What’s Up WID: Disability Justice Transcripts

Ashley Inkumsah:

Hello everyone, and welcome back to What’s Up WID, the World Institute on Disability podcast where we discuss what’s up in the disability community across the globe. If you’re new here, I’m your host Ashley Inkumsah, and on today’s episode I will be sharing with you my very, very fruitful conversation with Dustin Gibson about the disability justice framework. Now, Dustin’s work centers around eradicating institutionalization and incarceration. He is the Access, Disability, and Language Justice Coordinator over at PeoplesHub. He is also a Peer Support Trainer at disABILITY LINK. He’s a founding member of the Harriet Tubman Collective, and he also works with a number of other organizations that focus on abolishing the carceral system and the oppression of people with disabilities.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Dustin and I, we really, really had a fantastic and a raw conversation about the disability justice framework and the origins of ableism and its interconnectedness with other systems of oppression. I really, and truly hope that you enjoy our conversation. Thank you so much, Justin, for joining me for today’s episode of What’s Up WID. If you could please explain to us how the disability rights movement changed the lives of people with disabilities and where it fell short.

Dustin Gibson:

Judith Butler talks about the idea of being able to assemble in public and deliberate, and debate, and gather being central to participating in a democracy. I think what disability rights movements… I think of it in factions as well. I don’t think that it was just this one large monolithic push for disability rights, but more so a bunch of smaller efforts that combined to create this critical mass, I guess, of people that are pushing in different areas for the rights. I view that in the lineage of the black radical tradition too, knowing that some of the history behind how students organized and other disabled people organized in California to bring about even access to education or the 504. Knowing that they got those templates and that strategy from the US black South and the traditions of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer.

Dustin Gibson:

I view it as a part of that. It’s also a fight for autonomy and agency in the same way that people like Fannie Lou Hamer were fighting for. Thinking about being able to choose what you do with your own body, especially as a black poor woman at that time and to-date too. I think about the disability rights movement as something that has provided, one, an articulation of what it actually means to be disabled in a society that is inaccessible and ableist. Then two, it’s given a platform and a possibility of being able to deliberate in public and being a part of the public, which is also central to democracy. When we talk about we the public, I don’t think that disabled people are necessarily included in that inherently. What the disability rights movement has done, in my perspective, is chip away at that quite literally of thinking about the smashing of curbs and whatnot.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Where would you say that it fell short?

Dustin Gibson:

As you said that I’m thinking about Kwame Ture’s quote. I’m not going to put it into a lot of context, so I don’t want this to be stripped out of context. I would just ask people to maybe look it up. But when he was talking about non-violence as a strategy and saying that Dr. King made one fallacious assumption, and that was that the United States had a conscience and they don’t. I think that the assumption of the disability rights movement, along with other civil rights movements really, is that the settler colonial state of the US, the project of the US, the imperialist project that it is, could actually grant people these types of rights and would want to. It lives within this construct that is inherently ableist, racist, misogynistic, patriarchal, imperialist, all of those things and more. It lives inside of that project.

Dustin Gibson:

I think the failure of it is to not be able to capture and be in solidarity with other movements. That’s not to say that that didn’t happen. It definitely happened, it still happens now. But it didn’t do in a wholesale way that… and this is not just an indictment of the disability rights movement. This is all civil rights movements in my perspective too, that they haven’t forged enough solidarity cross-issue, cross-group, cross-people in order to actually bring about what I would believe is a revolution to actually see the liberation of people and see power in a way that we need it in order to… I mean, literally in this point thinking about the environment in order to survive, us and the planet.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Can you talk about how the disability justice movement, how it addresses that and how it seeks to address the shortcomings of the disability rights movement?

Dustin Gibson:

Yeah. I do want to caution that. I don’t necessarily think that we have a disability justice movement right now. I say that as somebody that is extremely concerned with prisons, jails, nursing facilities, asylum, state hospitals, all forms of institutions, group homes. Places where people’s freedom has been taken away from them. Places where they’re under 24/7 surveillance. Places where people are monitored even outside of these carceral apparatuses. Just thinking about how there is not just enough attention paid to that. Even in a time where, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic where the majority of the people that have died from COVID have been people that are residents or are being held captive in nursing facilities and other types of institutions like prisons. That’s not even counting the amount of people that are connected to them in somehow that have contracted it because of that.

