Story and photo by Floyd Alvin Galloway
The fifth annual African-American Symposium on Disabilities is gaining notoriety across the United States and making a difference in the lives of individuals. The only of it’s kind in the country, the conference is gaining attention nationally, with others looking to duplicate it on other parts of the country. The event took place Friday February 12th at the Desert Willow Conference Center in Phoenix.
Founded in Arizona by David Carey, an advocacy specialist with ABILTY 360 and Renaldo Fowler, a senior staff advocate for Arizona Center for Disability Law, the two saw a critical need and worked to fill it. Their goal is to get vital information out to Black community so they will be able to improve the quality of life for their loved ones and the family as a whole. The problem is, as in a number of cases, people need to be pro-active instead of reactive. Proactive helps you avoid situations or helps you to know how to better handle a situation when it arises.
Carey and Fowler state they try to keep the cost of attending the event as low as possible so families, some with limited means, can attend the program. They had scholarships for those who needed it.
“Without our vendors and supporters like United Healthcare Plan, we would not be able to keep the cost down for he conference,” Fowler told the audience. “We would not be able to have the event if it was not for them,” Fowler added.
This year’s conference keynote speaker was Talila A. Lewis, a dynamic young attorney-activist. Lewis founded and directs the all-volunteer nonprofit organization, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD). HEARD works to end wrongful convictions of deaf people and abuse/discrimination against incarcerated people with disabilities. The non-profit also works to increase representation of the deaf in the justice, legal and corrections professions.
In her riveting presentation, Lewis noted, “We have to acknowledge that the jails are full of African-Americans with disabilities,” said Lewis.
The mass incarceration of this country has swept up many who have some type of mental or physical disability. The legal system is inadequately prepared to handle the situation.
“Addiction is a disability. Addiction is a disease,” she noted. That mindset has gained more momentum since the heroine epidemic has struck many white communities. Authorities have changed from locking people up to providing medical help and solutions, something totally different from the days of the crack epidemic that devastated many communities of color.
“We can not incarcerate our way out of addiction in the United States,” said Lewis. To change the view and the environment on disabilities people have to not be afraid to say the word disabilities, talk about disability, talk about suicide, and decriminalize disability.
One of her clients, who is deaf, and has been in solitary confinement for over 40 years, asked her, “Can you feel freedom?”
Solitary confinement is torture,” Lewis said. “People literally lose their mind when put into solitary confinement.”
Carey noted the conference is important because, “One can never quit learning and those that provide should never stop offering especially to underserved communities,” explained Carey.