July marks the thirty-second anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act—or ADA, as it’s better known—the landmark civil rights law that promised equal opportunity and economic security for Americans with disabilities. As we’ve talked about a lot on this show over the years, as important as it is to celebrate how far we’ve come in the decades since the ADA became part of the fabric of American life, every time we hit the month of July, it’s even more important to acknowledge how far will still have to go to achieve the as-yet unfulfilled promises of the ADA.
And that’s why this July, Off-Kilter is once again spending all month long having conversations with leaders from across the disability community.
To continue that series of conversations, this week we’re taking a deep dive into the criminalization of disability in America—and how we got to a place where people behind bars in prisons and jails are three to four times more likely to have a disability than the general population. And to unpack the intersection of criminal justice and disability justice, Rebecca sat down with a panel of incredible leaders from two organizations working at this nexus: Access Living, a longtime leader in the disability rights and justice space that works to build a world free from barriers and discrimination for all disabled people, and Activating Change, a new organization that recently spun off from the Vera Institute of Justice to center people with disabilities in reforming and reenvisioning the nation’s criminal justice system.
This week’s guests are: Candace Coleman, racial justice organizer at Access Living; Nancy Smith, executive director of Activating Change; Olga Trujillo, director of leadership development, visibility, and collective healing at Activating Change; and Keith Jones, president and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experience and a consultant who works closely with Activating Change.
Editor’s note: The Century Foundation is thrilled to have Access Living and Activating Change as members of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, which you can learn more about at dejc.org.
And here’s more from Keith Jones about his work, and why building stronger communities requires a commitment from heart and soul
[bright theme music]
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. July marks the thirty-second anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, as its better known: the landmark civil rights law that promised equal opportunity and economic security for Americans with disabilities.
As we’ve heard about a lot on this show over the years, as important as it is to celebrate how far we’ve come in the decades since the ADA became part of the fabric of American life, every time we hit the month of July, it’s even more important to acknowledge how far we still have to go to achieve the as-yet unfulfilled promises of the ADA. And that’s why this July, Off-Kilter is once again spending all month long having conversations with leaders from across the disability community in the U.S.
To continue that series of conversations, this week, we’re taking a deep dive into the criminalization of disability in America and how we got to a place where people behind bars in prisons and jails are three to four times more likely to have a disability than the general population. And to unpack the intersection of criminal justice and disability justice, I sat down with a powerhouse panel of four incredible leaders working at this nexus with two organizations that we’re proud to have as members of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative: Access Living, a longtime leader in the disability rights and justice space that works to build a world free from barriers and discrimination for all disabled people, and Activating Change, a new organization that recently spun off from the Vera Institute of Justice to center people with disabilities in reforming and re-envisioning the nation’s criminal justice system.
And our guests this week are Candace Coleman, the racial justice organizer at Access Living, who leads a lot of their criminal justice reform work; Nancy Smith, the executive director of Activating Change; Olga Trujillo, director of leadership development, visibility, and collective healing at Activating Change; and Keith Jones, president and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experience and a consultant who works closely with Activating Change. You can find lots more out about both organizations and how to get involved with their work, as well as the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative in show notes. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
VALLAS: Candace, Nancy, Olga, and Keith, thank you so much to all of you for taking the time to do this episode and to have this conversation. I’m nerdily very excited for this conversation, and as I have been throughout this whole series. But we really have something of an all-star panel here today for this. So, just a huge thanks to all of you for taking the time!
KEITH JONES: Thank you for having me.
OLGA TRUJILLO: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
CANDACE COLEMAN: Really excited to be a part of this today.
NANCY SMITH: Yeah, thank you very much.
VALLAS: So, as usual, I’d really love to kick off this conversation by giving each of you a chance to introduce yourselves just a little bit to Off-Kilter’s listeners. I think each of you is actually a new, first-time guest on this show. I love all-new panels! We don’t have those all the time. So, would love to kind of go around the horn and give everyone the chance to talk a little bit about how they come to this work, and in particular, how you all come to the intersection of disability justice and reform of our criminal legal system.
So, Candace, I’m gonna start with you. You’re joining us from Access Living, an organization which I’m thrilled is part of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, as have so many of the folks that we’ve been having on throughout this Off-Kilter series this month. But Candace, talk a little bit about how you come to this work.
COLEMAN: Sure. So, as you said, my name is Candace. I come from the South Side of Chicago. I’m a Black disabled woman with multiple disability identities. And in my community and in my family, I have a lot of people who have disabilities who can never say the term “disability.” And so, as I actually got to know Access Living as first, a advocate, it completely opened up my perspective on what’s possible when you have the tools that you need to get accommodations, but better yet, to actually have a community and to be a part of a community that is focused on liberating people with disabilities and making sure that we have the choice that we want to navigate our lives.
