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Talila “T.L” Lewis

A Primer: Disability Justice In the Age of Mass Incarceration

Sept 15, 2017 at 2pm


Content warning “all the warnings”—eugenics, racism, incarceration, prisons, abuse, police violence, and murder

TL: Hey, y'all! What's up? I'm really excited to be here. And before I dive in, I just want to reiterate the importance of freedom of space. So if at any time anyone in the space wants to leave, wants to lay down, wants to pace—whatever you need to do—this space is yours as well. So claim your space. And I will not be offended, by any means, if you do need to step out, cry aloud, or what have you. So please do take care of yourself and of each other. So that's the first thing. The second, I just want to uplift in this space how much of disability justice has already been brought to the forefront throughout everyone's—each person's presentations already. From today. And I'm making eye contact with a couple of the earlier presenters. It's really important to name that the vast majority of us in this space, who are doing community building, community work, already are engaged in the practice of disability justice. You might not call it that. But you are. And so a little bit of my chat today will be expressing to you how you already are doing this great work. But helping you figure out how to name it. And that's it, I think. So... Without further ado, I've already posted—this is a super duper primer. There's so much work being done about disability justice. If you're on Twitter, I already posted a link to my syllabus. With the same name. “Disability Justice in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” So if this is something that is of interest to you, there are great readings there. And we can be in contact later. I've committed to trying to do one minute per slide.

TL: But before, again, I dive in, before all of my conversations that I have with communities, I always center the space. And that's just taking a moment to acknowledge folks who are not here with us in the physical space. Whether that's because they've passed away or whether that's because they are incarcerated. You know, it depends. So today, I want to uplift in this space three individuals who are not here. Present. Because they have been killed by the state. Each of these individuals are individuals of color. They are multiply marginalized. So often when we have conversations about oppression, violence, eugenics, we talk about race or we talk about disability. We talk about class or we talk about actual physical location, where individuals live. It's really important that we're always talking about cross-identities. And so each of these individuals... The first on the right is Terrell Kareem Johnson, who is a mixed race individual who was killed by law enforcement in Portland three years ago now. John T. Williams was a Deaf disabled man who was killed... It's been about six years now. Indigenous wood carver. Fifth-generation wood carver who was murdered by law enforcement in Seattle. And Vanessa Barrows, who was an Indigenous person of color who also was killed in a carceral system, in a jail, in Boise, Idaho. So I just want to take a moment to honor them, and them being representative of thousands of others if not millions of others who also have given their lives to try to express to us the importance and the urgency of the work that all of us are doing. So I'll just keep the time. And you feel free to uplift someone else if you know someone else who has perished due to state violence, state neglect. Please feel free to just think of them in this moment.

(moment of silence)

TL: All right. Thank you very much. So mass incarceration... I think what's really critically important when we're having conversations about this uniquely American crisis is that we are doing a great job in framing it as an American crisis. So often folks on every side of every aisle will say... Oh, you know, people of color are being locked up. But what we need to be talking about is the American crisis. Right? That's the language we should be using. You can be more specific in your language. But what we don't want to do is to encourage this otherizing of communities. Oh, immigrant communities are being locked up. Therefore there's an issue with immigration. No, no, no. Mass incarceration and mass deportation are actually one and the same. And we have to start acknowledging them as such. And so I think the first call to action for everyone here—one is to stop calling the criminal legal system a justice system. Call it a punishment system, carceral system, injustice system. Be creative. But do not call it a justice system, because what you're doing when you do that is perpetuating the myth that there is such a thing as justice in the system we're created. And there never has been and there never will be. So that's really important for us to start naming and acknowledging. Especially those of us who are in positions of power. I didn't tell you that I also am an attorney. Which means nothing to me. I literally became an attorney because I couldn't find anyone who was willing to do the work that I'm doing. I work on wrongful conviction cases of Deaf, Deaf-Blind, Deaf-disabled, and hard of hearing individuals. I created the only national database of Deaf, Deaf-blind, Deaf-disabled, blind, and hard of hearing individual who are incarcerated. Our state has been guilty of funneling our community members into carceral systems. There is no knowledge of where our community members are. My organization is an all-volunteer organization. And we have more information than the federal and state government on the location of incarcerated folks with multiple disabilities. That's shameful. Frankly, again, I'm an abolitionist, so no one should be incarcerated. But certainly if they are going to be there, we should know exactly where they are, exactly what accommodations are required, and we should be societally —not just the government—providing whatever is necessary.