Dustin Gibson:

I think about how little attention is paid to those people who are mostly disabled, and knowing that a movement can’t actually move without those people. I think about the prison abolitionist movement, and one of the things that I appreciate about it is that it works from inside of prisons. People inside of prisons are the ones organizing, are the ones articulating the vision, are the ones telling us what is happening in prisons, telling us the impact on it. There’s this communication that exists in a way that it doesn’t with some of the other forms of institutions. I think that’s something that we really should be concerned about and reflect upon as people that are interested in disability justice and building movement. Now, I will say that we are building movement. There is an ecosystem that is forming. There’s a lot of disabled artists that are articulating our experiences in creative ways. They’re receiving platforms now or building platforms that I don’t think we’ve seen with artists that would socially and politically identify as disabled.

Dustin Gibson:

I guess another point would be tying our identities or understanding our identities as political, as an important aspect of disability justice. Whereas though I think, for a lot of different reasons, the disability rights movements, the traditional ones, weren’t at a place where they’re able to understand themselves as people that are politicized regardless of how you identify. Disability justice is attempting to… well, I think it is a opportunity to be able to reach people that will never identify as disabled for a lot of reasons. There’s a lot of reasons in which it’s dangerous to identify as disabled. You could be tracked into a substandard education system. You can be tracked into the prison system. Even right now, one of the pushes is to figure out how many disabled people are incarcerated. I would caution against that too because there’s been no indication to say that if they find out people are disabled, that they’re to do anything to actually benefit or improve their lives. It’s quite the contrary.

Dustin Gibson:

Those are some of the things that I think disability justice asks us. I don’t have answers for it or solutions, but I think that the questions that animate the work of disability justice are really distinct from those that disability rights asks us. Disability rights asks us who’s public, which is very important, critical. It asks us, are these institutions accessible? Is there accommodations being provided? I think all of that is important, but then I also think that work of, how do we fight for the rights and secure the rights of people that don’t know that they’re disabled, or reject the label of disable? Or how do we fight against all of the disabling systems and violences that take place without marginalizing the people that will be disabled regardless of those systems or those violences? Those are questions that, again, I don’t have answers to, but I think that animates the work.

Dustin Gibson:

I would say the last thing that I see as a separation is the focus on the individual through the law. The ADA, or the Americans with Disabilities Act taking its definition from the 504 provisions of the Rehab Act of ’73 is carving out individual accommodations for people. Yes, there’s this way in which we build an accessible world that we’re supposed to. We know that we don’t actually do that, so it’s failed in that regard. There’s no way to actually enforce these things. How the US, as this settler colonial project, enforces things is through criminalization. We know that that’s not going to actually get us anywhere. That individual approach to accommodations is something that disability justice pushes back against and understanding that what we’re doing has to be collective in a way that, yeah, those individual accommodations they’re set up for specific people rather than how we would all interact together.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah. Yeah, you mentioned that we’re not yet in a disability justice movement, but we’re building upon one. I think of last summer how Black Lives Matter, that was a movement, so to speak. It was supposed to be, but I juxtapose where we were, again, last summer against where we are now and how it’s not really so much on the vanguard. People are not nearly as energized as they were at that time. How do we build upon to create a movement rather than just a moment? Can that even be done in 2021 where, I don’t know, people’s attention spans are so whatever, and social media incentivizes people to say things on social media and they feel like they’re making a change but they’re not really doing much of anything. How do we build upon and create a movement rather than a moment?

Dustin Gibson:

Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a good question and I’m not sure if I’m the person that’s most equipped to answer that. But I do think that, well, I know for sure that those moments, the moments of polarization, which I think we need more polarization. I think we need to be clear about we’re fighting against fascists. We’re fighting against people that quite frankly would kill us if they had the opportunity to, and do in very methodical ways on a daily basis. I think we need to be clear about that and choose sides and actually root down and build what we need. A part of that is understanding that those moments of protests, those moments of uprisings are opportunities for organizers to create opportunities for those people to become a part of the movement.