So, I actually come into the criminal justice field because I came into Access Living as a youth organizer, and a lot of students who I was supporting was getting funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline. And we were trying to figure out how do you intercept the system where people don’t have to go into it just because they have disabilities or just because they’re African American or Latinx? Like, how do we advocate against a system that doesn’t allow us to be free? And so, that’s really how the work got started 12+ years ago. And it has evolved into focusing on reentry and diversion work. In our group, it was really, really important for us to figure out the landscape of the community, the criminal justice system, and how do we intercept it when we don’t have as many interactions with it? And so, that’s the work that my group at Advance Youth Leadership Power is doing.
VALLAS: I love that. And we’re gonna get into a lot of those different pieces, a lot of how Access Living and you are approaching different facets of that work and including even rethinking policing altogether. So, a lot there that we’ll come back to. But thank you for being here with us, Candace.
Nancy, I’m gonna go to you next, and you’re kicking off the Activating Change team as part of this panel. Talk a little bit about how you come to this work. Activating Change is another partner of the Collaborative that we’re thrilled to have involved in this work.
SMITH: Sure. Well, I actually come to this work as a white woman without a disability, and my journey in this work dates back more than 20 years ago. I grew up in a pretty small, predominantly white, rural community. And when I went to college, I was exposed for the first time to what I would say are sort of the truths about our country and sexism and racism and classism. But it wasn’t until I actually had my first job out of graduate school that I began to understand about the experiences of people with disabilities and ableism and started to kind of reckon with my own privilege as a woman without a disability.
And I was working on an organizing project to engage community members around ending family violence, and at the end of every meeting I had, I asked folks who I should talk to in the community. And I ended up meeting with an advocate from a Center for Independent Living, which serves disability communities. And I asked about the experiences that the folks they were serving had with family violence. And the numbers were staggering, and the stories that I heard were just unbelievable. So many people that they were serving had experienced child abuse and sexual assault, domestic violence, and there were very few resources to support folks with disabilities who have those experiences. And I came to learn that it wasn’t isolated to the community I was working in, and yet, people with disabilities were largely excluded and ignored by efforts that were happening to address victimization.
And I think I came to see similar dynamics around criminal justice reform, which I know we’re here to talk about today. And I started reflecting on the ways in which I had contributed to that exclusion, and I really wanted to change how I did my work and to do something about it. And so, I’ve sort of been working ever since in a lot of different ways to address kind of ableism within justice movements and to center people with disabilities and Deaf people in justice policy, advocacy, and direct services work.
VALLAS: I love it. And I love your candor in describing kind of how the journey went for you and how you reflected on your own role, right, in showing up for the work. And I hope that that’s part of the conversation—we can come back to it as well—given that the organization that you have actually been spinning off from the Vera Institute of Justice called Activating Change is going through a really exciting moment now, starting to become its own organization and with a mission and a charge that is wonderfully different from so many other organizations that work in this way.
Olga, I’m gonna go next to you to talk a little bit about how you come to this work. And you are working with Nancy to some extent at this point through Activating Change, but you have a whole body of work that you’ve really been leading throughout the years and become quite visible for as well.
TRUJILLO: Yeah. Thanks so much. Yeah. So, I came to this work, I feel like, through a side door or a back door or something, because I was a young lawyer at the Department of Justice about 30 years ago, and I started having panic attacks and couldn’t figure out why. And through a series of trying to address the panic attacks, I discovered that I grew up in a really violent home and had blocked all of that out. And I was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, and I went through this really intensive healing process. At the same time, I’m working at the Department of Justice helping to implement the Violence Against Women Act, incorporating working with the Office for Victims of Crime. So, I’m around all of this work at the same time that I’m uncovering all of this in my life. And then I’ve got all this internalized ableism, meaning that I’m terrified about the fact that I have Dissociative Identity Disorder, and I don’t want anybody to know. And my journey really starts there.
It’s been a really profound experience for me to learn about, learn how to live with, and eventually be really proud of the way in which I was, the creativity that I could take to survive something that was so, so difficult. And so, I came to see my disability as really a superpower, and then started, I wrote a book about my experience. I started combining the professional work as a lawyer and understanding the grants and the programs that the Department of Justice was funding with the experience of trauma, of growing up in a Latino community. And so, then these two kind of things start to converge, and my evolution has been, has led me here being able to kind of tease apart the ways in which racism and ableism has come into my world, the ways in which I assimilated to be able to, basically, how I benefited from racism by assimilating as white. And then also how I assimilated so that no one would know I had a disability and no one would know that I had DID. And then over time, just realized that that can’t be. Like, seeing all the harm that that does and then just evolving and growing to try to undo some of the harm that I was involved in.
VALLAS: I appreciate that so much, and I mean it. And the internalized ableism, right? I mean, it’s such a difficult thing to grapple with and also to share about. So, thank you for that very personal sharing as well. So much more to unpack there, just like with everyone in kind of bringing their whole selves to these intros.
Keith, you’re gonna be rounding us out here for the panel, talking a little bit about how you come to this work. You’re the president and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experience right now. But what brings you to this work, and in particular, to the intersection of criminal legal system reform and disability justice?
