Despite being a white, female, disabled activist, rapidly approaching her mid-twenties, I am well aware that to most people, I look like a defenseless little white disabled girl. I am also keenly aware that I inhabit both privilege and dis-privilege in this body. On occasion, I use that image to my advantage. People don’t perceive me as a threat or someone trying to scam the system which makes it possible for me to get away with things that others might be more closely scrutinized for. To many, I am the embodiment of innocence: eternally fragile and childlike.
If we are lucky, every once and again our privilege will slam into us like a wrecking ball and crack open new awareness. This was the case a few months ago, when my former boyfriend and I ran into a friend of mine while making our way through the train station. After a brief introduction these virtual strangers quickly began sharing their experiences as disabled men of color. As I listened, I realized that even though my boyfriend and I share the same disability, we are having very different experiences in how society sees and treats our bodies. While people often viewed me with pity, they viewed him with distrust and even fear. He shared that when people look at him, they assume that his disability resulted from violence. Black disabled activist and Krip Hop artist Keith Jones discusses this phenomenon briefly in the documentary Including Samuel. “People say . . . when did you get shot?” He highlights society’s assumption: “Black man in a wheelchair, had to be an act of violence.”
As a society, we do a poor job of talking about, never mind understanding, intersectional oppressions, particularly the intersectional oppressions of racism and disability. Cases of discrimination and abuse against people with disabilities often receive more media attention if he victim is white—for instance, the Ethan Saylor case or Tracy Latimer case. However, when the victim is Black or another race, disability often falls by the wayside. For instance, though the case of Freddie Gray in Baltimore received massive media attention in the early summer, it was rarely mentioned that Gray was disabled due to lead poisoning as a child.
The faces we see in the disability rights movement are primarily white. Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann, and Justin Dart were all pioneers in the disability rights movement, crucial to getting civil rights laws passed—but this movement has not been without the contributions of people of color. Unfortunately, their accomplishments are often overshadowed by white people. To that end, I believe it is essential that we continue to raise the profiles of amazing disabled activists of color. Here are some folks we should all know about. I encourage you to take the time to check out their work.
Lydia Brown—Autistic Hoya—AutisticHoya.com
Lydia is an incredible autistic activist who blogs as the Autistic Hoya, paying homage to their school, Georgetown University. Their work is insightful, thought-provoking, and useful. Some of their pieces are, in my opinion, cornerstones of the modern disability rights movement, such as their critiques of people-first language, their posts on why they and other autistic people boycott Autism Speaks, and their ever expanding list of ableist words, complete with a separate list of non-ableist insults to use to your heart’s content. (I’m personally a huge fan of “ignoramus.”)
Kassiane Sibley—Radical Neurodivergence Speaking—TimeToListen.blogspot.com
Kassiane Sibley is multiply neurodivergent and her blog is another one I often recommend. Her posts carry a hefty dose of truth, with absolutely no sugarcoating, which may be difficult for some people to stomach. Her work is not for the sensitive but offers her particular brand of searing transparency that is so often necessary. A post I highly recommend is often called simply “Shoes” or “the shoes post” among disabled/neurodivergent activists. It is a powerful, heartbreaking response to the often-heard defense of parents and caretakers who abuse and murder their disabled children: “You don’t know how hard it is. You need to walk in their shoes.” In response, Sibley takes us through a personal journey of her shoes and the abuse and ableism she has encountered throughout her life.
Leroy Moore—Krip-Hop Nation and Sins Invalid
Leroy Moore is a writer, activist, and founder of Krip-Hop Nation, an initiative putting a disability spin on hip hop music. According to Krip-Hop Nation’s Reverb page, “Krip-Hop Nation’s main objective is to get the musical talents of hip hop artists with disabilities into the hands of media outlets, educators and scholars, journalists, and conference coordinators.” Leroy Moore is also a poet, and has co-founded Sins Invalid, “a performance art project celebrating disability and sexuality” (
Keith Jones—SoulTouchin’ Experiences—DaSoulToucha.com
Keith Jones, mentioned above as part of the documentary Including Samuel, is a Krip Hop artist, speaker, and President and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experiences, “[a]n organization aimed at bringing a perspective to the issues of access, inclusion and empowerment.” Jones is an engaging and humorous speaker who is truly unforgettable.
Mia Mingus—Leaving Evidence—LeavingEvidence.wordpress.com
Mia Mingus is a “queer physically disabled Korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee” who writes and speaks on the themes of disability justice, adoption, and justice for abuse victims, to name just a few. Mingus coined the term “access intimacy” as “that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level . . . It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.” Access intimacy is a feeling that will be familiar to any disabled person who has craved an environment of people who “get it.”
Describing herself as “a stand-up comedian who can’t stand up,” Maysoon Zayid is a hilarious comedian who draws upon her gender, ethnicity, religion (Zayid is a practicing Muslim), and disability for inspiration. Her TED talk “I’ve Got 99 Problems and Palsy is Just One” went viral last year, combining humor with serious reflection to show us how a disabled, Arab-American woman like Zayid is viewed in today’s society. Zayid is also a philanthropist and founder of the charity “Maysoon’s Kids,” providing opportunities and education for disabled children in Palestine.
Leah Katz-Hernandez is the White House receptionist, meeting and greeting important people all day long, interacting with President Obama and the First Lady – and she’s also a Deaf woman of color. Before becoming the White House receptionist, Katz-Hernandez worked for President Obama’s reelection campaign and in the office of the First Lady. Katz-Hernandez’s story has been featured on many news outlets, including Today.com, and the Latino arm of Fox.com. It’s thrilling to think that we have a disabled woman of color in the White House.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we must continue to increase the visibility of disabled people who are multiply marginalized and often invisible in the history of disability rights, specifically disabled people of color. There would be no movement without them.
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[Image description: The photograph shows black disabled activist and artist Leroy Moore. He has short cropped hair, a mustache and a beard. He is standing bare-chested, with his hands together out in front of him. The text above him reads: “This is disability justice.” Photograph ©Richard Downing; text ©Patty Berne; courtesy of Sins Invalid]
I love your site and I really appreciate this article! We definitely need more naming and honoring of the work of POC disability justice activists and artists! To that end, I think Patricia Berne should definitely be on the list. Like many women of color in leadership, she has worked tirelessly behind the scenes for decades and rarely gets credit for her work. More than one person on the list above was mentored and taught by Patty. She co-founded Sins Invalid with Leroy Moore, and was one of the originators of the concept of disability justice as a framework of liberation centering disabled people of color. I hope you’ll consider adding her, or even profiling her in the future.
Thanks Cara Liebowitz however on this list of people of color that are doing great work and one of the thinker and putting every day action in motion of DISABILITY JUSTICE who is doing the every day work off line is a great friend, activist and teacher etc Patricia Berne. Some of us can’t be found by a quick google search but their work holds the frame that many are in. At the same time I know it’s hard to name everybody. Anyway Leroy Moore with Sins Invalid thanks you.