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Black Ableism

By Leroy F. Moore

“Black ableism,” a concept that I have been writing about for years (Moore 2024). Black ableism is a form of discrimination and social prejudice specifically against Black people with disabilities, perpetrated by non-disabled Black individuals.

I helped coin this concept, addressing the unique historical and cultural context of ableism within the Black community, tracing its roots to slavery and the subsequent internalization of negative perceptions of disability.

Since the 1980s I have worked in both my disability and Black community. Most of my activism and cultural work has been aimed to change my communities based on my identity as a disabled Black man. My work has mostly opened avenues in the disability community, including non-profits by utilizing cultural events, research books/literature and disability studies. In the mid 1990s after feeling used and discriminated against by dominant disability nonprofits I founded Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization (DAMO) which was active for four years. DAMO was established for people of color with disabilities and the greater Black community.  Upon evaluation of DAMO I realized I have been running away from my Black community because of open wounds unknowingly inflicted by them through forms of Black ableism.

As we know, terminology and the power of defining language are really important. Most often new terminology comes from the streets. Often academia adopts this language therefore giving legitimacy to the work of disabled folks without acknowledging their work. Most areas of disability have been taken from us, including the medical industry, and professionals/experts etc.  Until we take it back, redefine it, politicize it, and sometimes change it all together our work will continue to belong to others.

Although the term Ableism has been defined by disability advocates from dominant culture, if you put Black in front of anything coming out of disability it must first be stripped down then reshaped in the experiences, histories and words from the Black disabled experience. By now, we must know that the Black disabled experience in America has different roots than our White disabled counterparts. Because of the need of Black disabled people to heal our wounds inflicted by our Black community, one by one or collectively, it is imperative that we tell our stories and define new terminology, definitions, art, music, political views, and provide education and resources for our Black community. Many Black disabled people have had these same thoughts.

According to a Black disabled lawyer educator and organizer Talila Lewis’s working definition of ableism is: “A system of assigning value to people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. This systemic oppression leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactorily re/produce, “excel” and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.” (2022)

If we view this definition from the perspective of the Black experience reaching back from the capture and shipping of slaves to the teaching of disability and our bodies, almost everything we have done has helped shape Black ableism toward Black disabled people. Due to the lack of awareness of race and racism that continues to exist in the disability rights movement, it is not surprising that the Black community has not made steps to recognize their own ableism.

I have defined Black ableism as: Discrimination and social prejudice against Black people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities from Black non-disabled people as far back as slavery. For example, slave owners used disability as a reason to devalue a slave because of what he/she could contribute to the plantation. And as we, a new people emerged out of slavery and saw by the slave master’s example that disability meant devalued. Therefore slaves internalized disability was a sin, something that needs to be healed using the outdated Religious Model of Disability mixed with The Tragedy/Charity Model of disability that says the following: The idea that disability is essentially a test of faith or even salvation in nature. If the person does not experience the physical healing of their disability, he or she is regarded as having a lack of faith in God. Mix with depicting disabled people as victims of circumstance, deserving of pity. (Moore, 2024)

Unchallenged Black ableism not only holds the Black community from advancing the project of justice for all its members, but it also makes the Black community hurtful and irrelevant for the Black disabled people and their families. Black Ableism can cause many deep-rooted problems in a Black disabled person. The problems are as broad as low self-esteem, to trying to reach the unreachable, also known as overcoming or hiding their disability, to most importantly, not having a community. Ableism, like racism, manifests from individual to institutional, where it corrupts Black institutions.

Black ableism can only be eradicated by stripping what the Black community has been taught about disability through the lens of oppression and then rebuilding. This rebuilding process must be conducted by coordinated teams of Black disabled people and family members who have had a presence in both the disability and Black communities. Also, part of the formula includes individuals who have held on to their identity politics and have a disability vision and reality for the Back community. In other words individuals who have a deep rooted love of their community and are willing to risk exposing their pain to help the Black community have an understanding of disability from a race and culture perspective. This process will be a long term commitment to healing and detailing the historical significance of disability to present day issues, including Black ableism. For Black disabled people and our families the rebuilding will lead to a path of Black disabled empowerment and a commonality with our Black community. The Black community will be all the richer by embracing their disabled sisters and brothers from a historical, political, participatory and cultural way of life.

As Krip-Hop Nation we use Hip-Hop to reclaim, educate, advocate and Krip a space so to connect to the above, I have Krip Public Enemy’s 1989 song, Fight The Power to Fight Black Ableism.

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