JONES: All right. Well, again, thank you for having me, and thank you for including me with such an amazing panel. I come to the work, I think, Olga, you said coming through the back door. I had no intention of being involved in policy, disability rights, disability justice, and the disability movement. I’m from Saint Louis, literally. I lived, growing up as a kid, grew up around two blocks away from Michael Brown was left shot and murdered by the Ferguson police coming from Saint Louis. The way that I came to this work was I’m an African-American male with cerebral palsy, a very visible disability. I have had encounters as a Black man in this country with law enforcement, the potential of being incarcerated, and having incidental contact with police, that trepidation, that fear of. At the age of 52, which is what I am now, I can’t believe I said that out loud. But I still get the heart palpitations when I see a police car. I’m 52 years old.
I came to this work as a person who worked in the Independent Living Movement, who’s worked in cultural access, programmatic access, community building on various levels, as well as working on social justice and healthcare policy. But understanding that being in special education in the ‘80s and the ‘90s into the ‘70s and seeing my friends who did not get to graduate like me in four years, who did not get the opportunities to go on, to see how ableism and racism and classism, of basically how America treats you once they put you in the particular classification. So, seeing the need for economic, social justice, and criminal reform. And it’s been my life trajectory because we are the generation coming out of the ‘60s into the Black Power Movement and then seeing the War On Drugs in the ‘80s and seeing what they did in the ‘90s and understanding that my humanity was [unclear] as that which needed to be heeled, caught, incarcerated. We were seen as animals by known politicians. So, that’s kind of personal. Even if I didn’t wanna do the work, I had no choice because I lived that experience.
So, over the course of the last 25 years, it is work to bring the criminal justice system into alignment with reality, understand what the root cause of policing is, understanding that there’s a distinction between policing and public safety. That having a disability should not be a death sentence, being able to live in your community and not have to face ableism, that’s really what has driven this work. So, I guess trying to make the world better so I can just get up and go get a cup of coffee without having to worry about whether or not I’m gonna have an incident that may lead me to not breathe. Or whether or not a child who may have stuff going on at home has an emotional outburst in school, which leads them to be incarcerated because they get dragged off. So, seeing this social justice structure from the ‘60s till now and saying the promise that we had before I was born has to be realized, and that’s what brings me to this work.
VALLAS: And having a disability should not be a death sentence. It shouldn’t be a life sentence either. But unfortunately, it is for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people. With that as each of your respective entries into this work—and we could probably do an episode with each of you just talking about the work that each of you has done in this space—I’m so incredibly grateful to all of you for being here, for this conversation about the criminalization of disability, which honestly, is an intersection that almost never gets talked about. It’s doing a little bit better these days than it maybe was 10 years ago or so, where you almost never saw any conversation happening at the intersection of criminal justice reform and disability justice. But it remains one of the least well-known intersections of pretty much any disability economic justice issue that I’m aware of today, even among progressives who care about reforming our broken criminal justice system. So, it was a big part of why we wanted to make sure to have this episode as part of our July series, looking at a whole bunch of different facets of the disability economic justice that has been denied to the American disability community three decades following the Americans with Disabilities Act became law.
So, with that as some of the backdrop of who we’ve got here for you this week, Off-Kilter listeners, I wanna turn now to our panel to paint a little bit of a picture of what we’re talking about when we say “the criminalization of disability” or the “mass overrepresentation of disabled people in American prisons and jails.” And, Nancy, I heard you say in some of your how you came to this work, some of the reading and studying you were doing in college and your school years about kind of how problematic our systems and our structures are, particularly for disabled people, and especially for disabled people of color. So, I’m gonna put you on the spot and ask if you wouldn’t mind sharing with us some of the top-line numbers of what we know about how overrepresented disabled people are in American prisons and jails. What do we mean when we say that people are being warehoused in huge numbers in correctional facilities?
SMITH: Sure. Well, people with disabilities make up about 15 percent of the U.S. adult population, but they make up almost 40 percent of people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons. That’s almost three to four times more likely to be incarcerated than people without disabilities. And we see that the prevalence of disability is even higher for certain age groups. So, just like we see in people who are not incarcerated, disability is more and more prevalent as we age. So, if you look at folks who are incarcerated between the ages of 55 and 64, more than half report having a disability. And if you look at people who are incarcerated over the age of 75, more than 80 percent have a disability. So, people with disabilities are just disproportionately represented really at every step of the criminal justice system, from first point of contact with law enforcement through to incarceration in jails and prisons, and then certainly, in terms of being engaged in our reentry programs.
VALLAS: And Olga, I’m gonna turn to you next because of, in large part, because of the time you spent at the Department of Justice. DOJ, as we often call it, is really the source of the limited and imperfect data that we have, but still, it’s the data we have about who we have in our nation’s prisons and jails. What do we know about who are the disabled people behind bars? Nancy just offered some huge, jaw dropping numbers, right? People behind bars in prisons and jails, three to four times more likely to report a disability than the general population. That should be a takeaway that has anyone going, “Man, that’s a really, really high number.” But who are the people behind bars with disabilities? What do we know? Psychiatric disabilities maybe are the category that get some of the greatest visibility in, say, mainstream media and discourse, but what do we know about who from the community is part of those huge numbers?