TL: This is just a visualization of how unique our uniquely jacked-up system is. It's difficult to see [the slide]. So I'm gonna give an image description. This is a chart indicative of incarceration rates for the United States, as compared to founding NATO members. There's just eight represented here, I think. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten... Eleven. Right? So what you see on the chart, for sighted folks, is that the United States is quite literally off the charts. Right now we're incarcerating about 720 people—this is a couple of years old—per 100,000. That's state and federal combined. Whereas you see other countries—United Kingdom, Portugal, Luxembourg, Canada, France, Belgium, Italy—it goes down. Much less incarceration, as compared to the United States. Interestingly enough, the countries that are closest to us are not represented here. But they are Russia, Rwanda, and Iran. And China. But even those are about... [TL accidentally pressed button on presentation remote.] Oops. Let me go back. Sorry about that. Even those are not even past this halfway point. So we really are... We're great at one thing, and that's incarceration and murder of marginalized folks. And those are the conversations that we should be having with folks, because everyone thinks the United States is exceptional. Unless you actually know that the United States is not that exceptional. So let's see.

TL: So one of the concepts that I want to get through today is that there should never be a moment of advocacy wherein you aren't also saying "and disability". And if you start saying "and disability", what you'll find is you'll start ending up centering disability, because disability is actually centered in everything that we are working toward right now. Right? The idea of race actually is inextricably tied to ability. So when my ancestors were dragged from our homeland here to indigenous land to work for free and to be sexually and physically assaulted, those of us who did not survive the Middle Passage, whether that was in the physical realm or in the mental realm, did not survive, arrived here on the shores not ourselves, were labeled "refuse". "Trash". "Garbage". Many of whom were actually used in medical experimentation. Many of whom, limbs were sold. That's the sort of thing that is the truth about the history of the United States. Right? And these are the things we don't often talk about. Right? People think the Middle Passage... Oh, it was just a boat trip. Right? Not so much. But implicated in all of that is race and class. Right? And disability. Right? You don't... What is disabling is trying to survive in a place where you're told that you are not worthy. Where you're told that you are inhuman/superhuman, simultaneously. Surviving in this space is disabling. If you're any marginalized community member. And so what you'll find is that every marginalized community, whether it's women, trans folks, folks who live in low or no income communities, are all disproportionately represented in the class of disability. Right? So it's rare that you'll actually meet a person of color who hasn't experienced trauma here in the United States. Or non-Black or Brown Indigenous people will have experienced trauma here in the United States. And if you understand anything about trauma—it's that when left unaddressed, it leads to disability. Right? And some people have already touched on hurt and healing. And so it's really important that we acknowledge and name that trauma is a cause and consequence of disability. Poverty is a form of violence. Poverty is a cause and consequence of disability as well. And that cycle continues. Disableism.

TL: So ableism is... [Remote difficulties because our presentation remote was designed poorly and confusingly.] Uh-oh. I don't know if I can go back. I went way back. No, I'm still going back. Sorry about that. So ableism is this idea of... It's a systemic idea of who in a society receives acknowledgment as being a valuable person. So this goes back to capitalism as well. So if you understand capitalism, you can't have a critique of capitalism without including information about ability. Can I get... [More remote technical difficulties.] Sorry. Hang on. All right. I'm not gonna worry about that right now. If you could just go back to the disableism slide...

