#BlackDisabledLivesMatter: solidarity and self-education

KPR stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and its goal of dismantling systemic racism, including police brutality, to create a more just and equitable society. In seeking to use our assistive technology company to promote justice, this post explores the intersection of race and disability.

Graphic showing a black fist and icons representing disabilities. Caption is Black Disabled Lives Matter.

Graphic showing a black fist and icons representing disabilities. Caption is Black Disabled Lives Matter.

“If you’re not thinking about how you can use your company to promote justice, then you’re not doing your job as an executive.” So says Wes Moore, the CEO of Robin Hood, in a recent New York Times article on how corporate America has failed Black America.

Mr. Moore’s quote got my attention. He’s exactly right, and his words apply even to a tiny company like Koester Performance Research. It’s a reminder that our jobs, our working lives, aren’t separate from life as a whole. Especially now, we need all hands on deck, and all possible avenues, to address what’s broken in our society.

For those of you who work in the field of assistive technology (probably most of the people reading this), you know that promoting justice and equity is an inherent part of the work. Being a part of helping people with disabilities pursue their dreams and live the lives they want to live is a big reason why many of us chose this field.

But what about issues of racial justice in the field of assistive technology? Does the intersection of race and disability create additional challenges for people who are Black as well as disabled? Like many of you, I’ve been thinking about this lately in the context of recent police killings of African Americans and mobilization of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. As a white, currently non-disabled person, there’s a lot more I need to learn about being a better ally, being a better person, and being a better AT professional.

In this post, I’ll describe some of what I’ve been learning, and promote some organizations that are working in this area and actions we can all take. I also ask for your input, to hear your voice regarding these issues. I’m not an expert by any means, and I’m sure I won’t get this exactly right. But we have to start where we are, so I offer this post as a starting point, in the spirit of moving forward together.


Detroit Disability Power and the Collective 4 Disability Justice hosted a protest and march in Detroit on June 15, 2020, to protest systemic ableism, racism, and police brutality. I was able to hear most of the presenters during the facebook livestream – thanks to the organizers for providing that. Multiple presenters painted a moving and compelling picture of what needs to change in our society, including the following points:

  • The presence of a disability complicates an already risky relationship with law enforcement for people who are Black.
  • Being deaf, blind, or having difficulty communicating, combined with being Black, creates great vulnerability and risk with respect to law enforcement. Individuals may be seen as non-compliant or aggressive, when they don’t respond the way the police expect.
  • For example, a presenter who is blind described being asked to get out of a car he was travelling in during a routine traffic stop. He can’t get out safely without his cane, but he can’t reach for his cane on the floor without alarming the police officer. Given the reality that traffic stops can quickly turn deadly, particularly for Black men, he knows he has to quickly make good decisions about how to handle the situation while feeling extreme fear and anxiety.
  • Similarly, individuals who are deaf may not know that a police officer is addressing them, or what the officer is asking of them, creating anger in an officer who sees that behavior as uncooperative or disobedient.
  • When dealing with officers who are ignorant or can’t understand, the burden falls to the person with a disability to navigate the situation safely, creating unneeded suffering, injuries, or even death.

Photograph of a group of people marching for justice in Detroit. Some people are using wheelchairs, others are signing. Black Disabled Lives Matter.

What’s needed

With respect to police reform, presenters’ calls included the following:

  • Train officers to de-escalate conflict
  • Ensure that officers use only non-lethal force when conflict is unavoidable
  • Demilitarize police
  • Ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds
  • Re-center law enforcement on community policing

The overall goal is to dismantle structures of oppression that allow others to see Black disabled people as unworthy of respect.

What can we do to help?

First, recognize that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. We all need to do something to promote justice and equity, especially those of us with white privilege.

Here are some suggestions for concrete actions:

  1. Educate ourselves and discuss these issues with others. See the list of readings below for a starting point.
  2. Amplify the voices of those who are actively working in the area of race and disability, like OT Lauren Jones and Detroit Disability Power.
  3. Mobilize the vote and elect officials who support progressive change.
  4. Let current elected officials know where you stand and what you expect. Voice your support for legislation like the federal Justice in Policing Act, currently pending in the U.S. House.
  5. Watch the QIAT listserv for details on an upcoming AT Town Hall on the intersection of race, diversity, and AT. Organizers will post on QIAT as soon as everything is finalized. (Thanks to Beth Poss for this.)
  6. Work within our professions to diversify the field of assistive technology. See below for more on that. Let your professional association know that you care about this issue. Contact COTAD to find out how you can help.

Diversity among AT leaders and professionals?

So what about that last action item: to diversify the AT field? Anecdotally, my impression of the assistive technology field is that the vast majority of AT professionals, developers, and leaders are white people. As a first step in checking that impression, I looked at the make-up of three AT leadership groups: the ATIA Board of Directors, the ATIA Strand Advisors (who select ATIA conference content), and the RESNA Board of Directors. From photographs, and personal acquaintance with many of these individuals, it appears that there are no Black people in any of those leadership groups, out of a total of 43 people.

