This past May, as footage of the uprisings around the nation and the world began to flood my social media feeds, I felt emotionally exhausted by the weight of seeing Black and brown bodies murdered by the people meant to protect us. I also felt exhausted knowing that Black disabled bodies would be excluded from the conversations around police brutality that were arising out of the protests.
According to recent studies, more than half of Black bodies with disabilities in the U.S. will be arrested by the time they reach their late 20s. This devastating statistic includes people like Matthew Rushin, a young Black autistic man who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for a car crash. It also includes Stephon Watts, a Black autistic teenager who was only 15 when he was murdered by police, and most recently, Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old mentally disabled man murdered by the police in Philadelphia. In fact, more than a third of all Americans killed by police have a disability. If our nation continues to show that our young Black autistic men don’t have value, what is that saying to our current generation of Black disabled youth?
I think about this often as a neurodiverse Black parent to a neurodiverse son. Ever since having Knox eight years ago, my sole job has been to preserve and protect his present so that he can make it to the future. But I’m also an artist and a designer, so in solidarity with my son and in virtual protest with my Black disabled community back in May, I felt compelled to use design to bring visibility to the facts. I’m not the only one—as calls for racial and disability justice continue to become more melanated within the disability community, Black disabled artists and designers are reminding folks that collective liberation can’t be created in a silo.
On May 31, I created a graphic that merged the Black power fist—the historic symbol of solidarity and power, which was used by Black revolutionary disabled activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Brad Lomax—with the neurodiversity infinity symbol to convey the message that Black Disabled Lives Matter. I posted it to social media, writing in the caption, “True advocates and allies please take note: To be Pro Neurodiversity is to be Anti Racist.” Then I watched in disbelief as the graphic was shared across hundreds of profiles and by disability justice advocates and writers over the span of just a couple of days. Since then, it’s taken on a beautiful life of its own.
After I made posters with the symbol free to download, organizers, advocates, and allies across the globe used it in protests for Black lives. One of those spaces was a BLM protest in Washington, D.C. on June 6, where I brought posters for a disabled advocacy group led by two Black disabled women, Justice Shorter and Keri Gray, and photographed the protest. That same weekend, friends in London who run the artist disability collective Hart Club screen- and riso-printed over 100 protest signs incorporating the symbol and marched all the way to Parliament for Black disabled lives. In the next few weeks, the symbol reached the New York Times, Teen Vogue, Crip Camp, Rolling Stone, and even graced Barack Obama’s Twitter and Instagram feeds in amplification of the 30th Anniversary of the American With Disabilities Act.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, a system of racism and ableism has kept Black, latinx and/or disabled folks from fighting for liberation and justice. I’ve watched for years how other Black disabled advocates and allies struggled to practice joy as a form of resistance, as they feared it would be judged, overshadowed, stolen, appropriated, and misappropriated. But that’s beginning to change: Black and autistic artist and designer Amina Mucciolo’s work, for example, shows how an uninhibited design spirit and style can uplift and amplify autism acceptance and neurodivergent identities. Disability artistic spaces like Sins Invalid, Krip-Hop Nation and Disabled and Here also continue to challenge compliance culture, exemplifying honest and true representation of disabled folks of color in artistic and design spaces.
It is my hope that the Black Disabled Lives Matter symbol can continue to embolden disabled and non-disabled communities to engage in conversations about disability culture and acceptance. I also hope it inspires other designers to continue to uplift through design activism, because our work actually can activate change in real and tangible ways. Watching the world use the symbol in solidarity and in protest, uplifting the message that we can unite to save Black disabled lives, has shown me that my joy, if I let it, can bring about social change. Yours can too.