TL: So ableism... Or disableism. If you spend a lot of time in the UK, it's called disableism, often. If you spend a lot of time in the United States, we tend to use ableism. It's not just the idea of appearance being —thank you—important. But it's the idea that people have to behave in a particular way, excel in a particular way, be able to make money in a particular way, to be deemed valuable in a society. Obviously it's much more complex than that. But that's the gist. And you have to understand also that race and disability will always be linked. Race and class will always be linked as well. But importantly to this concept of mass incarceration is—and I'll get back to what is disability shortly—the idea that because disabled folks are of no value is that it's easier for the state to dispose of them, in whatever way. Whether it's institutionalization or murder. So what we don't talk about, often, is, among all of these folks that all of you can name—at least one person who's been killed by law enforcement. Right? Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. The common names. John T. Williams, who was up here earlier. Quite literally, every single one of them was disabled. That's called erasure. So I write a lot about the problems inherent in the movement for Black lives and the disability community. But on the other side, the disability community and the Deaf community are completely racist. So they erase the Black identity of these victims or survivors of police brutality or state violence. So what we end up with are these non-nuanced conversations from news media. And they say... Oh, a Black person was murdered by the state. So you miss that component that was: Eric Garner was a Black disabled person. Freddie Gray was a Black disabled person. Literally everyone you can name — I can name their disability. And this is a really important intersection, because it's the most dangerous intersection that history has ever held, race and disability. So...

TL: The stat here says over one half of the people killed by law enforcement annually are people who are Deaf or disabled. Of course disproportionately represented in these numbers are names of people who are of color or Indigenous. So it's disproportionately Deaf people, people of color, usually low-income as well. This graphic says kids with disabilities are five times more likely to end up in the carceral system, in kid prisons or kid cages. Some other stats that I don't have up here for you, but kids with disabilities are three times more likely to be in the foster system. Stop calling it a foster care system. There is no care in the foster system. In fact, in many states, 75% or 80% of former wards of the foster system are now incarcerated. So we need to understand the connections between all of these systems. And so again, disabled children are three times more likely to end up in foster systems. Which means, of course, they're more likely to end up in prisons as well. Four times more likely to be living in poverty. Six times more likely to be arrested in schools. Right now, the percentages for mental illness in our kid prisons—65% of our boys and 75% of our girls all identify as having some variation of mental illness. In our kid prisons. Right now. Today. 2017. And then a Black child with disabilities is 16 times more likely to be arrested in school than a white child without disabilities. So that's what we're looking at.

TL: And so this slide gets to what is disability. There's a bunch of different models of disability. The visual here—it's a cartoon caricature, where one says, “I’m not normal.” And then the person, the caricature on the other side says, “That's the most common sentiment on Earth.” And the very next one says, “I’m too normal!” And then the other one says, “Well, no one else thinks so.” And it's the idea that there is no such thing as normal. So we should all actually throw that word out of our vocabulary. There's no such thing as normal. We just exist as we are. So the medical versus social model of disability—which should be this next slide—the medical model says that something is broken in the person. That if someone is mad—I identify as a mad activist, a mad person—that there's something wrong with the way my brain... Not like angry. Well, yes, in all senses of the word. I am angry. I am in a rage, perpetually. But it's because I see too much. It's important to name that madness is a state of being. People say that something is wrong with mad people. No, our brains process information differently, our bodies respond to information differently, and there's nothing wrong with that. But we end up in carceral spaces and institutions. I've been institutionalized. I would not be able to do the work that I do if I was not a mad person. It's not that I'm surviving in spite of my madness or disabilities. It is that I exist as a mad, disabled, queer person. And that's the reason I am who I am. And that's most people with disabilities. So the social model says the barriers that exist for me in my life, or a Deaf person in their life, is because society refuses to be radically inclusive. Right? It's not about me, the individual. It's about us collectively. And again, this goes back to capitalism. And unfortunately, disability rights is hugely problematic. Disability rights, the definition of disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activates. Honestly, we wouldn't have any substantial impairments if society was responding to everyone in a way that was honoring our whole humanity. And so disability justice is this practice of understanding that there's actually nothing wrong with anyone. That we all exist how we are and that we should all be loved exactly as we are. And that interdependence is critical to all of our survival. I gotta wrap it up, so I'm gonna skip over a couple of things. But this is Ki'tay D. Davidson with a quote. No one is actually independent. We are all interdependent. The difference between the needs that many disabled people have and the needs of people who are not labeled as disabled is that non-disabled people have had their dependencies normalized. The idea that someone can call their mom and say... Help me figure out my apartment situation or this car situation. That's support. But that's normal. What's wrong with me asking for support in another area? Right? So understanding that this normalization, this idea of normalization is hugely problematic. Scientific ableism-racism. So when I say the words racism, I tend to say them both simultaneously. There is no racism without ableism. There is no ableism without racism. But it tends to be that we don't realize that.

