Current Events

Who You Gonna Call? : #BlackLivesMatter, Disability and Mental Health

I have 22 scars on my body from surgery, I have dozens more I put there myself.
Protest Against The Deaths of Black Women in Police Custody by Fibonacci Blue via Flikr Creative Commons

I have 22 scars on my body from the various operations I’ve had—24 depending on whether you count being operated on in the same exact place twice as one scar or two. They are ordered and strategically placed, logical and necessary. Also scattered across my arms and legs are dozens more frenzied and lopsided scars I put there myself. For several years in middle and high school, I cut myself. I don’t remember how I started or what gave me the idea, but it became my solitary compulsion. No one seemed to notice—the people who stared at my scars and made a point of telling me how inspirational I was for bearing them boldly never seemed to notice the scars that didn’t apply to their needed narrative. No one noticed until, one day, I cut a little too deep and my dad noticed. He offered to get me help, or call the authorities or something, but I refused it all. What was I supposed to do? Get help and be seen as weaker than I already was, or, have my dad, a black man, let the authorities into my home and draw their own conclusions as to how the cuts got there, or have them see a black girl in an emotionally wrought and compromising state with rods on her arm. I could do it on my own. And, for a while, I did. I continued to smile and be cheery even convincing myself that I was over it. That was, until college. Who knew that a blizzard during the first semester of my sophomore year would send me backwards. The ensuing depression led me to drop out and while I wanted to put on a brave face and go back to school, my parents refused tuition help unless I got help.

This led to another hurdle. How exactly do you find a psychologist that you can identify with culturally, as an African American and physically as a disabled person. Who knows what it’s like to be both? Who possesses that knowledge? For decades, psychological help has been just out of reach from African Americans because of stigma, discomfort, lack of knowledge and financial resources. Until only recently, black people that accepted this type of help were seen as bougie, tainted or white. As for disabled people, it is believed that nearly 50% suffer from secondary diagnoses of anxiety and depression, but the true number isn’t known because disabled people don’t want to seem even more vulnerable. Not to be ignored is the fact that many disabled wishing to seek help without financial resources feel they have to choose which diagnosis to treat.

So, why is relevant in a discussion of #BlackLivesMatter? Well, nearly30- 50% of those that die in police altercations are disabled. According to an NBC News Report, A Study conducted by the Ruderman Foundation found that the one word absent from the media narrative on officer involved shootings is “Disabled.” While #BlackLivesMatter has done well in highlighting the racial disparities on officer involved shootings, any mention of a neurological or physical disability is usually sidelined for another death in the form of a hashtag. For the movement, addressing mental illness and disability will be an uphill battle as they will need to address cultural stigma and the declining emotional state of its supporters and leaders who, in order to stay informed, watch countless videos of people who look like them bleeding out at the feet of police.

Disability writers and activists, for their part, seem ready to join the conversation. One of #CripTheVote’s main topics is the justice system as it pertains the disabled. Thirty states still institutionalize the disabled and as state mental hospitals rapidly closed, more and more of the mentally disabled wound up behind bars. As TalkPoverty reports, there are nearly three times as many disabled people in prison than there are in state mental hospitals.

While mental disability is the primary type discussed by the Ruderman Foundation, police encounters with the physically disabled cannot be ignored. In 2014 Marlee Matlin made an informational video of what a deaf person should do if stopped by the police. Just months later, a deaf man was fatally shot by Florida police. In 2010, Gary Palmer, diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, reported accidentally hitting a dog. When police arrived he was arrested for drunk driving due to having shakes and slurring his words. In 2014 Robert Marzullo sued the Hamden Connecticut Police Department after being tazered twice while having an epileptic seizure in his car.

So, who you gonna call when understanding is rare and punishment and condemnation are swift? Well, my mom always said not to complain about a problem without suggesting a solution. While the Senate Judiciary Committee  has met to calm the fears of the disabled and community policing, I believe that #BlackLivesMatter and #CripTheVote activists should summit and discuss the best methods of protest for those who might not physically be able to. Disabled volunteers should serve as community liaisons with their local police departments as well as mental health professionals. Lastly, identification methods should be discussed for disabled drivers so that deaf or hard of hearing citizens are better prepared for encounters with police and police can be made that mobility aids, not weapons, are in the car. It would also be irresponsible of me to end this post without providing resources to those in emotional distress.

For immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

To search for a psychologist in your area according to topic or specialty, visit Psychology Today. (That’s how I found mine.)

To join this conversation, comment below.








  1. Great post Imani! #CripTheVote is happy to talk with anyone about these issues, especially a movement we have as much respect for as #BlackLivesMatter. We are hopeful that more of these issues will come up as part of our next chat on “Disability, Violence & Public Policy” this Sunday July 24th at 5pm EST. Hope you and all your readers will join us and Help keep this conversation going. Its somethin we can’t afford to let up on. Thanks

  2. IMANI, Unfortunately our honored veterans should also be added to your disability and mental illness numbers, increasing percentages. You make a great point and I pray your summit in DC is productive for all concerned.

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