Dustin Gibson:

Although it’s not as visible as it was last year, even taking from the protest after George Floyd was murdered. People rooted down in their local communities and got together and formed networks to be able to build strategy around what it actually means to defund the police. I mean, to the tune of like almost a billion dollars in a year, there’s been disinvestment from police. Now, there’s been counterattacks to that in federal funding and all of these other things that have happened. But what I’m taking from that is, after those moments of protest, what happens is people go into rooms. People hold political education workshops, sometimes four people show up, sometimes six people show up. But those people show up continuously and hold that space and think of new and innovative ways, and sometimes old ways, to build what we actually want to see.

Dustin Gibson:

I think that’s what builds movement, along with art. I think art is such a critical aspect of how we articulate our experience and document what is happening right now. I see more disabled artists becoming engaged in a political type of craft, I guess. Even the craft itself of disabled artistry is something that, Simi Linton, one of my mentors who referred to was like, “Disability is an aesthetic.” Thinking about that process of crafting and creating while being disabled is also teaching us what access is and how to engage in access. I think that work of, how do we perform access? How do we perform access is allowing us to interact with each other and the planet in a different way, which I think is the vehicle to abolition, is the vehicle that we’ll use to get to wherever we want to go. Because the how is just as important as the what.

Ashley Inkumsah:

How would you say that the systems of racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, et cetera, how do they interact and reinforce one another?

Dustin Gibson:

I would say that they’re literally dependent upon one another. One can’t exist without the other. They’re weaponized and used against us that way. There’s a bunch of things we can cite. We can cite that queerness was in the DSM up until the ’60s. We can cite how people… right now in California there’s a bill to provide reparations for people that were forcibly sterilized in institutions, prisons. It was like over 20,000 people that they had documented and about 350 are living now. One, I should mention that giving people $25,000 for that is absurd and insulting. But it’s an acknowledgement that something happened. But thinking about the people that were forcibly sterilized and still are in some cases, the women in North Carolina, the poor women, the black women in North Carolina, in Sunflower County, Mississippi. We were talking about Fannie Lou Hamer earlier, and also people like, disabled people that go into institutions where those same…

Dustin Gibson:

The justifications for attempting to get rid of populations essentially, eugenics, the justification for that has always been these type of marginalized identities. That’s one convergence of what that looks like. I think of prisons as a place where we can see the convergence of this. You can see that the majority of women, now I’m speaking specifically for Pennsylvania, have experienced some form of sexual assault either prior to or during their incarceration. You can also see higher rates, disproportionate rates of psychiatric disabilities within the population of people in prison. It’s a place where you can see the outcomes of what is happening in the free world, I guess, and who is actually being targeted by it. What we often find is people are not… I think Audre Lorde said we’re not singled layered, so you’ll find that people have multiple identities. Those are the ones that are targeted the most. Those are the people that are, I don’t want to say… for lack of a better phrase, I’ll say most depressed.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I think a lot of people think of the civil rights movement or right now Black Lives Matter movement, women’s rights movement. People think of them as being separate movements, but they don’t realize how it’s all connected to one another. Liberation for one is liberation for all, so definitely [crosstalk]-

Dustin Gibson:

Yeah. I even think about that in the context of slavery, and I think about Sojourner Truth’s freedom journey, and how she infamously walks away, doesn’t run away, from a plantation. But after she was allegedly supposed to get her freedom papers, the thing that kept her on the plantation was a hand injury or a wrist injury, which is essentially a disability. The justification was, you want to be able to be self-sustainable. So thinking about how those, her identities, could be leveraged at different points to do the same thing to benefit the institution of slavery and take away your freedom. That’s, I think, some of the more important things rather than just thinking about… all of it’s important, so yes, thinking about how the systems interplay with each other and how they feed off of one another, but also how they can be leveraged against and justified at any point in time.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yup. I think of the phrenology that was used to justify slavery, that they said that the slaves’ brains, the composition of the Africans their brains, that’s what made them inferior to whites therefore they deserved to be slaves. Those of them who wanted to run away, they were considered to be mentally unstable as well. So all of it is connected and it has such historical… if you go back you see everything is connected. All of this [crosstalk]-

