VIEW: Rights are necessary, but not sufficient – Lydia X. Z. Brown highlights need for disability justice

Lydia X. Z. Brown is a renowned disability justice advocate, organiser, educator, attorney, strategist, and writer.

They believe in the need for communities, governments, and individuals to re-assess the way “power over” or “power against” certain groups of people, including people with disabilities, is gained and sustained. Their work and experiences with disability justice urge people to consider ableism – discrimination against people with disabilities – as more than a disability rights issue.

Brown explains, “Rights are necessary, but not sufficient.”

A recent study in New Zealand found disabled youth experienced ableism from non-disabled people to be the biggest barrier to participation in daily life, and highlighted the importance of “meaningful community participation” in impacting the quality of a disabled person’s future.

Brown says this type of community building has been happening for decades, despite of the ableism that many have witnessed internationally, particularly during COVID-19.

Brown said, “Disabled people, especially queer, transgender and people of colour, have already been building and creating for decades – teaching each other healing practices, building networks of mutual aid, and more. We continue to do that work now, just as we have for decades. At the same time, material conditions for us continue to deteriorate at the systemic institutional levels, especially in this pandemic which has brought out crass eugenist rhetoric and policies, internationally.”

They highlighted that as long as certain people in society are considered “expendable and disposable”, constructive change cannot take place.

Ableism in policy development

Brown believes that constructive and meaningful disability policies will surface when government bodies and politicians effectively and directly collaborate with the communities these policies will impact. While seemingly simple, Brown explains this is rarely done because “people assume that even if you can go and talk to a disabled person – it would be nice – but they’re not really going to have any input.”

They explain many wrongly assume that, “If a disabled person has actual input, they must not really be that disabled. So their input doesn’t actually mean anything different than mine. Simultaneously, if someone really is disabled, then they’re incapable of giving feedback and being consulted as an equal partner. We are in a double bind.”

“If we articulate a political or philosophical position on anything to do with disabled people and our position and status in society, we will be delegitimised as not actually disabled simply by virtue of being able to articulate a position to begin with. Simultaneously, the bar will be set – [people assume] we can’t engage with actually disabled people because, actually disabled people who are really disabled could never possibly communicate with these non-disabled researchers and policy-makers and whoever else has authority and power.”

Beneath this rhetoric, Brown emphasizes the importance of seeing and analysing what is unsaid. They explain that people in positions of power don’t want to give that up, and are afraid of what would happen if they lost their power.

Brown explains, “Part of why they’re afraid is because they already know what they get away with in using their power at the expense of marginalised and targeted communities and they don’t want to be in the position they’ve put us in forever.”

Brown also says “this is not a zero sum game”, and what many people in power assume is that empowering others will lead to powerlessness for themselves, which isn’t true.

Disability justice is inherently intersectional

While research highlights approximately 20% of the population has a disability, Brown says these kinds of statistics regularly do not capture marginalised communities, within which there are higher rates of disability. They also believe the issue of disability justice isn’t about ratios and numbers.

“If it’s about numbers, white supremacy would have never happened,” Brown explains.

Ableism, Brown says, needs to be tackled from an intersectional lens for disability justice to truly take place.

Brown says, “Ableism is a set of values, defining which kinds of people are valuable and worthy and desirable, which are healthy and functional and whole and sane, and which are dispensable, burdensome, useless and defective. People hate disabled people and disability. People fear disabled people and disability, and people are ashamed of the existence of disabled people and the existence of disability in themselves and others, because this is what the values of ableism teach us.

“Disability justice is inherently intersectional. If it’s not intersectional, it’s not disability justice. Because those who are most harmed by ableism are always disabled people at the margins of the margins, that is those who live lives affected and targeted by multiple intersecting systems of oppression. To talk about disability without talking about race, gender, class, sexuality, and language is only going to be talking about the most powerful, privileged and resourced disabled people.

“This is why the distinction between disability rights and disability justice is so important. Disability rights is not intersectional, pretty much ever. Disability justice is by definition an intersectional practice.”


About the expert

Lydia X. Z. Brown is a disability justice advocate, organizer, educator, attorney, strategist, and writer whose work has largely focused on violence against multiply-marginalized disabled people, especially institutionalization, incarceration, and policing. They have worked to advance transformative change through organizing in the streets, writing legislation, conducting anti-ableism workshops, testifying at regulatory and policy hearings, and disrupting institutional complacency everywhere from the academy to state agencies and the nonprofit-industrial complex.

Lydia teaches for Georgetown University’s Disability Studies Program through the Department of English, and supports the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network’s public policy advocacy. Lydia founded and directs the Fund for Community Reparations for Autistic People of Color’s Interdependence, Survival, and Empowerment, which provides direct support, mutual aid, and community reparations to individual autistic people of color. In collaboration with E. Ashkenazy and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, Lydia is also co-editor and visionary behind All the Weight of Our Dreams, the first-ever anthology of writings and artwork by autistic people of color and otherwise negatively racialized autistic people, published by AWN.

[Photo: Headshot of Lydia Brown, young East Asian person, with short black hair, wearing glasses, a plaid shirt, and black jacket. They are looking in the distance, posed against a stylized blue dramatic background. Photo by Adam Glanzman.]