TL: Intelligence, the concept of intelligence, was created by white supremacist males. Who had to have some justification for mass genocide of indigenous and Black people. For mass incarceration and enslavement of indigenous and Black people. And that has carried through to today. The idea of intelligence. Right? If we were to drop a white, well-to-do person in the hood, they could not survive. Right? Intelligence. It's a form of intelligence to survive where me and my folks come from. Right? But it's not seen as an intelligence that's worthy of applaud or lauding. So this idea of language, testing, all of that is all created by white supremacists. Ableist white supremacists. And you can't actually talk about cis heteropatriarchal without saying ableism. That has to be included in this analysis. And that's part of this. So this is a visual that says: Trauma, disability, and poverty. And you have arrows actually pointing. So this goes back to what I discussed earlier. Trauma is a cause and consequence of poverty and disability. And then so goes the line. And then so to wrap up, why do we have so many incarcerated people? Racial and equity, education and equity, criminalization of poverty, disability, and other. So what is the other? The person who doesn't look like you. The person who doesn't behave like you. Actually... Oh, I have to mention that... That's my signal, right? Oh. Sorry. [Volunteer was signaling talk time to T.L.]

TL: Hypervigilance. Thanks. Y'all think I'm funny! But no, really important—what I was going to mention is that addiction is a disability. And right now, most of our prisons are brimming with—yes, thank you. Snaps on that. Addiction is a disability. And our prisons and jails are brimming with folks with any sort of substance or addiction. And we actually call it substance disorder or disability. So that's important to start naming and unpacking as well. I can't get into it right now. Commodification and dehumanization of other is another reason why we have 3 million incarcerated folks. Well, just under that now. Oh, look at us. We're doing so much better. And unaddressed trauma. The vast majority of folks in our carceral systems have experienced immense trauma. And Sally and Sue and Joey get counseling and Shaquan and Talila get murdered or get to go to prison. So understanding the discrepancies and disparities in how folks are treated and the most important thing that we take away is that crime is a social construct. I have a quote from Frederick Douglass, one of my favorite quotes: “I appear…as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs from my master and ran away with them.” Crime is a social construct just as race, gender—none of those exist. Barriers for nations don't exist. The whole idea of this is just obnoxious. But this is what mad people's minds do. We just start thinking about all the things that we've ever been taught that are wrong. But this is why most of us in this room are actually mad too. Because you're all laughing and like—yeah, TL. That makes perfect sense. Because we're all mad together and we should be. And we should be fighting all this with every ounce of our being in healthy ways. So I so appreciate that every single person who has come up has mentioned the trauma that exists within the bodies of those who actually can see all of this. Can see past what we're told in society. It's immense. And so we have to be very, very careful with how we do and don't take on more work. And how we actually do the work that we are doing in loving ways. I already spoke about disability rights versus disability justice. So these are just the last definitions. This says... This is from Mia Mingus, who's a disabled adoptee, transnational adoptee, Asian adoptee. And this is her definition and it's obviously much more expansive than this. You can read her work. Of disability justice. She says that disability justice is a multi-issue political understanding of disability and ableism. Moving away from the rights-based equality model and beyond just access to a framework that centers justice and wholeness for all disabled people and communities.