Dustin Gibson:

Yeah, those census records that tell us the majority of free black people in 1860 or 1840, or people that are, essentially in their words, idiotic and asinine. People that are still in enslavement, or slaves, or people that are of sound body and mind. That pathologizing of blackness and disability happening at the same time is something that still comes out today. What I would refer to or Talila Lewis would refer to is the manufacturing of disability and things like excited delirium or oppositional defiance disorder. Where it is depending upon a character of how black people behave in order to create and inform this idea of what a disability is. Then from there you can purportedly treat people, which is usually punishment.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I think a perfect modern day example is how you see black women, how we die at such a disproportionately higher rate at childbirth and how black women are not believed when they say that they’re in pain when they’re pregnant, and then it results in that happening. It’s that intersectionality of being black, being a woman, and having a disability, and not being believed and just being made to be gaslit, and then ultimately it’s killing us.

Ashley Inkumsah:

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Ashley Inkumsah:

Why do you think that recognizing this intersectionality of multiply marginalized people with disabilities, why is that so important?

Dustin Gibson:

Yeah, I think that’s important because as we understand disability, I’m speaking mostly for myself. How I understand disability is really through a lens of whiteness and it is constructed by and for white people. Not just white, just wealthy, white people as well. I think it’s important because disability lives in every group we can think of in the world. I also believe that it lives within us in our bodies and minds differently. I don’t think a diagnosis of schizophrenia or cerebral palsy is the exact same thing in people. Some of the things that separate it or make it unique, I guess, and how it lives within us, is our social determinants. It is socioeconomic status. I think that there’s this cog wheel. When we do workshops sometimes we have a image of a cog wheel that says trauma and violence is a cause and consequence of disability, and poverty is a cause and a consequence of violence, and violence is a cause and consequences of trauma.

Dustin Gibson:

All of those things creating and shaping what our actual experiences are. If we respond to disability, that’s what we do with the law or with disability rights, we respond to what this disability is and how you can accommodate that stagnant thing. With a disability justice perspective that is relying upon or is rooted in one of the principles being intersectionality, is to understand that all of those other things shape how we live and shape also how we respond to it. Rather than it being this individual thing, it has to be more wholesale than that. Disability doesn’t live in a vacuum. I think that intersectionality is a lens to be able to view how our experiences are shaped by, not just our other identities, but how our identities are literally interplaying with the systems of domination and oppression and power.

Dustin Gibson:

Power being the key in that definition from Kim Crenshaw about intersectionality. As an organizer, as somebody concerned with attempting to find new ways of being I guess, identifying that power is important for us to seed it, and build it, and leverage it, and do all of the things that we need to do to change that experience if that experience is one that is being harmed or having violence inflicted upon us.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Why is it so important that we center the experiences of those who are multiply marginalized instead of centering scholars? Why is it important that we center their experiences when we’re talking about the disability justice framework?

Dustin Gibson:

I think that the idea of centering specific people has been somewhat convoluted, and I do think it’s really complex. I think that we should… yeah, I don’t know. I think we should be cautious about what that actually means to center people. I think about times of, when somebody is murdered by the police and we say we need to center the families. Oftentimes what that means is the families are now in a position where they have to give policy recommendation. Where they have to say how they’re going to… how we should, as a collective, stop this from happening to somebody else. I think that’s an impossible situation to be put in. One, I think it’s very unfair. I don’t think it’s actually supportive. I mean, Mariame Kaba. I would recommend Mariame Kaba’s last book, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us. Where her and Andrew Richie has a article where they discuss some recommendations of what support in abolitionist politics looks like in moments like that.