TRUJILLO: Yeah. Well, so first, it’s really important to note that there’s a lot we don’t know. So, even though the Department of Justice has done some research, it’s oftentimes flawed, and really, there just hasn’t been very much. But from the research that has been done, we have roughly one in five people incarcerated report a cognitive disability: so, difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Twelve percent are ambulatory disability: difficulty walking, climbing stairs. And 11 percent reported a vision disability, so either blind or low vision. And one in four of the people covered in the studies are participating in special education classes. So, despite the fact that we don’t know, it’s still just a huge number. And then when you think about just that two thirds of Black men are arrested by the age of 28, that nearly half of the people at hands of police are people of color with disabilities, 40 percent of people in jail are people with disabilities, it’s just, yeah, it’s alarming. And it’s one of those things that we just don’t talk about very much.
VALLAS: Yeah, and I appreciate you bringing up policing. And Nancy, you said it well in saying that we need to be thinking about every phase of the criminal legal system, from policing all the way through reentry. I hope we’re gonna get to several of those different elements and facets throughout this conversation. But as we think about the huge numbers, just the jaw dropping numbers that Nancy shared and that Olga, you’ve been helping to add some texture to and to put some human faces on, Keith, I wanna go to you next and to ask the sort of million-dollar question of how did we get here, right? What is behind the mass warehousing of disabled people behind bars in the United States? And I ask that question, of course, with a subtext of how racism and ableism really come together in telling some of that story. Tell us a little bit about how we got here, to a place where so many disabled people are really being warehoused in prisons and jails.
JONES: I think what we have to do is we have to remember the origin of policing, that being of slave patrols. We have to remember that capturing a slave, once you were caught, you were disabled; you were hobbled. We have to remember that if you were disabled, you were used as a scare tactic for the rest. You jump forward in American law, it was only in 1974 that the last “Ugly law” was rescinded. I was five years old. When you talk about the social justice movements for equality and anti-policing that have gone on since the ‘50s and the ‘60s, which leads to what we’re talking about today, the way we got here was that once, you know, post-1965 and the reflexive response to African Americans, typically disenfranchised communities gaining civil rights, the reflexive majority response was then to criminalize. You had laws that said kids with disabilities could go to school, but then you had the way that people fracture the classrooms in special education. So, how we got here was the criminalization of the Black body, of the brown body, which has been historic in America.
It really became more prevalent particularly with the spike in mass incarceration, with what we now know as the War On Drugs. What kids used to now, if you listen to hip hop, the crack babies, they’re talking about this criminalization of anything bad being focused on persons of color. And specifically, if your humanity doesn’t look like what is reflected on television, you are instantly cast as either a burden or a problem. This is not hyperbolic. This is constant. This is if you’re a person in a wheelchair sitting outside of Penn Station, the assumption is that you’re homeless; you’re something that you’re a nuisance, which led to the vagrancy laws. This is why Black men couldn’t gather on the corner. So, there’s a long history of giving social context and pretext to the reason we shouldn’t be allowed to be free, or we are stopped on the way home if we are Black, not just listening to our music and not responding.
This is why people are now concerned about the Supreme Court saying that you don’t need to have your Miranda rights read to you. The data about being 28 and not having to be arrested, and you said I dodged the statistics. And so, how we got here is a very concentrated effort from making sure that there were rules against you gathering, you were disabled if you couldn’t be in regular class, you’re not allowed to get married, you are subject to abject poverty. All of these things are systemic and policy based as well as societal. So, that really is what underpins negative interactions with police. That’s what happens when if you don’t present as disabled, and they presume that you are “normal.” These are the things that lead to people being incarcerated. This is a Freddie Gray situation. These are the kind of things that happen. So, that’s how we got here.
TRUJILLO: And let me—
VALLAS: Yeah. And oh, please. Yes, go ahead. Jump in.
TRUJILLO: So, this is Olga. I just wanted to, I wanted to add to that. First of all, I just always love working with Keith. When Keith talks, I’m like, “Oh, my god, yes! And this and this!” So, that’s a little bit. So, it’s all that and the fact that we have criminalized behaviors related to disability. So, atypical reactions to social cues is often misinterpreted as disorderly conduct or resisting arrest. A lot of people with disabilities use substances in order to manage pain, and that became a big focus of criminalization in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And it just kind of goes on and on. And then once people are criminally charged, they face a tremendous, opaque, and complex legal system, and any failure to comply with a rule or regulation results in more punishment, more incarceration. And they never get the services that they need.
VALLAS: Yeah, and I feel like stories sometimes help to put a face on some of these otherwise theoretical failures and gaps, right? But you’re describing an opaque legal system. It’s also a largely inaccessible legal system, and often in ways that are actually in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which does apply to courts. And yet we hear story after story after story just abounding of people who are denied interpreters, people who are denied all kinds of accessibility needs and therefore are not even able to figure out what the hell might be going on in their case, right, let alone participate in their own defense. Stories of people who get accused of having stolen an iPad because they’re seen with an iPad that actually was given to them by the New York Times Needy Cases Fund, for example, after a story mentioning their plight and their being unhoused, and what a difference an iPad could make as accessible tech. I mean, the stories kind of go on and on. But a huge feature of the entire system is also, in many cases, its outright inaccessibility and often, just a complete lack of awareness even on the part of folks who are within the legal system that they might be falling short.
We need to get into policing here, and Olga, that’s where you started to go a little bit, and so did Keith. And I really wanna dig in there, and Candace, to bring you back in here to dig a little bit deeper on the policing conversation. It’s a national conversation that really has been movement-led and movement-sparked in the past couple of years at a fever pitch that we have not seen in really a generation. But almost never does the national conversation about policing and the need for really rethinking not just reforming policing for reasons you were naming, Keith, and many more, rarely do those conversations actually include any kind of disability lens. And yet, according to some estimates, disabled people represent as many as half of people killed by law enforcement. Some other estimates suggest that people with psychiatric disabilities may represent as many as one quarter of people killed by law enforcement. Olga, you were mentioning that our DOJ, our Department of Justice, data are incredibly limited, and part of what we don’t know is even how many disabled people have acquired disabilities while in police custody. That’s often called a sort of a dark or unknown figure.
Candace, talk a little bit more about what drives these kinds of police interactions gone wrong. Olga started to talk about the criminalization of what often are behaviors that might be ones that disabled people exhibit or don’t exhibit that get normalized or sort of abnormalized. Talk a little bit about some of how this goes down and some of why rethinking policing is such a big part of your work at Access Living.
COLEMAN: So, before I get into this specifically, I wanna go back to the last comment, which is the other thing that I think this element of what’s going on with not understanding what’s happening, is that because disability is not considered a institutionalized norm or community, as people were discussing the Ugly Laws, the other part is the people not having the resources or the tools to understand their bodies, how it functions, how to have accommodations. And so, you’re having a twofold thing here where it’s people outside of you not understanding how to approach disability, talk about or support it, but also especially for communities of color, not having a conversation about who you are as a person with a disability, what that means for your body, your mind, and your spirit, and how it interacts with the external world.
And so, I’ve seen a lot of instances where folks with disabilities have had interactions with police, one, as you describe, because they don’t understand behaviors or cues that can tell them what disability is. The other thing is the militarization of how police are trained and this command culture that they have to control everything in the scenario. And the last thing, I think, is a lot of times the way police have been trained historically has always been at the heart of criminalizing people of color in their trainings and then not understanding who’s actually in the community that they’re policing.
COLEMAN: I have been a part of many conversations where people don’t acknowledge that they have disabilities unless it’s something that they could see or unless they’re a senior citizen. And so, there’s a whole lot of information left out of what the community actually looks like that they serve, where they don’t recognize that people with disabilities live in the community and have certain supports and what it looks like for them. So, for example, there are a lot of opinions around folk who are autistic, but usually, when we talk about that, it’s from a white perspective. And so, we’re looking visually at young white boy, but you don’t have that for people of color and what their social cues are and all of the history behind that. And so, that’s why the police can get misinformed.
The other one, I’m seeing this a lot in the conversation around suicide, is that in some cues for what can happen in a suicidal situation could also happen for other types of disabilities. And so, there’s an overlap of those behaviors, but people can’t distinguish what the differences are, so there’s a lot of confusion there. And then the last thing I’ll say is that the disciplinary policies for students with disabilities doesn’t support students with disabilities not getting funneled into the system. And so, immediately, we have, “Call the police for this, call the police for that, call the police if this happens.” Not to mention police being in the schools as the disciplinarian. And so, anything that is not the norm for how you supposed to act in school usually gets criminalized. And that’s how they .
VALLAS: Yeah, so many important points there. And Olga, I know a lot of your work also has really involved the need to rethink policing. And you started to speak a little bit to some of the drivers of how disability has become criminalized and how that actually plays out brass tacks in the context of policing practices, but is there more you wanna say there about what it would look like to rethink policing by centering the disability perspective?
TRUJILLO: Yeah, and this is, and I, of course, was jazzed up with the stuff that Candace was talking about and wanted to kind of jump in. So, thanks for asking. So, the thing, kind of the way that I see it is very, very, this is just a different way of describing what Candace said, really, just very honestly. But I’ve been working in and among systems for most of my career, I think in large part because I’m trained as a lawyer and then having really started most of the pivotal part of my career at the Department of Justice. And what I’ve kind of, what I’m saying is that exactly what Candace said, right? So, we have police. A medical emergency or a fire, we send them out to everything else, to any other crisis we send them. And the tools that they rely on are guns and tasers. And even when, [chuckles] they’re not even, when they’re not sent out, they come across people, primarily Black and brown people. And if they don’t respond in the way that they expect, then their reactions can be and are deadly for folks. So, to me, the fact that we have this one response is hugely problematic. And I mean, I’m kind of….
