We Need To Talk About The Othering of Black Disabled Children

The past weeks have been rather tumultuous. News broke about a Black mother, Diane Elliot, leaving her nonverbal, disabled son at a hospital and later being arrested for it. Despite initially being vilified by the public, many now have reached out in support of her and her family. This includes mothers with children who share her son’s disability to the very Down Syndrome Association based in Atlanta, where Elliot’s family has lived in a hotel. Emphasizing the trials that Elliot endured trying to care for her children in addition to her disabled son and how overwhelmed she felt illustrates how the system routinely fails families with disabled children and fails to accommodate them.

Almost simultaneously, another story began circulating: that of Dontay Davis, the neglected sibling of the children adopted by the Harts and eventually killed by their caretakers in a murder-suicide after years of abuse and neglect by Child Welfare was uncovered. Davis hoped to reunite with his siblings after being separated from them for years but was robbed of that opportunity with their untimely deaths; the Harts refused to adopt him because of the behavioral complications associated with his disability that led to him being ensnared in the foster care-to-prison pipeline.

Both tell important stories because they are examples of numerous cases anyone with a disability — especially those raised in foster care — is familiar with, and a litany of emotions come with them as a result of this. With respect to the Elliots, the first story is a collective sense of relief at their story not ending in the all-too-familiar filicide the disability community has become accustomed toward. The second, however, is a sense of [justifiable] frustration, anger, and/or ambivalence by those in the Black disability community at yet another parent specifically targeting their disabled child as the source of their problems.

Then, there’s the case of Davis, whom many within our community could also relate to as youth separated from their siblings and raised in an abusive and neglectful foster care system also. His is an example of the horrors the foster care system inflicts upon the youth, the deleterious effects of child separation from their siblings, and what could still possibly happen as Elliot’s case is reviewed by the Dep’t of Children and Family Services and she fights for custody of her children. She thankfully has the financial and emotional support she lacked before to fight this battle.

Together, these two examples of disabled life among Black youth illustrate key extremes: one, of a parent who loved her child making a difficult choice after being overwhelmed by societal disadvantages, and another, of many caretakers and accompanying institutions denying disabled youth the compassion and humanity they deserve, enabled by that very system. While harmful narratives are obvious in the latter, something equally harmful, but extremely subtle is present in the former, and as I’ve observed — and even engaged with people about — in many conversations about Black disabled life, I’ve seen that it’s become normalized in an understandable attempt to correct racist sentiments regarding impoverished Black parents. It’s a subconsciously-ingrained motivation that devalues the lives of disabled children in contrast to their peers, a story I’m intimately familiar with.

He was my tío abuelo, a natural savant. Bob. Brown skin richer than Spring farm soil, and Jet eyes that glimmered in every photo he took. I remember most, however, medium-cropped hair that dipped slightly at the crown in a vintage style, and a hearty smile that made his face vaguely resemble a cartoonish, if soulful, heart in shape. He epitomized love through his compassion, a relative once said. He also had a brother younger than him, but what I remember most importantly of the story I was told is that his parents at the very least, loved him once. They loved them both.

His family lived in the staunchly-segregated Dutty South, and with that History came the Memory of myriad social inequities they were subjected toward, but they’d managed thus far. Bob, however, was not the eldest of his siblings. He and his brother were in fact the youngest of the four his parents had, which included two older sisters.

I remember remembering that both his parents were much older then, and with that age came the infamous “breaking point” often-cited in countless Narratives of childhood neglect we were familiar with: his parents loved him and his brother, but not enough. Not as much. They were burdens his parents could no longer handle.

The talk was fairly stern; his parents discussed the point they’d reached, and told him — along with his younger brother — that the two of them could no longer live in their family. Caring for them was too difficult, especially due to the subtle differences that accompanied them, including their age. Thus, my tío abuelo and his brother both found themselves a pair of minors exiled from the parents that loved them, eking out their lives on the streets by scavenging through trash and refuse for food. They had no home, until a sister finally took them in, it was said.

I remember remembering then that his family was buried in shadow, the fates of his siblings dissolving into the chasm representing his familial lineage. Only the Memories and Narratives of his life that were reclaimed by his daughter, my cousin — and even those of his life prior were fragmented — kept him from being disappeared from History; a History of him managing to succeed financially with his innate genius, later sharing that good luck with the woman he fell in love with in our family. Some would say my tío abuelo’s story resembled a genuine rags-to-riches tale, but his eventual triumph in spite of the indemnities he faced both systemically and intimately was not an argument for Bootstrapping; it didn’t convey a drive to assimilate via proximity, something I’ve seen many in our community do, even masking neurodiversity out of internalized shame.

Bob’s triumph was part of a destructive cycle of the society he lived in. His parents had dreams of their own, and his existence was an obstacle preventing them from being reified. Yet, he outlived them and the dreams they orphaned him from; he outlived his siblings, even his younger brother. He was a survivor. But overcoming his past was not something he boasted of or enjoyed revisiting. It was a source of pain, far from inspirational. It was a cautionary tale. His was a tale I would remember remembering whenever I thought of my Togbeawo, and I would recall him with it.

He was born with physical deformities and additional health issues as a result of his mother’s addictions and drug abuse. His father was especially neglectful. He had lightly-tanned skin that had once been paler than I was post-surgery. He was also younger; about the same age of my youngest sibling. Pearly, beaded black eyes, an impossibly-adorable button-nose, and a wealth of curly black hair, with webbed hands. Antonio. Almost like a primo to me.

I remember remembering Antonio’s breathing machine humming as he sat beside it each day, watching the Animaniacs and other classic childhood cartoons every time I visited my old Pastor’s home when I was a child. They lived down the street in our neighborhood and were unofficially family members, some of whom still are. I remember remembering Memories of numerous hospital visits and procedures his foster parents took him on to address additional health complications, some of which included his heart and liver. I don’t think there was a single member of our church — this was before I became an ateo — who didn’t view him as equally a member of their family as well; given how deeply he and my brother had bonded, he was unquestionably also a part of ours.

Neither of Antonio’s original parents loved him, even a little bit, it was said. He’d been left in a trash bin as an infant, viewed as disposable for not being able-bodied alike countless disabled children thrust into the foster care system. Even officials — including doctors — who told my old Pastor his situation had exhibited the same bias in how easily they’d given up on attempting to treat a sickness that made him unable to eat whatsoever.

“Don’t become too attached to him,” they said to her — my old Pastor, that is. They expected him to die within a week or so after she took custody of him. But she loved Antonio, and like any mother, she consulted the Church mothers and nursed him back to health the same way my mother had me when I caught the flu as a young boy. She loved him. She and her husband still do. His brothers still do. Everyone who knew him in our massive, ratchet, collective family did, and still do.

I remember remembering Antonio dying during a freak accident in a routine surgical operation, only to be found alive some time after he’d been placed in the mortuary. I remember remembering him learning how to walk again after months of being immobile and overwhelmed by pain. I remember remembering the surgery he wanted to take on his hands to separate his fingers. I remember remembering him playing with drumsticks alongside my brother, who was a natural with percussion instruments.

I remember remembering tales of Antonio enjoying online matches and Call of Duty as a young man in the Narratives his older brother Fred told me when I visited many years later. I wanted to challenge Antonio one day, and have promised myself I would. I remember remembering his brother Vincent, who was neurodiverse and nonverbal, and had learned to communicate through sign language. He had a great sense of humor, and despite ableist assumptions that he had no awareness of the environment in which he lived, he graduated high school. Antonio did too.

However, the most important thing that I remember remembering was not the Inspiration Porn ableds probably would mine from Antonio’s life story if they heard it. It was a reminder that his lack of proximity to being able-bodied would never make him less valuable or different from his peers.

I sat and listened to several others recount their own stories. They were abandoned very much alike Sheldon was, but no one found them; no one returned them to their equally-burdened caretakers or provided them refuge. No one allowed them to say goodbye to their siblings. No one centered them in the stories revolving around their tragic childhoods. No miraculous, saccharine interventions turned their tragedies into cautiously optimistic Christmas parables. Theirs were more akin to Davis’.

