterparts. Barriers to transportation can interfere with employment opportunities, access to nutritious foods, and community engagement.
Addressing the intersection between Blackness and disability does not require organizations to shift mission, abandon a stakeholder base, or make a huge financial investment. It can start with something as simple as taking a more inclusive approach to operating.
Is this engagement just a trendy approach to the old goals or is there something new happening here?
Although the intersection between Black and disability identities has yet to be broadly recognized and explored within each community, there are, in fact, dynamic initiatives that bring a voice to this issue. For example,
- The National Council on Independent Living has a diversity committee dedicated to improving public policy that will increase the inclusion of people with diverse backgrounds who have disabilities
- The National Black Disability Coalition addresses issues related to Black disabled identity and culture through the lenses of ableism and racism
- The HBCU Disability Consortium promotes culturally responsive disability services and classroom instruction to Black and African American college students with disabilities in an effort to increase college admission and graduation among this population
- In 2016, the White House convened African Americans with disabilities from around the country for a Black History program dedicated to the intersection between blackness and disability (Vilissa Thompson offers a detailed account of the event on her Ramp Your Voice! Blog).
These initiatives represent proactive efforts to explore and address issues related to the intersection between African Americans and disability. But the need for attention to such matters far outweighs the capacity of these and the other few initiatives that serve this purpose.
So what can be done?
Addressing the intersection between Blackness and disability does not require organizations to shift mission, abandon a stakeholder base, or make a huge financial investment. It can start with something as simple as taking a more inclusive approach to operating. Organizations that support an African American stakeholder base are positioned to highlight that disability is a part of life–some experience it earlier and others experience it with age—and that it’s not something to be ashamed of, feared, or ignored. African Americans with disabilities need recognition and support from these organizations as much as, if not, even more, than their peers without disabilities. Choosing to acknowledge, affirm, and address the needs of African Americans with disabilities will likely lead to increased engagement among this group. And of course, ignoring concerns surrounding the intersection between Blackness and disability can contribute to further marginalization and isolation. Organizations that serve people with disabilities must make more room at the leadership table. The addition of more African American voices can help identify issues of importance, help solve problems, and raise awareness of disability issues within the Black community.
Dr. Cynthia Overton, Ph.D. is a researcher and international expert on technology that supports individuals with disabilities.