Symposium Explores the Fight for Disability Justice


In “Reclaiming Disability Justice,” the March 31 and April 1 symposium co-sponsored by Brooklyn Law School and New York Law School, community members, advocates, activists, lawyers, academics, and policy experts gathered to explore a wide range of issues within the disability justice movement, its origins and history, and its focus on people of color with disabilities and disabled people with multi-marginalized identities.

The symposium expanded the reach of Brooklyn Law’s annual Disability and Civil Rights Clinic Roundtables, said Stacy Caplow, Associate Dean of Experiential Education, in her welcoming remarks. “This year brings a substantial change and a more substantive relationship between our two schools, with a dedication and commitment to disability rights, how disability affects so many lives, and how we can support them,” Caplow said.

Five panel discussions were led by Britney Wilson, Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic at New York Law School (where the symposium was held), and Brooklyn Law professors Sarah Lorr and Prianka Nair, Co-directors of the Disability and Civil Rights Clinic.

“Defining Disability Justice” explored the meaning, origin, and goals of disability justice, including, said Lorr, “explaining ableism, a word we all often use, and how we differentiate disability justice from the disability rights movement.” Panelists discussed the roots of ableism in sexism, racism, and, said attorney and activist Lydia X.Z. Brown, “as a system of power differences and power relations. Ableism is about whose bodies are normal, healthy, and well but also whose are deemed ideal, valuable, worthy, desirable.” Where disability rights and justice intersect, said activist and advocate Keith Jones, is in applying the framework of rights and the law to people as individuals, not defined by their color, their disability, or their sexuality, but “in their totality and humanity.” The panelists also stressed that for legal advocates to be truly effective, they must collaborate with other advocates, activists, and organizers who are working beyond the law in supporting those who are directly impacted.

In “Disability Justice in Carceral Spaces,” Professor Nair, as moderator, sparked discussion on how the history of disability and incarceration has been intertwined, not only in prisons but also in other carceral sites such as nursing homes, psychiatric facilities, and immigration detention centers. All require a legal struggle for the disabled, said panelist Liat Ben-Moshe, Associate Professor of Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “You are not the person who decides when you can leave and where you go. Who decides?” Nereem Aratsu, Co-Director of CUNY’s Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic, addressed the compounding factors of those in the immigration system who are disabled, undocumented, without access to counsel, and fearing deportation. “At every stage, you are in a carceral system,” she said. Nair called on panelists to speak about “how we amplify the voices of the people most impacted.” Thoughts ranged from greater direct involvement by attorneys with individuals, advocates, and organizations, beyond the “lawyers talking in a room” experienced in sweeping class actions; to the need to increase observational access of facilities; to a greater infusion of community resources and housing alternatives to allow disabled people to lead more independent lives.

“Disability Justice, Sexual Freedom, and the Right to Family” explored “a different kind of societal control over disabled bodies,” said Lorr, who co-moderated the panel with Natalie Chin, Professor at CUNY School of Law and creator of Brooklyn Law’s Disability and Civil Rights Clinic. Panelists included advocates and activists who movingly spoke of this rarely acknowledged part of disabled lives. They relayed how the definition of ableism has shaped cultural values and negatively affected their rights to bodily autonomy, their intimate relationships, their choice to start a family, and of their fight for themselves and others not only for respect, compassion, and equal treatment, but also for increased resources around sexuality for the disabled.

Environmental harms that disproportionately affect the disabled and disabled people of color was the focus of the “Ableism and Environmental Justice” panel, moderated by Professor Wilson. The connection between housing justice and environmental justice was explored, including the history of discriminatory housing and zoning laws that have forced marginalized groups to live in areas that expose them to environmental hazards. That includes public housing, where, said Albert Huang, Environmental Justice Director at the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU School of Law, “there are problems with maintenance, the buildings are crumbling, and where there may be limited access to transportation for the disabled.”

The panel “Linking the Theory and Practice of Disability Justice” aimed, Professor Lorr said, to “brainstorm best practices, potential solutions, and lingering issues that we should all be aware of and push forward in order to create substantial change. How can those of us who are lawyers and academics help ensure that the principalities of disability justice benefit from the communities for which they were intended and by which they were created?” The solutions, the panelists said, may be found in putting disability justice “on the ground” through expanded direct-to-individuals programs for access to food, housing information, and other services; creating a more diverse leadership within organizations that advocate for the disabled; to foster greater education about treating the disabled and the ill effects of ableism, especially in the healthcare field; and for advocates to think beyond the law toward technical assistance and support for local, statewide, and national movements within the disability justice framework.

The in-person and virtual symposium was cosponsored by Brooklyn Law School’s Disability and Civil Rights Clinicand Center for Health, Science and Public Policy, and by New York Law School’s Civil Rights and Disability Justice Clinic; Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Wilf Impact Center for Public Interest Law.