Dustin Gibson:

I say all of that to say that this is why movement is so important because we need scholars, we need artists, we need people that are not disabled. We need people that are not in prison to also be contributing. We’re centering the experience. That means that we’re believing what people are saying about their lives. We need impacted people to tell us what is actually happening to them in order to understand it. That I would say is focal, and that’s what I would mean by, and I think disability justice principles are articulating when we say leadership of the most impacted. I come out of the tradition of independent living movement where one of my elders, Ken Mitchell always says, “We’re the experts of our own lives.” Which is a very radical thing.

Dustin Gibson:

At a time, 50, 60 years ago when it was widely believed, more widely than now, that disabled people couldn’t have any type of control over their finances, their living situation, have a job. It’s a radically different world from then. So for them to be saying experts of their own lives at that time, I think, speaks to the level of self-determination that has to exist within movements. That leadership of the most impacted is one of those things, I think, that is hearkening back to or calling in the self-determination piece that has to be a part of what we’re doing when we say we want rights for disabled people or to build power amongst ourselves.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. What do you think the role of non-disabled, not only non-disabled, I will say white people. What is their role in this movement? What do you think their role is?

Dustin Gibson:

Yeah, I think their role is to be in principled struggle. Yeah, I oftentimes see, I guess, good-intentioned white people I would refer to them as maybe, liberals really. I’m taking liberal from Assata Shakur writings when she’s like, liberal is the most meaningless word in the dictionary, and then she goes on to talk about why. Because it means nothing. But I would say that, for those people it is to literally be in principled struggle. By that is like it’s rooted in something, this is our goal and actually have a thought behind it. What I see a lot of the times is liberal white people is just literally blanketly follow whatever person they think is the most impacted and is popular, and there’s no critical analysis behind that. We don’t need people that just can’t, are not forming their own thoughts and are just being led by whoever we want people to also be in that struggle of trying to answer some of those questions with us.

Dustin Gibson:

That is not like… if we truly believe our liberation is bound up with one another they have to see themselves as a part of this. When we talk about increasing access, when we talk about participating in a democracy, yeah, they also have to be people concerned with that. If they’re doing the oppressing, then they have to figure out how do they stop doing the oppressing. If they’re not the ones doing the oppressing, they have to articulate and find ways to come up with some of the same solutions that we are. By we I’m speaking specifically about black people. There’s definitely spaces where I believe it’s important for black people to convene and only black people. In those situations, there’s a bunch of ways to support.

Dustin Gibson:

Resources could be the first thing and that’s financial that’s you could even provide access, accessibility. There’s, I think to be more creative is, I guess, what non-disabled white people should do, be more creative with how they contribute. That’s not to say that there’s not a lot of people contributing now because there is.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Why would you say, I should say, that it is crucial that we adopt the disability justice framework and recognizing intersectionality. Why is this framework so important to the liberation of people with disabilities?

Dustin Gibson:

I think it’s important because we need a vision. We need something to build towards. I think another failure of the disability rights movement ended with legislation. It feels like, and I mean, this is something I’ve debated with with elders is it feels to me as somebody that wasn’t around, wasn’t born when these movements were taking shape and building, that the end goal felt like the signing of legislation with the enforcement, and we thought it would do something that it didn’t. I even think about Olmstead as a decision where there’s a lot of… Olmstead being the Supreme Court case with Lois Curtis and Elaine that they take it all the way to the Supreme Court in order to get integration mandate. Meaning that you can live in your community or have the option to live in your community rather than being in an institution.

Dustin Gibson:

Also Lois Curtis is somebody, black woman from the South in the South that creates incredible art too and also on the spot. Just drawing portraits of you as you stand in front of her and not even being in conversation with you and it coming out incredible. But I think that ceiling, there’s a cap on this colonial project. We are never going to be able to receive a full bill of rights from this project, so disability justice is important to adopt for people that are concerned with the lives of disabled people. It’s because it forces us to imagine outside of that, to build outside of that. When I think about abolition, which is also a part of disability justice, it is not something that is just telling us that we want to destroy the death making machines that are prisons that are institutions that are policed.