If the police system is gonna be around, then there’s a few things that we need to do about it. I think the main point is that we have to protect people with disabilities and in particular Black and brown people with disabilities from systems. Because it’s not just the police, but it’s other systems that also come in contact with Black and brown people with disabilities that then create all kinds of risk for them. And so, that’s the first thing is that we have to protect them from that.
And then secondly, we need a different response. We can’t be sending people with guns and tasers to help people that are in crisis. And the problem that I see when we talk about this is that these systems don’t wanna let go of any of the funding that they have and any of the control that they have. So, the responses just keep happening. And then when there’s discussions around defunding or funding other responses instead, they work really hard against it!
TRUJILLO: And that’s the, to me, that’s like there’s lots and lots of problems with our system responses, our criminal justice, criminal legal system responses. But that one really kind of like, I don’t know, it just, it just…it infuriates me. And so, we do. We need to redirect money for different responses that provide services and help de-escalate someone when they’re in crisis, can see and know how to work with people with disabilities. Police don’t. I mean, I’m working on a couple projects within Activating Change to try to develop training for law enforcement. In fact, that’s one of the projects that I work with Keith on. And they don’t know hardly anything about the experiences of people with disabilities, and that’s really, really problematic.
TRUJILLO: Anyway, I’ll stop there ‘cause, go ahead, Keith.
JONES: No, I’m sorry. This is Keith. I think what you all are saying, and one of the things that’s said, I think if you pull it back, this is, you know, when we talk about disability in the criminal justice system, we’ve already passed through 40 different mesh points in which there could’ve been an intervention. When you talk about systems and the funding, there’s a reason that we have the term “prison industrial complex,” right? There’s a reason that people are still chasing and still wondering and still hemming and hawing about the 13th Amendment. There’s still reasons that the IDEA is still not fully implemented. There are still reasons that speaking to teachers, they still are talking about, “We’re not prepared to teach those students.” What we have forgotten, or what it seems to me, is that what people have gotten really good at is intellectualizing their bias and their hate and then underpinning it into a policy.
And then when you ask about resources, it goes to who do we deem value in this, valuable within the society? We’re talking about people of color and people with disabilities at the mesh point of the criminal justice system. But just the trajectory of the criminal justice system here in America, specifically as it relates to Black and brown bodies, which is the terminology used now, in other words, anybody who’s not a white male or a white man or a white woman, that that system is not designed for you. “Opaque” is being kind. If you’re an overworked public defender, you’re not interested in whether or not your Deaf client has ASL. You got 70 other cases. And at that point, the hope is lost.
So, how did we get to this point? It really is a full, it has to be a full social response. We have to be able to look at Keith, Olga, Nancy, Rebecca, Candace and say, “You all are human. And thus, we need to respect that.” But if you can devalue my humanity by saying, “My intellectual disability makes me stupid, my physical disability makes me crippled and unworthy of love and emotion,” then it is not a far stretch to criminalize my body and to smash the end of a wheelchair or to incarcerate me or to put me in solitary confinement or if I’m crossing the border as a migrant. All of these things play into how we view. So, how do we get out of it? It really is a mindset that we have to first value the human, then value the fact that criminal justice doesn’t need to be an industry.
TRUJILLO: And I—
VALLAS: I love, I love that, “First value the human,” right? And honestly, we could probably put a period after that, and we would’ve done a lot of good, right? But somebody was about to jump in.
TRUJILLO: No, it’s Olga. [chuckles] So, let me know if I’m jumping in too much.
VALLAS: No, please!
TRUJILLO: So, that’s kind of where like, that’s where things kind of shifted for me in my life. So, for every place I go, every meeting I go to, anything I do, I tell people I have Dissociative Identity Disorder, and I do it because this is one of the most stigmatized psychiatric disabilities, and very, very few people will tell you they have it. And so, in the process of talking about it, I’m trying to destigmatize it. I’m trying to show that people who have this are incredibly creative people, are really smart people, are like, have been, they had to be creative to escape something they couldn’t physically escape, that they could escape cognitively. And I’m raising this—and this is just an example of what Keith is saying—I’m trying to humanize people who have a disability that is constantly portrayed in the media as someone who is a serial killer, someone who is unstable, someone who does not deserve to be in our society.
And then I think about kind of the way that race comes into this. I’ve been in DID circles for decades now, and it’s very, very white. And what I mean by that is that to be able to identify that you have DID and to get some help around how to manage it and how to move through the world is a lot of privilege. It requires being in a place where you can notice what’s happening in your mind and in your life. And then to be able to have the resources to find someone who can help you address it, and then the resources to deal with it, to deal with some of the complications of DID. And it’s rare to see, well, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in those circles. I’m unusual in those circles.
JONES: And this is Keith.
JONES: Oh, go ahead.
