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MLK Day Speaker Talila Lewis: Seeking Justice for All Communities through ‘Disability Justice and Disability Solidarity’

By Jordan Poll
February 4, 2019

Talila Lewis, attorney, social justice engineer, and educator, delivered the Law School’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day address on January 21. Lewis challenged the audience to think about the little-known facts of King’s work, emphasizing that a relative few are aware of his efforts to radically restructure society. Borrowing from King’s lesser-known speeches, in which he chastised white moderates, demanded universal health care and poverty abolition through guaranteed income, and called for an immediate end to the war in Vietnam, Lewis argued that King’s work has been unjustly tempered and dangerously oversimplified. “Simply saying that Dr. King fought for racial justice or civil rights doesn’t encompass much at all of the work he actually did,” Lewis told the Michigan Law audience. “[Dr. King’s work] was layered, intersectional, loving, and interdependent—like all the things we know that are required for life and liberation—because he understood the importance of including everyone in the fight.” Lewis went on to state that many believed his so-called “radical” perspectives are why the government found him “dangerous” and led to his constant surveillance, harassment, and assassination.

King inspired much of Lewis’s own advocacy as co-founder and volunteer director of HEARD, a volunteer-dependent nonprofit organization working to correct and prevent deaf wrongful convictions; end abuse of incarcerated people with disabilities; and combat mass incarceration. “Most disability rights organizations, not to be confused with disability justice organizations, use the law—perhaps suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act—to attempt to bring about reform,” said Lewis. “People who are negatively racialized often do not get the attention they need from these organizations; and the same goes for those people who are low or no income, who happen to be deaf or disabled.” Because of this failure to address the oppressions faced by those who exist at the intersection of marginalities, or what Lewis called the “margins of the margins,” Lewis fights for disability justice and an end to all forms of violence against these most neglected communities, in large part by raising consciousness about the reality of the struggles they face.

Lewis challenged the current understanding of disability and helped draw connections between ableism and racism. Continuously investigating how disability is constructed and how it exists, arises in, and interacts with marginalized individuals and communities, Lewis shared a few insights. “Disability always has been viewed through the lens of whiteness, wealth, and other privileges. Historically, forms of resistance by negatively racialized people were labelled as insanity and criminal, making it easy to incarcerate [them] as opposed to providing accommodations or liberation.” One example Lewis provided was famed eugenicist Dr. Samuel Cartwright’s “drapetomania” pseudoscientific diagnosis. Mainstream scientific journals of his day published his accounts of a disease that only enslaved people had. Instead of being understood as a rational response to enslavement, the “incessant urge to run away” was labeled a mental illness. This phenomenon still occurs today with purported “excited delirium”—a diagnosis being used to justify the murder of people like Natasha McKenna, an African American woman who died while in police custody, and with the purported diagnosis being assigned to youth who experience trauma in under-resourced schools. “We see this all the time,” said Lewis. “But it is just a means of brushing aside their trauma and disability instead of addressing them in a loving, healthy manner.”

It is known that if oppression, violence, or deprivation persists, a person can experience trauma, Lewis said. She described the feelings of stark terror that they and many other negatively racialized people feel around law enforcement because of what they experience in their neighborhoods and witness in the media day after day. When left unaddressed, trauma can lead to disabilities including PTSD and Complex-PTSD, among others, Lewis explained. In other words, disability can be determined and caused by culture, biodiversity, or the social and political environment in which one lives and works, for example. “Sexism, racism, classism, and ableism. How you are treated depends on how you are perceived by society, and what is deemed ‘normal’ is decided by people in positions of power,” Lewis said. “But ‘normal’ is a myth, a problem, and a privilege. Having a disability doesn’t necessarily cause within you some innate inferiority. It’s simply part of being human.”

While there are varying definitions of disability, Lewis focused on the social and medical models of disability as well as the legal definition. Federal disability rights laws define disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Again, often in the case of marginalized communities, this definition does not quite fit. “Many [marginalized] folks face their barriers and disabilities head on and they just ‘keep it pushing.’ They don’t fit this description nor define themselves as disabled,” Lewis said. “Because of this—and especially if you’ll be representing these people in the future—there has to be a different understanding.” Within every marginalized community, there is a disproportionate representation of disability, explained Lewis. Many of those individuals claim multiple identities and face oppression from various sources simultaneously. “So when we start to think about justice and liberation, all of these things must be taken into consideration. Not just race, class, or disability, but also deaf status, literacy, income levels, history, culture, and myriad other things that must always be on our minds—and not in silos.”

With that, Lewis issued a challenge. “Not just today with Dr. King, but with everyone every day moving forward, I want you to ask this question: What is it that I don’t know about this person? Then go seek it out,” Lewis said. “That is really what is going to make us more powerful in our work and our understanding of the work of our ancestors.”

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