We Can’t Breathe: The Deaf & Disabled Margin of Police Brutality Project

Throughout history, Deaf and Disabled people have been criminalized for their mere existence. The relationship between Deaf and Disabled people and the U.S. criminal and medical system begins with filthy institutions, isolation, experiments, pity, and murder. Over the years, Deaf and Disabled people have fought to transform their public image, receive human recognition, and gain access to civil rights such as public transportation, education, safety, and employment. In furtherance of this fight, Deaf and Disabled people have created a culture based on philosophies such as “No Pity,” “Nothing About Us, Without Us,” and “Independent Living.”

Even with much progress, Deaf and Disabled people are still largely being institutionalized in nursing homes, mental health facilities, and jails/prisons. Additionally, people with disabilities, particularly those who also live on the margins of race and gender identity, are far more likely to face police brutality. Despite the disproportionate ways in which the U.S. legal system affects Deaf and Disabled people, very few disability organizations create policy or direct substantive advocacy toward these issues.

“We Can’t Breathe: The Deaf & Disabled Margin of Police Brutality Project” includes a video and toolkit that can be utilized for educational training for disability organizations and agencies. The We Can’t Breathe Toolkit addresses how state violence affects people with disabilities who are also women, people of color, and LGBTQ+. This training intentionally utilizes an intersectionality framework to combat the racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia that pervade disability organizations and agencies. Facilitators should center the voices and narratives of those most affected by state violence in the disability community. This cannot be done without building an understanding of intersectionality within organizations of influence and power that ideally leads to inclusive actions.

The We Can’t Breathe Video discusses the narratives of 5 people with disabilities on the margins that have been victimized by police brutality and other forms of systemic violence. The content in the video is heavy, visceral, and often difficult to watch. Following the steps in the We Can’t Breathe Toolkit equips facilitators and participants with the tools to process the video and build policies, programming, and advocacy that center intersectional organizing. It is important to note that this training is only one step in understanding the effects of state violence on Deaf and Disabled people. It is critical to follow this training up with additional trainings as well as supplemental research.

The We Can’t Breathe Project, both the video and toolkit, are products of the National Council on Independent Living’s Diversity Committee. The We Can’t Breathe Video was created by Keri Gray and Dustin Gibson with support from the NCIL Diversity Committee and Caucuses. The We Can’t Breathe Toolkit was written and designed by Keri Gray with support from the NCIL Diversity Committee. It highly encouraged for those who would like utilize the We Can’t Breathe Project to first receive training from either Keri Gray or Dustin Gibson.

Keri Gray is an Intersectionality and Youth Programming Consultant. Gray works with young professionals on a local and national scale to broaden their experience and knowledge bases as transferable skills in employment and community settings. Gray also increases the productivity and outcomes of organizations, businesses, and agencies by consulting with them on how to utilize the strengths of the millennial generation. All of Gray’s consulting is constructed through an intersectional framework of diversity and inclusion. She actively influences systematic change by re-constructing organizational programming, practices, and polices so that they are inclusive of individuals with multiple marginalized identities. Gray is also employed with the U.S. Business Leadership Network as the Program Manager for their Rising Leaders Initiatives. She has worked with multiple national disability organizations, student organizations and college campuses, grassroots and national Black organizations, and several businesses and foundations. On a personal level, Gray identifies as an unapologetic and proud Black woman with disabilities. In 1998, at the age of 8 years old, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma bone cancer in her right leg. After failed attempts with chemotherapy, Gray had an above knee amputation. At a young age she had to discover what it meant to be female, Black, and disabled all at the same time. She believes in the concept of intersectionality because she has lived the experiences of intersectional barriers. None of these identities are something that she overcame, but rather they are identities that include her in cultures and communities in which she is proud to serve. For more consulting information or training opportunities with Gray, contact her at Gray.Keri.12@gmail.com.  You can also follow her on twitter @keri_gray.

Dustin Gibson is a community builder that has centered his identity as a Black man with bipolar disorder in his work. During his time as Director of Independent Living Services at Three Rivers Center for Independent Living in Pittsburgh, he developed programming that gave platform to the visceral experiences of PWD and created technology access curriculum. As director, he expanded youth transitioning services to include districts that historically lack support. Dustin serves in many different capacities with several grassroots organizations to affect change. He has coordinated protests, meetings and discussions to address police brutality and murder. He has also created spaces to help mend the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color and leads a youth group focused on formulating solutions to improve those relationships. Dustin has co-developed and administered voter education workshops, anti-racist discussions and violence against Black women. As a high school cross-country and girls basketball coach, he incorporates social awareness into his coaching. To follow up with Dustin, contact him at dustinpgibson@gmail.com.