Emergent Bravery: Who Wants to Talk about Disability?

pau | Photo Kate Levy 

State Terror Disables the People

Baba Baxter Jones was roughly removed from the site of a civil disobedience in front of the Homrich Wrecking facility on Detroit’s west side. He was jammed into a police van and taken for what is known commonly as a “rough ride,” in his wheelchair on which he relies daily. He sustained lasting injuries. He was not only subjected to violence at the hands of a racist, capitalist system of violence, but an ableist system— a system with no capacity for compassion to consider his particular abilities. The physical force used to intimidate Baba Baxter Jones adversely altered his abilities going forward. But Baba Baxter is not disabled. The Detroit Police Department disables (and the system that it serves and protects continues to disable) Baba Baxter and possibly everyone in our beloved city, every day.

Similarly, when police in Baltimore harassed, arrested, maimed, and ultimately murdered Freddie Gray, their vicious, brutalizing force disabled him. Videos taken at the scene of Freddie Gray’s kidnapping show him pleading for mercy, screaming that he could not feel his legs, that the merciless mercenaries of Baltimore PD were disabling him. When Eric Garner was dragged to the ground by members of the New York Police Department, their aggression stemmed from a total disregard for his physical abilities, his health, his level of emotional distress, and his need for calm and care. Now infamously, Garner’s cry—“I can’t breathe”—stands as a clear example of police establishing domineering control over their subjects, by actively and willfully disabling all of us.  


Garner’s murderers and their co-conspirators attempted to justify killing Eric Garner by citing his weight and his health, not as things they should have considered when they engaged this harmless grandfather, but as reasons why he deserved to die, or at least why his death was of little consequence in the eyes of the law. Such attempts to body-shame a victim of fatal brutality (then only hours deceased) reveal the depths of the normalized hatred for people with diverse and uncelebrated abilities in an ableist society.


Despite attempts to attribute lesser worth to Eric Garner because of his physical makeup, Mr. Garner was not himself disabled; Garner’s legacy as a more than capable father, grandfather, husband, and friend is now a matter of public record. Yet the New York Police Department disabled Eric Garner, to the point of death. Though he could not walk at the point of his arrest, Freddie Gray was not disabled, but the Baltimore Police Department disabled Freddie Gray.


While we empathize easily with the plight of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner as Black people dying at the hands of police, viewing their arrests alongside the arrest of Baba Baxter Jones demonstrates how disabling people is a tool of state terror more generally; thus, disability justice and social justice must be joint projects and responsibilities for all of us.  

Through a lens that celebrates instead of stigmatizing diverse abilities, we make a radical claim: no one—not even someone born with outstanding physical or mental challenges—is by their nature disabled. Instead, when society does not value, accommodate, care about, and celebrate diverse abilities and individuality in our personal challenges, society disables people, throws them away, and disposes of them, even to the point of death.


Disability, Diverse-ability, Capability: Understanding Disability in Oppressive Systems


Ableism is a system of domination, interlinked with all other structures of elitist exploitation and domination; it establishes a class of people who are deemed superior according to perceived relative physical, mental, or emotional capability and thus establishes a class of people deemed inferior because of relative physical, mental, or emotional challenges. Ultimately, an ableist society structures all aspects of life to accommodate those abilities which are privileged and to exclude those people with different abilities. Society uses stigma to transform people with different abilities into people with disabilities, putting people with especially stigmatized physical, mental, or emotional experiences and abilities at the margins behind a mountain of built-in barriers. People are not disabled; society disables the people it doesn’t value. And though many do not identify with disability, or fail to recognize their own experience of being disabled (the way some don’t “see race”), a society designed to marginalize people ultimately disables people as a mechanism of control, even in unnoticeable but significant ways.


Fundamentally linked to racism, sexism, capitalism and other structures of elitist exploitation, ableism positions and asserts itself from the foundation of a false notion of capability and disability that is measured by one’s useability in systems of labor production, cultural compliance, and sexual subordination. If it is perceived that you are unable to work in ways that produce profit for the elites who own the economies of commodity, pleasure, respectability, you are disposable. Such concepts of productivity rest upon a perceived work-ethic, with implications about who is considered industrious and who is indigent, who is a hard worker and who, by nature, is lazy. Such concepts of productivity rely on an indifference to difference, to suffering, to personal struggle, to the various individual ways our bodies, our minds, the ways in which we work, not only to produce, but to function as whole persons.