VALLAS: No, I so appreciate that, Olga. And Keith, I’m only gonna keep us moving because we’re gonna start to run short on time, which is already making me very sad! Because we need so much more time with this panel. But I wanna just acknowledge, because we’re not gonna have a chance to get into them in depth, but some of the other parts of the system that are really, really problematic for disabled folks and which we’re not gonna have a chance to really dive into. We’ve talked a little bit about policing. We’ve talked a little bit about the just sheer numbers of folks with disabilities behind bars. But critical to understand also that it’s not just that people with disabilities are not, or it’s not just that people with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in the criminal legal system, folks with disabilities are also treated particularly terribly in prisons and jails. For folks who wanna learn more about this subject, for example, people with disabilities routinely being put in solitary confinement, especially Deaf folks and folks with communication disabilities, quote-unquote “for their own protection,” right? Or people being denied needed medical care or accommodations, even prosthetics. There are all kinds of horrible stories that really are showcased in lawsuits that have been brought over the years. So, you can find more resources in show notes talking more about that.
because so many of our reentry supports intended to help people returning to society from prison or jail are just simply not accessible or really designed to work for disabled people either. So, I just wanted to stipulate both of those, since I’m looking at the clock and realizing we’re not gonna have a chance to get into them in depth, and they’re really important for folks to be aware of as well.
Keith, please jump back in and take us where you wanted to go.
JONES: Oh, well, thank you for all of those things. I think when you were talking about the accessibility, and we’ve worked on recidivism, reintegration into the community and things like that, the underlying premise is that you have the ability to reenter into your society. When we know that most of the people who are in prison look like me and that our communities are extremely inaccessible, if accessible at all. So, I think one thing the parts that we have to talk about is how do you avoid criminal justice systems is that you have opportunities to expand on your talents and your education if you are never given the opportunity to, I don’t know, get a job or go on to college or become an entrepreneur. When we talk about the social isolation of disability community and things like that, we are skipping over what deters people from being in prison? What deters people? I mean, happenstance. You know, people talk about, “Keith, oh, you’re so” whatever. But I literally panic if I’m crossing the street wearing a baseball cap, and I see a police officer. Because at that point you do not have the ability to say, “No, I’m just going to the store.” So, how do we avoid that part?
I think the issue that we have in the criminal justice system is that people have shown up and chosen this profession with intention, but they have also intentionally clung to their racism, their ableism, their sexism, their misogyny, and couch it as “unconscious bias.” That is nonsense. So, I think the more we start talking about putting people into places of law enforcement, of justice, of legal aid and being lawyers that get it, that this is about the humanity of the individual versus their own particular underpinned bias, then I think we’ll be able to make some kind of progress.
VALLAS: Nancy, I wanna bring you back in on actually this point and to take it just a little bit further as well. And it’s some of what I’m so incredibly excited by in both of your organizations’ work—this is true of Activating Change. This is also true of Access Living—is each of you are intentionally working at the intersection of criminal justice reform and disability justice very intentionally. But it’s actually fairly recent that there really—and I mentioned this just glancingly before—but it’s actually fairly recent that there are even really conversations happening at all at the intersection of criminal justice reform and disability justice. Doing this work in kind of the think tank and policymaking sector for as long as I’ve been doing it, I can think back to even just seven, eight years ago, there was virtually no bridge between the disability community and folks in the criminal justice reform space, many of whom were totally unaware of the disability perspective at all, despite their being kind of progressive or conservative reformers.
I’m curious, Nancy, if you could talk just a little bit about what you think has brought about some of the shift that we’ve seen of greater awareness of this intersection, and now more organizations, including yours, really starting to dig so deep. I mean, that’s also an opportunity to speak just a little bit about the story behind Activating Change. But would love to hear you talk a little bit about some of how the organization came to be and some of whether I’m right, actually, to say that we’ve seen a shift in the positive direction in terms of more awareness and more work at this intersection.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, thanks for the opportunity. Just it is sort of interwoven with our story as Activating Change, so I might start there. You mentioned this has been an exciting few weeks for us at Activating Change. We launched as an organization on July 1st, 2022, and our mission is really dedicated to what we’ve been talking about today: to end victimization, criminalization, and incarceration of people with disabilities and Deaf people. And even though we launched just recently, our work actually dates back to 2004. And from 2004 to 2022, we were a project of the Vera Institute of Justice. And for those of you not familiar with Vera, Vera is a national non-profit working to end criminalization and mass incarceration. And in 2020, we really took a pause, and we went through a strategic planning process to really understand better sort of where our social justice movements are around justice and disability. And what we saw and noted is that we’re in a moment of unprecedented momentum around equity and around justice.
And I do think you’re right that we are seeing some changes. We are starting to see more attention being paid to people with disabilities, to disability communities and justice issues. But it’s not sustained attention, and it’s not yet translating into change. And we still see that people with disabilities are excluded and ignored. And we felt pretty strongly that if we do not really push to center people with disabilities and Deaf people now, when we have such unprecedented momentum around criminal justice reform and transformation, we are really deepening disparities. And we are going to create two tiers of justice: one for people with disabilities and another for those without.