This is not to pick on these organizations or the people generously volunteering their time to these leadership roles. Based on my own participation on those boards, I don’t believe there’s an intent to be exclusionary. But that’s not the point. We need to find a way to involve a wider diversity of individuals in these leadership boards, particularly African Americans. It’s not only the just and right thing to do– it also improves the organizations by bringing in new perspectives, new ideas, and varied experiences.

African Americans are underrepresented in assistive technology professions as well, which is at least one factor affecting the pipeline to leadership boards. For example, a recent survey of 252 current Assistive Technology Professionals (ATPs) working in the supplier/manufacturing industry showed 92.4% were White and 79.0% were male.

Within occupational therapy, the percentage of occupational therapy practitioners identifying themselves as African American or Black is only 3.1%, and those identifying as Hispanic or Latino is 3.2%, according to the AOTA’s 2015 Salary & Workforce Survey. And the numbers are similar for physical therapists and speech-language pathologists.

Groups like COTAD (Coalition of Occupation Therapy Advocates for Diversity) are working to bring more diversity to the occupational therapy profession. Initiatives include educational presentations and resources, mentorship programs, networking groups, and more. Looks like a great opportunity to work for equity and diversity, particularly for OTs.

Some worthy readings

Here is a short list of readings related to race, assistive technology, and disability. Please let me know what other resources you find useful.

#BlackDisabledLivesMatter. By Britney Wilson, The Nation, 2016. Why we need to talk about both race and disability when addressing police brutality.

Black OTs Matter. By Lauren Jones, blog post, June 7, 2020. A powerful and moving perspective from Lauren Jones, an occupational therapist who is Black, relating how challenging it is to keep it together at work while living with the pain and burden of being Black in America.

Becoming a culturally responsive AAC practitioner. By Charlie Danger, OT. Conference poster with an introduction to cultural proficiency.

Target, don’t tell me you ‘stand with Black families’. By Doreen Oliver, New York Times, June 12, 2020. My autistic son tried to hug an employee. Did you really need a police officer on the scene?

People with disabilities lead hundreds in a more accessible protest against police violence in Milwaukee. By Rory Linnane, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 7, 2020.

Almost half of people killed by police have a disability. By Marti Hause and Ari Melber, NBC News, 2016. Based on a report by the Ruderman Family Foundation. People killed under these tragic circumstances include LaQuan McDonald in Chicago, Ethan Saylor in Maryland, Aura Rosser here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to name just a few.

The Guardian also focused on the Ruderman report in this 2016 article, which includes this notable and chilling quote:

For example, if a person’s ability to communicate is significantly impaired, be it by psychosis, autism, or dementia, and responding officers are ill-equipped to identify or adequately engage with and protect those individuals, the outcomes can be disastrous.

COTAD also provides a great list of general anti-racism resources.

Let’s work together

What things are you doing to promote justice? Please take a moment to let me know. Looking forward to working together toward a more peaceful and just world!

7 thoughts on “#BlackDisabledLivesMatter: solidarity and self-education”

  1. so proud of KPR. Thanks for putting this out there. Lots of reading, discussing, protesting, and introspection happening in our household, but I am grateful to you for making the link for my professional life. The action items were helpful.

    1. Thanks, Paul! I know you are a creative person with a passion for social justice, so I’d love to talk further and learn about your ideas and actions.

  2. Hi Heidi,
    Thanks so much for this post! What I’m doing right now to promote justice = getting informed by reading lots of posts, heading to Lauren’s now; just purchased Stamped from the Beginning; joined the NAACP; and I’m noticing my implicit bias… I’d love to diversify my own circle of friends and will look for authentic ways to do so. Lots of work to do but America and the AT field is certainly up for the challenge!

    1. Thanks for reading and your energy, Nichole! Lauren’s post is very powerful. I definitely need to read Stamped from the Beginning. If you haven’t seen 13th yet, it is free on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krfcq5pF8u8. Yes, lots of work to do — but a tremendous opportunity. Sadly overdue but I agree that perhaps now we are finally up for the challenge!

  3. Thanks Heidi! Timely and thought-provoking links. I’ve certainly had more clients of color than colleagues. I love diversity. Back in the early 80’s, I loved living in DC and working at the local Energy Office, where i was the minority. It was great to be “the new white girl”.
    We have got to get DC Voting rights for those Americans!

    1. Thanks for reading, Dianne! It’s really rare for me to be in a minority-white setting, unfortunately, but — I like the way Nichole put it in her comment — I’m seeking authentic ways of doing so. Re: DC voting rights – I wasn’t sure what their situation is with the electoral college – had to look it up to find out that they do get the same number of electors as the least-populous state (since 1961 passage of 23rd amendment). In practice, they have had 3 electoral votes in every election since 1964.

      1. Electoral votes, yes. But their house representative cannot vote and they have no representation in the Senate. It’s less than full citizenship for DC residents, comprised of 47% African American; and 40% white. It seems those of us outside DC may want to advocate for full representation, since it’s our elected reps who can vote on the matter. In the DC govt office I worked, with around 30 people, there were roughly 5-6 white folks, and 3 white men held the top positions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *