Opinion: Detroit needs office of disability affairs

Tameka Citchen-Spruce

We recently came out of Black History month and into Women’s History month. Growing up as an African American woman with a physical disability, I couldn’t name a woman or a black person with a disability in history who made a significant change in the lives of people like me unless it was Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles.

That has changed.

Disabled black activists like Leroy Moore, founder of Krip Hop Nation, Vilissa Thompson, founder of Ramp Your Voice, and Jane Dunhamn, executive director of National Black Disability Coalition have brought stories of black disabled women and men to the forefront, and it is time to share their stories and make our lives visible. 

Today, I understand the importance of seeing myself in history; of looking at people like Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Suggs and Fannie Lou Hammer; or of learning the horrific challenges of being black and disabled like Junius Wilson, who inspired me to research the history of African Americans with disabilities.

This image provided by the Library of Congress shows Harriet Tubman, between 1860 and 1875.

According to the fact-finding group the Harriet Tubman Collective, in 2018 a little over half of all police shootings and police brutality cases involved violence toward black people with disabilities, especially those with mental illness and developmental disabilities. In Michigan, school districts including Grand Ledge, Ann Arbor and Monroe discipline black students in special education more often and more severely than their white counterparts. And this isn’t just in Michigan; it’s a national problem. 

Recently, a 6-year-old Orlando girl, Kaia Rolle, was arrested at school and sent to a mental health facility without her parent’s permission. For every Kaia Rolle handcuffed in front of a bodycam, there are multitudes who suffer unseen, undercounted and misunderstood. Did you know that African Americans in Michigan have the highest rate of disability, only after indigenous people? People of color are often noticed too little or too late.

Everyone needs to be aware of the many overlapping issues that people with disabilities face in order to prevent people from falling through the cracks. 

Roughly one in four people has a disability, and most people develop a disability as they age.

Living with a disability is hard regardless of race. But when you’re disabled and black or a person of color, life is even harder. I firmly believe everyone has a purpose and, on behalf of the little girl in Florida, I assert that disabled black lives do matter.

For this reason, Detroit needs an Office of Disability Affairs to ensure the needs of people with disabilities are being properly addressed.

Today, the city lacks the coordination, capacity and commitment to meet the needs of the disabled community. To make matters worse, the mayor’s latest budget underfunds the very efforts that could help turn the page.

If you believe as I do, that disabled black lives matter, then contact the mayor’s office and the Detroit City Council and ask them to support the creation of a fully funded and fully staffed Office of Disability Affairs. And let the stories of history live on in our activism.

Tameka Citchen-Spruce, a Detroit native and a graduate of Oakland University, is a disability justice activist for people with disabilities, particularly those of color, and a proud member of Warrior on Wheels.