Talila Lewis, Eduardo Vega, Claudia Center, Tamisha Walker, Stephen Rosenbaum

Disablement and Decarceration: Defining Disability Justice in an Age of Mass Incarceration

By: Erica Browne

The panel presentation began with information on law, disability justice, and creative ways to use the law to move towards justice. Panelists presented statistical information about the disproportionate adverse health, mental health, and punishment outcomes experienced by people with disabilities. Panelists Talila Lewis of Rochester Institute of Technology and Claudia Center of the ACLU emphasized that any conversation about race and class oppression must also talk about disability-based oppression, and how race/ability/class-based oppression permeates our institutions, societies, laws, and practices. The panelists then moved into a “grounding” on the meaning and significance of disability justice, emphasizing that language is rich and important, and that we must name things as they are: disability justice instead of disability law; criminal legal system instead of criminal justice system; love and support instead of treatment; and prison, instead of correctional facility. Panelists discussed how the disability rights framework has unintentionally set up a system of diagnoses and abling that promotes a culture of compliance and does not ensure that people are supported in the ways necessary.

 Eduardo Vega of Dignity Recovery Action! International, then presented mental health advocacy as the space where social justice and health issues intersect and where the work of disability justice is also situated. Panelists emphasized that diagnoses have the power to potentially change the course of someone’s life, arguing that people are assigned to deterministic categories through the process of diagnosis. Such categories serve to systematically disempower individuals and their life opportunities.

 The panel presentation concluded with a discussion on positive changes to address these challenges, including resourcing our communities to address the needs of the most vulnerable, needy, and disadvantaged. With this approach, we would not rely on the incarceration system to provide the support and actions necessary to actively lift up all corners of society. This alternative acknowledges that we cannot ask a system that was not designed to serve us, to serve us. In many cases. people are incarcerated because society does not have the resources to support or care for those with the greatest needs. For example, young people are often labelled as “emotionally disturbed”; in fact, many have actually been exposed to trauma, poverty, or prison, and need and deserve even greater support.

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