I’m AJ. I’m Black. I’m Disabled. I’m autistic and neurodivergent. I’m a bunch of other things too, but these are the identities that dominate my experience in the world. It took me a long time to decide which order I wanted to place these identities in as I wrote them out. It’s not something that I normally have to think about. In my day-to-day life, I’m most likely to self-identify as autistic. But this is only because my Black identity is self-evident, and I assume that people realize that autism is both a developmental disability and a type of neurodivergence. This assumption is wrong, though, because many people don’t readily understand this, and some even disagree about the place of neurodiversity in the larger disability rights movement. But here I am, as a co-president of the National Disabled Law Students Association and the only visibly Black member of the NDLSA board.
And so I wanted to write this post as my small contribution to NDLSA’s first celebration of Black History Month. I’m aware of the optics: a president of a social justice nonprofit putting out a statement for Black History Month is almost expected at this point. But I’m also aware that as the only visibly Black member of our organization, this letter might be viewed as a tokenization of me by the org – I promise it isn’t (I volunteered).
I’m currently reading Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World by Cole Brown, and it resonates with me as I consider my various identities. I want to acknowledge that part of this identity is my privilege. I have always lived and moved through affluent white spaces. It’s just how I grew up, but it’s also part of my everyday reality as a disability advocate in the realm of higher education. I have the privilege of openly disclosing my autism; I’m not afforded this same choice when it comes to disclosing my Blackness.
This juxtaposition of invisible and visible identities is familiar to anyone who’s navigated disclosure and self-identification in the disability space. The stigma surrounding disclosure is still far too prevalent in my communities: the Black community and the legal community. It’s something that so many amazing disability advocates are working to change.
But right now, I experience life at the intersection of systemic racism and structural ableism – and my experience is public. This is absolutely intentional; I want to be visible, available, and accessible for those who don’t have the same privilege and choice as I do. Like most disability advocates, I didn’t expect to do this work. I started self-advocating, and a few years later, I’m (allegedly) helping lead a national organization for disabled law students and new attorneys. But my intention in being a visible disabled, Black person in the legal community isn’t to highlight how rare it is. It’s an attempt to start the normalization of our existence. I don’t think I’m exceptional, and I certainly don’t envision myself as a mentor or some shining example. I want other marginalized individuals to know it’s ok to exist in this weird space of being a disabled person of color in the legal community.
But what does that really mean when law school and the legal profession are still inaccessible to so many Black folks. It seems cruel and unthinkable to ask the already marginalized to add the stigma of being openly disabled during their time as law students if it isn’t necessary. And what does that mean when there’s so much erasure of disability within the Black community. And even the erasure of the disabilities of some of Black History Month’s most famous heroes.
I know from personal experience, as a person with a history of mental illness and developmental disability, there’s still an incredibly huge stigma surrounding mental health, intellectual and development disabilities, and other neurological or psychological conditions. But I know that at least part of this is rooted in a lack of access to quality and affordable mental health services and resources. This is a huge problem in a society that still largely operates on the medical model of disability that requires documentation and paperwork that many Black folks don’t have sufficient access to.
Black people are not afforded the luxury to be indifferent to racism or the privilege of being average. Society does not grant us these gifts. Disabled people are burdened by ableism and encumbered by the specter of being ignored as unimportant or elevated for “overcoming” disabilities. Society does not offer us a fair choice. And this is the intersection where I find myself. I refuse to be somebody’s model minority or anybody’s inspiration porn, but I also realize that my actions carry consequences for other people. And so I do the best I can to bring more good and equity into the world for my communities.
To the Black community, I implore us to fight the pull of disabiliphobia. It’s ok to be Black and Disabled – and proud of both. To the Disabled community, acknowledge our spaces’ whiteness and the lack of access to community and resources that is a barrier for many disabled Black and Indigenous Folks of Color. Disability justice demands that the disability rights movement be an intersectional one.
To my communities, I love y’all,
“Be unique and authentic to the best of your ability.”