And so, together with the leadership at Vera, we decided that our work needed a more prominent and visible platform and the kind that really comes from being an independent, national organization. And so, we launched Activating Change. And one of our goals, the primary ways in which we work, is really to bring together people and organizations across movements—so, from the survivor advocacy movement, the criminal justice reform movement, and the disability movement—and to build alignment. I think these movements have largely historically been disconnected. They have, in some cases, been misaligned. And there’s real opportunity to bring these movements together, to build alignment around disability and racial justice, to build capacity, and to really support the organizations working, using more of a collective strategy so that we’re all working together, and we’re working toward sort of the same goals of ending victimization, ending criminalization and incarceration of people with disabilities.
So, I do think we’ve seen some positive movement, but I think we have a lot farther to go. And we really need to make sure that that attention, that commitment, that change is really systemic and that it isn’t just sort of, of the moment. We really need to build this into the fabric of what is happening in social justice movements.
VALLAS: Well, a huge congratulations on that spinoff. It’s a really, really big deal to become your own independent national organization. And I have to say, selfishly, I know everyone at The Century Foundation is just so incredibly thrilled to have you all and Access Living as part of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative for all of the reasons you were just describing, and why it is more important than ever that we understand this work and this intersection as also part of the larger conversation around economic justice.
So, we’re gonna run out of time. We only have just a few minutes left. And with that few minutes, what I would really love to do is just sort of a quick lightning round to give each of you the chance to throw in a last word or two or three, including and with a special emphasis on any solutions that you wanna get on the board that we haven’t been able to talk about yet: policy changes we need, what would you do if you had a magic wand for a day, different ways I might throw that to each of you. But, Candace, I’m gonna kick that over to you first and then go around the horn.
COLEMAN: I think one of the things that we haven’t talked about but touched on a little bit is really community support in having just human needs met, but including disability support and perspective. When we talk about reentry and the lack of housing and the lack of services and all of that, not having just your basic needs met won’t allow you to stay out of the criminal justice system. And so, we really need to get to a point where a lot of these alternatives are providing community support and just the human nature of what we need as people.
VALLAS: I love that. And Keith, I’m gonna go next to you.
JONES: Yes. I think that one of the things we need is to talk about this in a different light from policing to public safety. And if I had a magic wand, I would give everybody the ability to use the intelligence that they claim they have when choosing their profession. Because this is not a place where you can allow your biases and your prejudices to trump your intelligence in terms of whether or not the individual has the right to be heard or treated as a human. So, magically, I would love to see a return to the community where we invest in preventative intervention and have incarceration and police interdiction be the last, and hopefully not used, option.
VALLAS: Same question to you, Nancy, and then Olga, you’re gonna get the last word.
SMITH: I think what I would say is that we have to be disability and race specific in all of the efforts that we are doing. I think when our strategies lack specificity, in particular around race, around disability, what we see is improvements for white able people in terms of the criminal justice system, and we see inequities for people of color, for people with disabilities increasing and only getting worse. So, I would say really bringing that disability and race-specific lens.
VALLAS: And Olga, you are going to close us out here, so make it good. And I know you will.
TRUJILLO: Oh, my god. No pressure. [laughs] Yeah. So, I’m gonna go back to something that Keith said, and that is seeing the humanity in people and in particular, centering Black and brown people with disabilities and seeing their humanity, starting there.
VALLAS: I can’t think of a better note to end on, really, I think in any conversation about public policy and disability justice, but certainly in this conversation. I am so incredibly grateful to all of you for taking the time and for all of the work that you’re out there doing. Another round of congrats to Activating Change for spinning off and becoming your own independent organization. Just synchronistically with the timing of this conversation, it could not be better. And I just wanna suggest that for folks who are looking to learn more and who maybe knew a little bit about this intersection, maybe knew nothing about this intersection, maybe folks are coming to this Disability Pride Month/ADA Month series and just learning about a whole bunch of disability justice intersections for the first time, we’ve got lots of resources in our show notes which you can find at TCF.org/Off-Kilter or in whatever podcast platform you’re listening in right now, including lots of resources about how you can get involved with Access Living and Activating Change and also a bunch of resources with lots more on the data and the stats and some of the policies folks have been talking about as well. So, check out those show notes if you are looking to learn more and go deeper after this conversation.
But just a huge thanks to our whole panel. Candace Coleman is racial justice organizer at Access Living. Keith Jones is president and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experience, and also, as you’ve heard, is a friend of and works with Activating Change from time to time. Olga Trujillo is director of leadership development, visibility, and collective healing at Activating Change, and Nancy Smith is the executive director of Activating Change as well. So, just a huge thanks to all of you. And I really enjoyed this conversation. I wish we had two hours for it instead of one, but we’re gonna have to leave it there with just a huge note of gratitude to each of you. [theme music returns]
JONES: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
TRUJILLO: Thanks very much.
SMITH: Thank you.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.