12.15.23
Jennifer White-Johnson | Books

Amplifying Accessibility and Abolishing Ableism: Designing to Embolden Black Disability Visual Culture

An Anthology of Blackness

Editor's Note: The following excerpt is from An Anthology of Blackness: The State of Black Design, edited by Terresa Moses, and Omari Souza, out now from MIT Press. It is reprinted here with permission of the publisher. Jennifer White-Johnson (she/her/ they/them) is an artist and design educator whose creative practice and parent/child advocacy work is rooted in neurodiversity and autism acceptance/advocacy in Black and brown families.

This work is dedicated to all the Black disabled, crip, neurodivergent, chronically ill, mad humans out there.

While writing, I had the pleasure of being asked to be a part of Deem journal’s “Envisioning Equity Panel on Neurodiversity.” It was beautiful to share space with other neurodivergent Black, Indigenous, and creatives of color who are combating their own internalized ableism as well as the ableism that continues to exist in creative and corporate spaces. How we use our own unique strategies and methodologies amplifying disability and access was at the heart of the conversation.

As a Black creative, I continue to grapple with my own understanding and discovery of what being neurodivergent means to me and for the culture of Black design. I keep a copy of my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) trait flash cards next to me created by Rachel Idowu, who runs the amazing ADHD advocacy collective AdultingADHD. Rachel is a Black woman who also lives with ADHD and was diagnosed in her late twenties. The flash cards list ADHD traits and tips that can help me manage what I live with on a daily basis, such as hyperfocusing, hypermobility, procrastination, getting easily distracted, dealing with rejection sensitive dysphoria, difficulty sustaining attention, and more. I procrastinated heavily when attempting to write this, constantly thinking about how I could make this contribution different from others I had written before about this same topic.

During the Deem panel, our moderator, Dr. Yewande Pearse, who’s written extensively on the practice of equitable science and the neurodiversity paradigm, asked us to reflect on the following: “Language can be limiting but when challenged, can free us. I’ve found the concept of neurodiversity and the term ‘neurodivergent’ liberating, but only after really struggling to grasp what it means because in many ways, neurodiversity is a departure from definition. What does neurodiversity mean to you?”

For me, neurodiversity means embracing that your bodymind can be a radical space of softness and resistance at the same time. In the traits I listed above that define my ADHD, I have to remember that as Audre Lorde said, “We don’t live single-issue lives.” To me this means that we can accept the authenticity of pain and pleasure as power. I believe we can build, create, and exist in our own worlds that have been deemed inaccessible to us. We can be unapologetically disabled and demand that the world be made accessible to us.

As I continue to understand my needs, I can continue to challenge the definition of normal, knowing that there is no such thing as a normal brain. I believe normal is an ableist social construct. The concept of neurodivergence should push back against the idea of “the broken and disordered brain,” holding space for self-acceptance instead of fear.

Our Deem conversation continued with talking about the concept of neurodiversity, and its implications in shaping conditions for equity, why we think it is important to make the distinction between equity and equality as it pertains to neurodiversity, and what equity looks like to us. Equality does not end with gender and race; equality needs to embody an equitable space for access as we exist as folks with different disabilities, especially for those of us who live with invisible disabilities, and often diagnoses like ADHD and autism come later in life for many Black women. A recent study by the Center for American Progress revealed that Black disabled women and girls experience economic insecurity at higher rates frequently due to job loss and subminimum wages—as low as $2.13 per hour. Aside from living as disabled in creative, corporate, and academic spaces with invisible disabilities, Black women and disabled bodies are frequently demonized or coddled. We are often spoken over or subject to erasure, with our work uncredited and appropriated.

We also know the educational system is not always fair, accepting, or equitable when a ten-year-old autistic girl like Isabel Trichenor can be bullied day after day by her teacher and classmates just because she is autistic. Isabel, also known as “Izzy,” died by suicide as a result of alienation and the racist, ableist behaviors of others. Her environment should have been a safe space for her to thrive in. These oppressive spaces should make us want to advocate for resources that are built by Black and brown disabled communities that are already putting in the work to uplift our most vulnerable and oppressed people. We really need to commit to asking ourselves, Whose Black/brown futures are we really saving? Do their lives hold less value than able-bodied folks? We do not hear these stories until it is too late. Imagine what our world would look like if we centered and celebrated Black disabled joy in design spaces and communities that often view our body, mind, and talent as disposable. Equity means not investing solely in capitalist and ableist notions of productivity but in collective care, access, and leadership opportunities for those most impacted by these oppressive systems too.

Being open with myself and acknowledging the strength in communal care has allowed my creative practice to thrive. Holding space for accessible teaching and choosing to disclose my neurodivergence to my students has also opened up levels of transparency as well as care between us that I frequently haven’t experienced in academic spaces. Validating self-diagnosing and not being afraid to be vulnerable has permitted me to find strength in those vulnerabilities. Seeing and accepting similarities between myself and my child, while I was often viewed as “too much” when I was an expressive young Afro- Latina kid, has allowed my son to be free in a way that I was was not confident growing up.

My creative practice continues to draw inspiration from my own autistic son’s creativity and playfulness. This paved the way for me to create my first photo zine, which served as a love letter to Black autistic and neurodivergent families like my own. I felt showcasing my own family’s journey and the perspective of my son’s diagnosis could serve as a catalyst for change.

I continue to see so much of myself in him, thereby allowing me to understand my disability even more. Reclaiming visual narratives and breaking the stigma of my son’s autistic joy using photography and design has allowed me to highlight what I typically don’t see depicted in the media. The importance of portraying his joy increases visibility in the lives of Black autistic kids. It is beautiful and luminous to show the world that being autistic isn’t something to be ashamed of, demonstrating that being your true authentic self is a form of resistance. This design process has allowed me to continue creating dialogue between myself and other neurodivergent families by highlighting my son’s ability to experience disability joy. Creating art to combat ableism and racism is my family’s ultimate liberatory practice.

For instance, in the image here—a riso print colored with hues of blue, purple, and pink halftones—a five-year-old Black autistic boy is smiling. There are six different collaged photographs of Knox wearing T-shirts that say “advocate for autistic voices,” “advocate for autistic opinions,” “advocate acceptance,” “advocate inclusion,” and “advocate autistic experiences.”

Often the neurodiverse community is excluded from artistic narratives and creative spaces, and thus we gladly create our own, taking ownership of our stories and telling them how we choose to tell them—unfiltered and honest. I also run an online disability advocacy shop that includes antiableist poster designs, zines, access to protest art resources, and more. The designs have become essential conversation starters that help to shift and disrupt justice stigmas while encouraging helpful dialogue for educators, parents, and families. In my zine-making workshops, all ages can engage in accessible, authentic storytelling and mess making.

Read more from An Anthology of Blackness: The State of Black Design.

Posted in: Books, Inclusion




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