Ableist society tries to use stigma and shame to convince us that “disability” is innate, something that exists within a person, such that a person is disabled. And yet, we know that structures of elitism are not responses to truly embodied inequality. Rather systems of domination and exploitation impose unequal conditions upon people through structurally unequal treatment, through violence and systemic harm. All of these systems rely on ableism and disabling the exploited classes of people to maintain elitist power structure.

The horrifying images of the massacre in Gaza this summer tell of both tragedy and trade-secret. Doctors reported from hospitals in surrounding areas that patient after patient rushed into the hospital with irreparable leg wounds forcing amputations. Such repeated sights convinced doctors that the Israeli Defense Force  was “aiming to cripple [sic] a generation.” Note the special intention with which armed Israeli forces aim not only to kill, but to disable Palestinians who protest.


Within elitist systems, in which people are deemed valuable only according to their ability to serve the elites, all people are disposable, especially if they challenge power. Any moral reckoning with consciousness and conscience is met by structures of exploitation with unthinkable brutality. State violence will destroy us to preserve the established order of elites exploiting the masses. Systems of elitism threaten to disable us all, physically, psychologically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  


Our Bodies Politic: The Revolutions of a More Whole Organism


Even our communities are complicit in disabling the people; every day, community spaces, government institutions and corporate enterprises in Detroit, and everywhere, disable people by refusing to consider and accommodate people’s particular needs in the way society broadly accommodates people with less stigmatized abilities.


Yet, it is nowhere written that only people who walk on their two-legs should have access to community meetings. Nowhere is it prescribed that only people who wake up feeling automatically motivated, free from depression or chronic fatigue, should have a decent income and that people who survive mental hardship should also be doomed to a life of financial hardship; nowhere is it predetermined that only those who feel aligned with their at-birth sex assignment should easily find housing while trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people should be left to the elements of unforgiving streets. We impose such false realities on the world around us, when we only celebrate what society tells us to celebrate, at the expense of our own innate goodness. The emergence of a distinct movement for disability rights (most notably the fight that resulted in the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990—known as the ADA—led by groups like ADAPT), and the re-emergence of a politics of liberation from ableist society, led by those like Baba Baxter Jones, founding the advocacy group “Advocates for Baba Baxter” here in Detroit, help us see that systems like racism, sexism, and capitalism fundamentally degrade bodies, reducing us all to a “worth” measured only in profitable productivity and exploitability by elites, by disabling the people.

Battles over maternity leave, struggles for decent wages centering on whose work is valuable and whose is not, fights for equal treatment regardless of someone’s language, culture, or gender identity reveal a political culture that devalues “different”. The shape of society is not a given, but is the product of flawed thinking, which holds some people as disposable.


That a ramp, or a wheelchair lift, or braille, or dual-language postings, or that any accessible infrastructure, the idea that such things are extra work is fundamentally ableist because we choose to structure not only spaces with barriers to those we don’t deem important in the first place. Any structure with stairs, could have easily had a ramp, all along. Any curb could be designed with a cut in the first place. All spaces reflect how much we do or do not value everyone.


Any community that cannot outgrow its own biases is itself “disabled” and through that disability limits itself and those in and around it. Those who scoff at the idea of building accessible spaces have a lacking ability of consideration and care. Communities who enjoy the insulation of racial privilege and apartheid lack the capacity for self-reflection. Those who see public safety and justice as products of systemic harm and police brutality and not healing, lack the ability of critical thought. In the end, when we lock each other out of beloved community, our community is the one that loses out on the additive, indispensable total of our collective brilliance. In that way, when Baba Baxter Jones and those who fight with him work to build a movement that realizes societal justice through the realization of disability justice, they fight for the good of all. A society that considers everyone is good for everyone.


The simple revelation of the inherent value of all people is one which places us beyond the capitalist workcamp of a world where our personal value is falsely equated to our ability to function, work, and produce in the ways that society’s elites deem valuable. Such a liberating revelation—of our intrinsic and collective power—emerges out of the bravery of visionary fighters and lifts us all from the dire place of disposability at the hands of exploitative systems.


In this, we know now one ultimate baseline in the harmony of truth(s): we are all the most free when we are freed by partaking in a movement for the freedom of all.

Leave a Reply

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