Disability, Race Discussed

Disability, Race Discussed
Nazc-a-ru H Gonzalez

A multidisciplinary panel discussion addresses issues at the intersection of disability and race ranging from education, poverty, housing, economic opportunity, and civil rights.

A group of academics, advocates, and government employees discussed the crossroads of race and disability, addressing the problems of civil rights, economic opportunity, and housing, at a panel discussion at Harvard Law School yesterday.

In a crowded room, the panelists examined the unique issues facing those who are both of color and disabled.

"Disability by itself and race by itself receive a lot of attention ... the intersection does not get what it deserves," said Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability Michael A. Stein, who was moderating the event.

The panel opened with President of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, Chester Finn, who spoke about his experiences as a blind African-American man.

"Being a person with a disability, I had so many things to deal with that a lot of times I forgot what color I was," Finn said. "I was busy advocating for disability issues."

Although, as a blind man, Finn cannot discern the race of those around him, he said that he understands how "race makes a difference" on a daily basis.

This issue of division—needing to choose between identifying with a specific race or as disabled—arose several times during the discussion.

Fair Housing Manager for the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership Barbara Chandler said that when she receives housing requests from colored disabled patrons, she must categorize the petition as either a disability complaint or a race one.

Chandler said that disabled people and people of color usually receive poor housing by identifying with one of these groups and those who are both disabled and of color often receive sub-par housing.

Beyond the implications in the housing market, Chandler said she considers this divisive approach to be morally reprehensible, as she believes people should not be forced to give one part of their identity primacy for the sake of getting better housing.

Richard M. Glassman of Boston’s Disability Law Center addressed some of the ways that new technology is helping lawyers advocate for people who are disabled and of color. Glassman said that his group uses new mapping technology, called GIS, to identify communities that have a large number of people who are of color and disabled in order to do grassroots organizing.

Attendees of the event said they enjoyed the discussion.

"I thought it was very informative," said Betsy Pillsbury, who is the disability research coordinator for Partners HealthCare. "It’s something that isn’t talked about very much and it should be."