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    Black Disabled Lives Matter and How Social Workers Need to Address Structural Ableism

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    Conversations about police violence are happening all over the world from the killing of Mr. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Black and so many other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC). America is at an inflection point where we are being forced to examine our ugly stain of racism which permeates through every American system and infrastructure.

    Difficult conversations on structural racism, police brutality, and inequality are finally be held where its a shared reality. And I want to add a disability thread to that conversation, but first…

    Several years prior to 2020, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw added a different thread to the conversation about BIPoC deaths at the hands of police by talking about gender and all of the women who have died due to police violence, but many of those women names are not known. We got to know the #sayhername movement where people began to think intersectionally about race and gender even if the mainstream news media didn’t report much about the deaths of BIPoC women killed by police.

    But only recently have we learned that 30-50% of the BIPoC people who have died at the hands of police in this country over a three year period had something else in common, they had a disability. This fact was unearthed by the Ruderman Family Foundation in a white paper that examined media coverage of such cases (PDF file here). It was necessary to study this phenomenon this way as there is no legal requirement for police to track disability data related to arrests or deaths. Did you know that Sandra Bland had a disability? Freddie Gray? Elijah McClain? And so many more…

    In studying media reporting, the Foundation noted that disability was either not mentioned, listed as a non-contextualized attribute, used to evoke sympathy for the victim or to blame the victim. In rare cases, it allowed for discussion of the intersecting forces leading to lethal use of force situations. The report concludes states, “When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.”

    Although disabled people make up 1/3 of all households in the United States, which is approximately 61 million people or about 25% of the U.S. population, it still feels as though we are so often *unseen* and *unremembered* in social work circles or any circles as if our identity is an afterthought.

    Social workers need to begin to see with a disability lens, to remember disability as an identity. In working with disabled people, social workers need to think about the ways they can prevent the deaths of disabled people at the hands of police – and especially BIPoC disabled people. Disability justice advocate Haben Girma has been out front on this with respect to individual interactions with the police, but let’s think about this more structurally.

    Here are a few questions that can guide your work – notice that they move beyond the usual band-aid “train the police to work with disabled folks” response that we usually get and move towards the goal of structural reform! Just as we need to think about structural racism in confronting police violence, so too do we need to think about structural ableism in police work.

    • How can we raise disability culture awareness *throughout* our local police precincts?
    • Are there ways we can rid those precincts of structural ableism such as through the identification and elimination of ableist thinking, tendencies and practices?
    • Are there strategic partnerships we can facilitate that can bridge disability justice advocates with law enforcement and social service partners toward this effort?
    • Are there alternative conflict and dispute resolution systems that we can fund in order to avoid police involvement in “hot situations?”

    Are you willing to step up for disability justice in your social work world? 

    Dr. Elspeth Slayter is a professor of social work at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, United States. With over twenty years of experience in forensic social work, Dr. Slayter specializes in supporting people with disabilities in addiction, criminal justice and child welfare settings. As both a person with disabilities and as a disability services researcher and practitioner, Dr. Slayter draws on her experiences to inform a blog focused on the promotion of anti-oppressive social work practice with people with disabilities.

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