One, I remember remembering, spoke of their parents hoodwinking them, abandoning them at home under the pretense of a brief grocery store visit. Another, of a lifetime of abuse cycling through foster homes because none were properly-equipped and willing to value them because of their disability, in one case, behavioral; in another, an endocrine disorder. This was a story many disabled adults could empathize with, because there’s never a single moment within this ableist society that a person with disabilities is not seen as too young or old to “burden” their loved ones — especially those without proximity to able-bodiedness. Like those I spoke with, many adults who had disabilities or were neurodiverse also had fallen victim, and unfortunately, had not survived.

Sheldon’s story, however, came with an obvious element of nuance when the intersection of racialized oppression and his mother’s history was considered — she had no record of abuse and those familiar with her vouched for her compassion for her son. She clearly was not in control of a systemic problem that created the limitations worsening situations like hers and countless other Black parents. We each collectively-knew that greater things were influencing this situation on a systemic level. But with that same acknowledgment came a resounding quietude championed by none-other than the able-bodied who claimed to be our allies. The only voices to interrupt it were ones that gaslighted.

“You should be relieved he’s still alive! How can you be like this?”

But we were relieved. Sheldon would likely be dead had someone not found him, or possibly worse. They took the collective relief that Sheldon had not been murdered or abused as something to lionize, rather than something to mourn. It was a reality they refused to view as a sign of how low expectations were for the care of disabled Black children.

“I can understand why she left him; you can’t know what choice you’d make if you haven’t lived their life or seen what it’s like caring for someone with his condition.”

This was parroted frequently, and nearly always to Black disabled people who actually had been in the Elliots’ scenario; some still were or did activist work for similar families. We collectively-recognized it and kept each other’s stories alive, and one key constant in this story remained.

The able-bodied always chose, and we always ended up being their first choice in these scenarios. In fact, in a rather perverse way, it would seem we chose for them, simply by being conceived with traits they never wished for us to have. Constant reminders of how “hard” Life was while raising a Black child with a disability only reinforced it, damn-near suggesting we should be grateful that they loved us — especially those with more severe forms — in spite of it.

This ableist story was not a novel one to us. It was one that festered, larger than a single family, larger than the Elliots. No matter how or when the Elliots’ story ended, this one would continue onward without them.

The able-bodied would, as they’ve done to Sheldon for being nonverbal, always encourage the public to sympathize with the parents or caretakers of the disabled who underwent these misfortunes. They’d then silence the voices of the very victim(s) themselves. All would listen to his mother, but none of those enforcing the erasure that obliterated the voices of myriad Black disabled folk would listen to him or teach Diane Elliot how to communicate with him. They’d move on to the next viral story and further contribute to a climate that enabled this cycle to continue, with no guarantee of there being any semblance of a silver lining when it was repeated.

The Elliots’ Narrative isn’t supposed to end that way, however. There are people there supporting them on myriad levels, thankfully. Sheldon’s mother will hopefully gain the resources she needs and also find a way to communicate with her son more tangibly, and he, with everyone else. I won’t be a fuckwad and interject that I know what he thought or was thinking when she left him alone in that car without his siblings, but I will be one to fervently state that he did think and feel something. The media pretending he couldn’t or was incapable of doing so guarantees that any pain or ostracism he might have internalized will manifest in another way.

While Diet Underwood continues to sabotage protections for the disabled, I want to believe more intimate familial protections will be strengthened in exchange; I want to remember remembering the ableism lurking underneath this story disappearing as it’s unlearned with experience and new perspectives.

I want to see able-bodied people outside of those already-involved continuing the fight for the wellbeing of Sheldon’s family so they aren’t harmed any more, as well as for myriad Black families like his; for Black families like Davis’, my tío abuelo’s, Antonio’s, and myriad others I know and don’t. I want to feel relieved that I’ve finally expressed a tremendous burden that’s pained me both as someone Black, disabled, and/or othered, sometimes by those within our community or by those I happen to love.

But I see Bob’s picture every time I pass by my Togbeawo altar, and nothing but quietude remains.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mwatuangi

Afroboricua. Maórocoti. Ratchet. Disability and Mental Health Advocate. Wakanda’s Chief Director of Accessibility Services.