‘ADA 30 in Color’ panel discusses lived perspectives of disabled BIPOC on 30th anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act

ADA30 in color
Eddie Hernandez Photography/Courtesy

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To mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the #ADA30InColor online event was held July 26 to discuss a compilation of essays that reflect on the past, present and future of disabled people who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. The panel discussion included several authors who had contributed their essays and was moderated by communications and inclusion specialist Andraéa LaVant.

LeVant started off the discussion by asking Alice Wong why she created this series. Wong, the founder of the Disability Visibility Project and editor of the “ADA 30 in Color” series, said she had wanted to “recenter the work and the wisdom” of the disabled BIPOC community.

The panelists were then asked what ADA meant to them. Reyma McCoy McDeid argued that ADA had been remarkable in terms of physical infrastructure, such as ramps, but felt that it was not intersectional. “The ADA has not addressed the preschool-to-prison pipeline for Black and Brown children, especially Black and Brown men and boys,” McDeid said. In her essay, she had gone into the challenges she had encountered when trying to make a space for herself in the disability community as a developmentally disabled Black woman.

Valerie Novack added that nondisabled people often assume that the disabled now have all “bases covered” with a disability anti-discrimination bill such as the ADA. “It feels more like a foot in the door,” she said. As a Black and Latinx woman, she said she sometimes feels “disconnected from the ADA,” as it does not seem to give priority to the needs of her community. 

Timotheus Gordon, Jr., an autistic self-advocate who has mental health and auditory processing disorder, contributed an essay on how ADA shaped his Black autistic identity from childhood. He said the ADA has been a “godsend” for job accommodations and resources that make him what he calls “an interdependent person,” which means he can do some things on his own while needing assistance with others. “However,” he added, “I do agree that ADA failed communities of color, because ADA is mainly focusing on the white disabled community.” 

Cherokee Nation citizen Jen Deerinwater, who has multiply disabilities, chronic pain and mobility issues, discussed ADA in terms of tribal sovereignty. “The United States laws should not be applied on tribal land and within tribal nations,” she argued. “However, the United States government has a trust and treaty response to us to provide us with things like health care and infrastructure, which they have never followed through.” 

The result, Deerinwater explained, is rampant food insecurity, underlying health issues and lack of running water, which means ADA compliance is not top priority. “How do you worry about whether or not your building … is compliant to different disability access needs when your people don’t even have clean running water?” she asked, also citing the difficulties of providing services including Paratransit in areas without adequate roads, such as the Navajo Nation. She argued that many people in the disability community, including non-native BIPOC, give little thought to native disabled folks. 

The panel then went on to discuss what the ADA would look like if it were to be recreated today. 

“I’d like to think today’s ADA would be a lot more intersectional,” said panelist Lia Seth, a human resources specialist of South Asian origin who has physical and invisible disabilities. “It would have a lot more emphasis on mental health as well as physical health.” 

Novack added that a recreated ADA would have to acknowledge neurodivergence and recognize that BIPOC individuals are going to experience disability differently than white individuals. She also argued that, given the changes in technology and access requirements over the last 30 years, there would be a greater focus on guidelines beyond that for a small set of male wheelchair users. 

Deerinwater similarly spoke to the differences in the lived experiences within the BIPOC community itself, particularly in the health care system. “The way I’m treated by medical professionals changes really quickly when they realize my last name. I’ve had people assume I’m just lying about my health issues,” she said. “These are things that white ill and disabled folks aren’t going to have to deal with.” 

LaVant asked McDeid to elaborate on the late Stacey Park Milbern’s observation about “celebrating (ADA) while looking ahead.” McDeid argued that the disabled community needed “to address and honor and acknowledge the people that history forgot, particularly racially marginalized folks,” and cited the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of the need to engage in difficult conversations.

The last few minutes were spent with each panelist giving a call to action. Seth encouraged white disabled individuals to amplify disabled BIPOC voices, while McDeid advised people to avoid sidestepping “social minefields” — a sentiment echoed by Novack, especially around health and culture. Deerinwater highlighted the need for having BIPOC “at the table … from the very moment minute the conversations begin.”

Ultimately, Gordon urged the audience to think about intersectionality. “No matter if you want to do this now or you want to talk about it in ADA 50 or ADA 60, we must change the mindset from focusing on one identity only to realize that all identities affect each other when it comes to social issues,” he said. “We cannot continue to separate disability from racism, sexism and all other ills.” 

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly displayed the cover of the book “Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century.”