Dustin Gibson:

It is, we want the end to that to abolish that. But we also understand it as a project of absence, like Ruthie Wilson Gilmore talks about. That is a invitation into building something. That is a invitation into envisioning. Quite literally, just I guess in a sobering way, it is like being able to see ourselves in the future. Which I’ve worked with a lot of young people, young disabled people, some in jail, some not. That just thought of, “What do I look like in 20 years?” Is not something that’s common. I think disability justice is inviting people into just pondering that. With that, we can actually start to build that today, which people are building that world today but to the point where we can even imagine it. I think that’s what it does for us. Because even if disability rights…

Dustin Gibson:

Say the ADA did everything that it’s intended to do, we still have to ask that question of, now what? What do we have now? Now that there’s access, say in a world which I don’t believe there’s ever going to be 100% access. I think there will always be access conflicts. That’s also a part of disability justice is building the muscle and the skill to be able to respond in those moments. But so, if that all works and we have 100% access, then what is left is what we want to build. That cap on disability rights is not giving us that invitation to build that in a way. It’s asking for people to do something for it. We need power. We need to be self-determining and struggle through that together. We literally can’t get that from somebody else.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I’m curious, how did you get involved in this space? How did you get involved in the disability activism space and why?

Dustin Gibson:

Like I said, I came out of independent living, and independent living movement, and working at a center which was in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, which is a borough of Pittsburgh. Yeah, I was, to be around people… I would hear stories of the center that we were in, the physical building, was a nursing facility built in the mid to late 1800s for Protestant women. To go into it on a visceral level, to see disabled people in power chairs, blind people, deaf people, all types of people with all array of disabilities in a space that was literally set up for people to go in and be trapped there and stay there forever and die there. To see them reclaim that and to see themselves as people that are one, capable, and then two, fighting for other people to believe in themselves as capable as well. That was just a intoxicating feeling for me to know that people are concerned with that type of power.

Dustin Gibson:

But then after that, that’s the time where the uprisings in St. Louis where my people are from, literally the place where my people are from. Simultaneously, police killing people in Pittsburgh, namely Bruce Kelly Jr. who was a couple of blocks away from the center that I was just talking about with diagnosed disabilities that the police are aware of murdered. From there, to be around people that are actively attempting to change that, that’s where I would say were some of the moments that started it. I mean, I have a longer trajectory than that, because I think the experiences that I had growing up, and I mean that continued to this day, absolutely shaped how I viewed the world.

Dustin Gibson:

I point to those moments are the moments in which I developed the language I was given game by my elders. Milt Henderson is somebody when I first came to Pittsburgh really just took me under his wing and showed me how to, I mean, really how to move, how to navigate the city, who was who, what was what. I developed a lot of language around that period and also a lot of courage. Yeah, does that answer the question? I felt like I just started rambling a bit.

Ashley Inkumsah:

No, for sure. I was just curious on how you got started. I always say that we all are the sum of our own lived experience and those of us who work in this space and advocacy and justice spaces, social justice spaces. Oftentimes yes, we’re shaped from the time that we’re very young to be on that trajectory, to do what we ultimately end up doing. So I just wanted to hear and yeah it’s an amazing [crosstalk]-

Dustin Gibson:

I know this is audio, so I’m just letting people know that I’m not in my head right now.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Well, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been amazing. It was great to think out loud with you and really just unpack all these systems. It was amazing. I really appreciate it.

Dustin Gibson:

I appreciate you for having me and having this space.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I really appreciated Dustin’s expertise in abolition, and really being able to examine the disability justice framework through the lenses of the many interconnected systems of oppression. It was such a pleasure to chat with someone who is really working on the ground with so many organizations fighting for the liberation of people with disabilities. Dustin really laid out some actionable steps that both disabled and non-disabled people can take towards liberation. I really did come away from our conversation feeling personally empowered and galvanized, and I hope that you did as well. Now, you can find transcripts and American sign language interpretations for each and every episode of What’s Up WID over on our website at http://www.wid.org/whats-up-wid. To close out with our famous last words here on What’s Up WID paraphrasing one of our founders, Ed Roberts, “We need to get out there and change the old attitudes so we can build forward better.” Thank you once again, and I will talk to you next time.

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