Mainstream understandings of disability are seeped in whiteness. Charity and media representations of disability usually centre white people living in the Global North, often relying upon particular visual signifiers as shorthand for disability. The same goes for the histories we are often told about the disability rights movement. In the UK, this history (which is already sidelined in our collective political consciousness) is usually told through images of majority-white, physically disabled people demonstrating against ITV’s Telethon, or handcuffing themselves to vehicles to protest the UK’s inaccessible public transport systems. In the US, the disability rights movement of the 20th century is synonymous with the Section 504 sit-ins of the 1970s, and the late Judy Heumann, a vocal and formidable movement leader, who was of white Jewish heritage.
People of colour, and Black people in particular, are largely missing from the stories we tell about disability, despite the fact that we are far more likely to bear the brunt of disabling state violence, and various forms of disability incarceration. However, Sami Schalk’s recent book Black Disability Politics asks us to rethink what we consider to be disabled scholarship and organising. Drawing on both the past and present, she demonstrates that Black people have always been part of the project of resisting state violence against disabled people, even though this agitation has seldom been acknowledged as “official” or legitimate disability justice work in the historical record. Throughout the course of an accessible 160-page book, Schalk carves out a new framework for naming and understanding this intersectional work, which she calls “Black disability politics”.
To understand what Schalk aims to do with this analysis, it helps to have a grounding in two radical and significant developments in disabled scholarship and organising, both emerging around 2005. The first is “crip theory”, an approach to disability coined by the academic Robert McRuer, which draws from “queer theory”, and sees disability as something that is hard to categorise and define. Schalk sees her work as part of the same strain – a type of “critical race disability studies” that “expand[s] our conceptualisation of disability”. The second is the disability justice movement, a movement pioneered by disabled people who were primarily queer and people of colour living in North America. Distinct from the “disability rights” movement of the 20th century, disability justice centres an explicitly intersectional and anti-capitalist approach to disability, centring queer people, trans people, people of colour, houseless people and incarcerated people who experience disablement. In line with these two developments, Schalk makes clear that she is not interested in doing formal “disability studies” – she wants to break open the category of disability and highlight how it has always had a messy, overlapping, and political relationship with race.
In the book, Schalk repeatedly returns to two historical case studies to demonstrate what Black disability politics might look like. The first is the Black Panther Party (BPP), undoubtedly the best-known historical Black Power group, which mainly operated in the US between 1966 and 1982. She discusses their often-erased role in supporting 504 sit-ins – a disability rights protest that began in 1977 and pushed the issuance of long-delayed anti-discrimination disability legislation. Using newspaper articles, Schalk demonstrates that the BPP saw disabled liberation as directly connected to Black community concerns, and as essential for the liberation of all oppressed people. They made this solidarity material by providing free food to occupiers during the 25-day protest that took place in San Francisco, in the spirit of their Free Breakfast for School Children Program, which fed thousands of children in Black and impoverished communities. Schalk quotes from white disability activist Corbett O’Toole’s memoir: “I think the secret history of the sit-ins is that we never, ever would have made it without the Black Panthers. [They] fed us […] every single night for the whole demonstration. We never would have survived without them.” Schalk also draws on the Panthers’ free clinics, which aimed to break down power dynamics between doctor and patient.
Her second case study is the work of the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP), a grassroots Black feminist activist organisation that sought to reduce health disparities and preventable illness, but also presented “health” as an explicitly political issue. The Black power leader Angela Davis was at one point involved in the project, which ran self-help groups, publications and conferences – all aiming to facilitate political and public health education for Black women. While the NBWHP rarely used the terms “disability” or “disabled”, Schalk shows that they were co-creating and practising Black disability politics by supporting Black women to make informed decisions around their health and healing. Their approach to health resisted white Western conceptualisations – encompassing physical, mental/emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and acknowledging the validity of indigenous spiritual practices.
All the while, Schalk is still careful not to paint these historical movements as perfect, pointing out their shortcomings and clearly naming what they could have done better; for example, she argues that the NBWHP missed clear opportunities to engage explicitly with important developments in the disability rights movement, and changes to disability policy.
Schalk covers topics that are particularly relevant to people with lived experience of mental ill-health, trauma and distress. Chapter two challenges the commonly-held idea that Black people were not involved in the US consumer/survivor/ex-patient (c/s/x) movement (equivalent to what is usually described as the “survivor/service user movement” in the UK). Schalk draws on archival material to demonstrate that the Black Panthers took a stance against “psychosurgery” and forced psychiatric treatment. While it is well-known that the Black Panther Party organised against prisons and policing, Schalk also reveals that the Panthers’ extended this analysis of state institutions to “mental hospitals”. However, their organising against psychiatry was not a form of single-issue politics – they saw it as part of a bigger struggle against state incarceration and control. The Panthers also saw psychiatric intervention as an explicitly racialised issue, particularly as it was used as a means to target Black activists and revolutionaries. Schalk shows that it is not that Black people played no role in the c/s/x or anti-psychiatry movements of the 20th century, but that their organising has never necessarily been named as such by historians. This is, in part, because their politics sat at the intersection of health, disability, anti-carceral and anti-racist organising, and found its roots in the Black Power movement.
In my own book, Mad World, I explore the issue of solidarity, and how various parts of the survivor movement, the gay rights movement, and the disability rights movement sometimes historically separated themselves from other oppressed people, in a bid for their own rights and acceptance. As a result of this interest, I was particularly excited to see the theme of solidarity crop up again and again throughout Black Disability Politics, always handled with nuance and sensitivity. For example, Schalk discusses how the Panthers involved in c/s/x and anti-psychiatry organising did not only want to end incarceration and forced treatment for supposedly “wrongly” targeted Black activists, but for all people targeted and punished by the mental health system. This is something we might think of as “Black disability solidarity” – a refusal to abandon or “disavow” any person who is oppressed under the same violent state systems. Solidarity vs disavowal also comes up in Schalk’s discussion of language and categorisation, in a chapter that explores the choice to identify as “disabled”. She argues that shirking the language of disability can sometimes be rooted in ableism, and acknowledges that claiming the word “disabled” can provide us with an umbrella label under which we can engage in health activism (an argument that will be familiar to many of us with experiences of mental ill-health, trauma and distress). However, Schalk emphasises that there are many reasons why Black people may not be able to proudly claim another identity label associated with stigma and oppression.
This links to her broader thesis: that the relationship between race and disability is unique, in part, because race and disability make one another – or are “mutually constitutive”. As a result, the issues of racialised people will also always intersect with the issues of people who experience disability (or “debility”). Black people have historically been framed by science and medicine as biologically inferior, diseased, and therefore disabled. Black people who moved through the transatlantic slave trade were also subject to centuries-long, systematic disabling conditions, either through physical punishment, malnourishment, understandable mental distress or lack of access to medical care. These experiences have rarely been formally recognised as disability, and our practices of resistance and community care have scarcely been named as disability justice work. Ultimately, this is what makes Black Disability Politics such a refreshing read. It presents an accessible, novel and long-overdue framework for thinking about how Black people engage with disability scholarship and organising. While mainstream depictions of disability might be seeped in whiteness, Schalk shows us that disability is undoubtedly Black, it defies categorisation, and it is always, always political.
Black Disability Politics by Sami Schalk can be bought here ($24.95 paperback).
Micha Frazer-Carroll is the author of Mad World: The Politics of Mental Health, and is a trustee at NSUN.