Disabled and worthy.

By: Rebecca Nicole Laming

Hear from advocates on the front lines of seeking racial justice, disability inclusion and to be seen as their whole selves.

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When you woke up this morning, you likely took the first step of the thousands you'll take in any given day. For Leon Ford, every step, curb and doorway is a potential impasse. At 19-years old, he was shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, paralyzing him from the waist down. Leon quickly realized the challenges of being Black and disabled.

"Most of my life, I used both my legs," Leon shared. "That experience made me more aware of my blackness. For years, I focused on fighting for my freedom and fighting for justice, and eventually I had to come to terms and realize that I am a disabled Black man now.'"

In the latest installment of #Next20, Leon joined fellow disability rights activists Imani Barbarin and Maysoon Zayid to discuss the intersectionality between disability and race. Brought to you in partnership with our BOLD and ADVANCE employee resource groups, the panel was moderated by Verizon Media’s Tatianna Pile, covering the injustices and inequalities disabled people of color face in all facets of life from healthcare to voting.

The largest minority

More than 61 million Americans live with a disability, representing the largest minority group in the U.S. — larger than any ethnic, age or religious minority. While people with disabilities make up approximately 12 percent of the U.S. working-age population, they account for more than half of those living in long-term poverty, with the unemployment rate double the national average.

When you factor in the prevalence of disabilities among people of color and the downshift in available resources, the statistics are even more jarring. Race is not a talked about subject, even within the disability community, thus feeding systemic inequities and damaging stigmas.

"There is this idea among the disability community in a lot of spaces that talking about diversity and talking about blackness and our experience with people of color is divisive within the disability community because we are all supposed to come up as one, when in reality that does not happen," Imani explained. "We still have situations in which White people get the most resources, in which they have the most allotment for services, in which they are most represented as being on welfare and social safety net programs."

Maysoon, who refers to herself as the “lost Kardashian sister,” uses comedy to share her experience as a Muslim woman with a disability. "I am a multiple minority, and all of these things work together to create who I am. So, my joke on stage is in the oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal because I am Palestinian and I am a Muslim, I am a woman of color, I am disabled, and I live in New Jersey, so it does not get worse than that, right?"

While keeping her audience laughing, Maysoon underscores that Black and Brown members of the disability community have to fight to be seen and recognized. "People need to realize that disabled people of color exist," she added. "We know communities of color are less likely to get into early intervention, are less likely to acknowledge disability, are less likely to be able to be employed or have access to education if they are disabled."

To be seen and heard

According to the Ruderman Foundation, only 22% of characters with disabilities in film and television were portrayed by an actor with the same disability. That means, an overwhelming majority of roles are played by people who are able-bodied. Authentic representation in the media is an essential step towards greater empathy, understanding and overall support.

"Denzel Washington is the best actor in the universe, but he is not playing Hilary Clinton in a biopic," Maysoon shared. "When kids watch TV, every time they see a disabled image in which a person is miraculously on the red carpet, what you are telling them is, 'You don't belong.'"

Imani further shared how her mother went from doctor to doctor to get her diagnosed because they had never seen a Black girl with cerebral palsy and how representation directly correlates with receiving support.

"Media and television and representation informs the way we interact with these communities and interact with people of color with disabilities. When you go to a doctor who has never seen somebody with your skin color who has your diagnosis, it means either you are not getting diagnosed or there is a problem with the way we tell these stories. And if you are not getting a diagnosis, you are not getting services or aid."

The power and promise of tech

"I do not think I would be here without technology." Imani was quick to share when asked about the importance of technology for people with disabilities. All the speakers agreed technology is a great equalizer but with one inherent flaw. The development of many devices fails to include the disability perspective from the get-go.

"We are the innovators, we are the designers, we are the users. Make sure whenever you design a new feature, whenever you are creating a new product, you have disability in mind from the start, not as a nice little add-on at the end," Imani shared. "Don't create something for us without ever having our input in it."

"Give us back keyboards" is one note that Maysoon would like all developers and engineers to keep in mind when designing the next mobile phone. However, her point in flagging the mostly defunct feature emphasizes the nuanced needs of the disability community and how the tech industry's desire to introduce sleek products can exclude populations.

Blocking the ballot

With Election Day fast approaching, all voters are being asked to make a plan to cast their ballot. People with disabilities are no different, but the barriers to participating in elections are deep-rooted in discrimination and inaccessibility. To further highlight the issue, Imani created a series, "Vote for Access," a deep dive on key election issues.

"We see voter suppression utilized on communities of color and utilized on different interest groups, but when we think about voter suppression with disabilities, we think of it as like, 'Oh, it's not that important,' when it is, every single day of our lives is dictated by who is in office," she shared. "Our community is very vulnerable to policy changes on a daily basis, from one day to the next, quite literally."

"I keep thinking back to the primary line where people were standing in pouring rain and freezing temperatures to vote, and then I keep thinking of everyone being really gung-ho about voting by mail and both of those things being really inaccessible," Maysoon added. "I just want disabled people to make a plan. If you need help, reach out #CripTheVote, and we will find a way to help you."

Looking forward

As the panelists looked towards the future and discussed what they hoped to change, all indicated greater representation, from employment to media, as a critical step forward.

"For allies, look around. Are you on a panel where there is no disabled representation? Are you on a board where there is no disabled representation? Are you in a classroom where there is no disabled representation? If you do not visibly see disabled people around you, that is a problem," said Maysoon.

"Make sure that disability is not just a position you have in your organization saying, 'We got that, we checked it off the list.' Diversity is not paint by numbers, you do not just fill in a spot and say that you are done. It's a constant ever-evolving, ever-inclusive space," Imani added.

"What I would love to see in the next 20 years is for society to view Black, Brown, and disabled people as assets, Leon said. "If we continue to view marginalized communities as disruptive and lacking, then we are missing a huge opportunity to recreate the world that we want to live in, where everybody succeeds, where our economy is thriving, where people are healthy and happy."

Need to catch up on #Next20?

Don't worry, we've got you covered with the latest episodes:

What is #Next20?

Episode 1: Criminal Justice Reform

Episode 2: Making Every Vote Count

Episode 3: American History 101

Episode 4: Reimagining Small Businesses during COVID-19

Episode 5: We Have a Dream

Episode 6: Born Digital 

Change starts with honest dialogue and recognizing where and how we need to improve so that equality isn't selective. Hosted on BUILD by Yahoo, HuffPost, Up To Speed, In the Know and other Verizon channels, #Next20 will feature young visionaries and groundbreakers to explore the inspiration behind their ideas. This is #Next20—the voices of the future.

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