TL: The next definition—and I promise there's like three slides left—oh, so action. I'm a person of action. So the things that I'll call us to do today are: Stop using "criminal justice" system. I don't even know what that is. Use something else. Stop using ableist language. Stop saying things like "that's crazy". It makes me pull my hair out. I actually do have trichotillomania. If you go [to], Lydia Brown has written great pieces... Yeah, the captioner. This is why... Universal accessibility, right? Access-centered. We've got all sorts of information here. I'll also post it on Twitter after I'm done. Information about how to change your language. I also wrote a piece called disability ain't for your dozens. Ten ableist phrases that Black folks need to retire immediately. Disability should not be used as metaphor, as pun, as jokes. It's not funny. Right? And so us using that sort of stigmatizing language, sanist language, actually helps the state kill us off faster. That means killing people in all of our communities much more quickly and with no retribution. And disability. Any time you're doing research, any time you're actually on the ground—disability should be centered in what you're thinking about. Any sort of data analyses should include disability. Disaggregated information about disability as well. Because we can't do the work that we're doing without that framework. Visiting our kin in carceral systems. Obviously some of us already have family in carceral systems. If you don't, you need to find a way into prisons. You all should be doing work in and organizing around incarcerated people. We will not get free until all of our people are free. And we need to start at the margins of the margins, and they are the margins. And then search the hashtag #disabilitysolidarity. #disabilityjustice. So intersectional justice—it skipped a slide. The slide in between is about this concept of disability solidarity. Disability solidarity is a practice where we move from just focusing on one community to—it's actually practicing intersectional justice. Right? So it's calling on the disability communities and Deaf communities to practice intersectional justice, and calling on quote-unquote "civil rights" communities and racial and economic equity communities to also be practicing disability justice. There's lots written on that as well.

TL: And in the very last slide... Talks about “freedom privilege.” It's just literally two words. So this is a concept I created. We all know what white privilege is. We all know—I hope. Right? But freedom privilege is something—I spend a lot of time in prisons. To be with my community that's incarcerated. Freedom privilege is this idea—first of all, we should know that the only reason all of us in this space are not actually incarcerated is because we haven't run into the wrong cop on the wrong day. Because you're white. Because you're wealthy. Because you have these privileges. So freedom privilege is first the acknowledgment of our physical existence as a free person. And then moving to the next step, we know that with every privilege that we have, we should be using it to advance those who don't have those same freedoms. So there's lots of different freedom privileges. Folks who actually have quote-unquote "papers" are free in a way that folks who don't have quote-unquote "papers" are not. So figuring out how we can use this sort of freedom.

TL: But when I went to visit Felix Garcia, sign name F touching lightly down on the heart, because he has a beautiful heart, he's a wrongfully convicted Deaf Latinx man in Florida, and he's been incarcerated since 1981. And I've been working to try to get him and several others out. And when I was leaving the prison one day, he said, “TL... Can you feel freedom?” And I paused. If you've never been into prisons, the hardest thing to do is actually to leave. And this is why I'm so acutely aware of this concept of freedom privilege. And I said, “Yes, Felix. You can.” And then I explained all the ways in which one might be able to feel freedom. And he said, “You know when I felt it, TL?” And I said, “No, when was that, Felix?” He said, “When I was transferred to this other prison, I saw a tree for the first time in 27 years and I ran up to the tree and I hugged it and I couldn't let go. That was the most free I felt in years.” And I said, “That's freedom, Felix.” That is freedom. Right? Freedom is gonna be different for every person. But at the end of the day, freedom privilege is what we need to move us forward. Disability solidarity is what we need to move us forward. And we need a collective healing that we have not yet had, especially those of us who are from communities of color.

TL: Thank you.

Talila “T.L.” Lewis

Indoor photo of Talila Lewis sitting with head resting atop hands

T.L. engineers & leads intersectional social justice campaigns that illuminate and address grave injustices within our education and legal systems, primarily focusing on supporting multiply-marginalized deaf and disabled individuals affected by mass incarceration. T.L. is a visiting professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, a recent graduate of American University Washington College of Law, and the founder and director of the all-volunteer nonprofit HEARD, or Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf people.