Thursday, September 7, 2017

Why I Think That Maybe Stafford County Virginia Should Keep Its Confederate Flag

Childhood photo of Neli Latson, a young autistic African American male in crew cut 'fro, white tshirt and red, white, and blue plaid shirt, smiling at the camera, cradled in his mother

This is what I know about Stafford County, Virginia.

When certain members of the community wanted the Confederate flag removed from flying high above the county in public administration and public service areas, the county solution was to move the pole so the flag was still large and visible from I-95 but could not be removed because it was now on private property where it remains to this day.

So the first thing I understood from this is that Stafford County Virginia might be a place where the rule of law can be used to circumvent the law and keep symbols that oppress and offend its marginalized citizens regardless of the will or wish of its communities. Stafford County Virginia might be a dangerous place for marginalized people.

Stafford County is the the place where Reginald Neli Latson, #AutisticWhileBlack, student and beloved member of his high school wrestling team, sat in front of a library that was unexpectedly closed, not knowing that his life would change forever because a white person didn’t like an African American teen just sitting in front of a public space. So that white person(or persons?), nebulous personae who had shifted to become teens, children, a concerned passerby, a crosswalk guard, but whose identity has been protected to this day, made a 911 phone call reporting an armed Black male in front of the library who “looked suspicious.” Neli was unarmed.

Stafford County is the place where an off-duty school resource officer wanted to arrest Neli for something, and when all his questions had been answered and Neli was walking away he said in that way that power addresses the marginalized, “what’s your name, boy?” knowing that in Stafford County it is against the law not to give your name when a law officer asks for it.

Stafford County is the place where the prosecutor dismissed and disregarded Neli’s disability and only saw a case to add to his conviction record. Stafford County is the place where Neli spent years in unjust incarceration and solitary confinement. Stafford County is the place whose hatred stole from a disabled black youth with a promising future his freedom, his civil rights, and his mental health. Stafford County is one of the places in Virginia where a disproportionate number of incarcerated men are intellectually disabled and Black.

Stafford County is where Neli's mother waged a one woman war for his freedom that was so passionate and so desperate that the media finally took notice. Stafford County is where activists like Leroy Moore tried to help free Neli. Stafford County is where his mother and I cried so long during a phone call that my husband came in to ensure everything was alright. Stafford County is where Neli's mother and sister lost everything, and put everything, into trying to get him out of this unjust incarceration.

Oh, I was just as happy as everyone else when Bree Newsome took that flag down from the Statehouse grounds in South Carolina. But that single act, while it has brought all the Confederate flags flying inappropriately in public spaces as well as displays of other symbols of the failed Confederacy everywhere  including  in our National Cathedral to prominence, it doesn't  in and of itself resolve the problem of racism. The fact that it flew there at all is a greater statement to the structural nature of the bigotry we are facing than the attempts to remove these objects from public spaces are. 

I know Stafford County as the county that avoided confronting activists like Bree Newsome by relocating their official Confederate flag on private property and continuing to fly it proudly.

Now we have this new argument that it should not be flown in view of I-95. Local residents, who drove by it for years without questioning but who are afraid Stafford County might become the site of another Charlottesville are now pushing for its removal. But it is not enough to ask that the right thing is done or do the right thing oneself for the wrong reasons. If the flag and all the ugliness it stood for is still firmly planted in the hearts of the people of Stafford County, it should remain flying as a warning to everyone that justice does not abide in that place.

To the rest of African American families across the nation. Perhaps it is time to let those who want to keep the outward manifestations of their own hatred, those who need to embrace the losing side of history reveal themselves. We need to know what is in the hearts and minds of our neighbors. Let them come out of the shadows for all to see. We need to know the scope of what we are facing.

I fear we are returning to a time where we will all need a digital version of the Green Book, and a Confederate flag dotting the map of these unsafe hate filled spaces will let us know that those who govern these spaces espouse white supremacy. We need to use our spending power elsewhere.

I have no wish to visit or even pass through Stafford County Virginia, though I am certain that good people reside there. Many of them came to court and petitioned the judge in Neli Latson's trial for clemency. But I cannot forget the destruction of his life and the heart breaking saga of his tremendous suffering. I cannot forget the retaliatory convenience of the arrest of his mother when her fight to free her son drew too much negative media attention on Stafford County. I cannot forget being forced to watch helplessly as her life fell apart for the sin of trying to save her son from a grave miscarriage of justice.

What I know of Stafford County Virginia will always make it a place marked by the white blight of racial and ableist injustice.

Let them keep their flag public. May those who love the Confederacy drape themselves in it and parade around. We need to know who all of them are. Out of the shadows all of you and all your enablers too. This ugliness and ignorance cannot end otherwise.

I have no wish to go to Stafford County Virginia. Not just because of the ghastly Confederate flag flying over I-95.

Moreso because my son, Autistic and Brown, like Neli Latson, Autistic and Black, has also always loved public libraries. 

I can't risk that he might be next autistic male of color to look suspicious while there.

Stafford County, Virginia's Massive Confederate Flag post-Charlottesville Backlash:
Who is Bree Newsome?
About Neli Latson:
Latest News:
Leroy Moore's article:
By the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus:

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The De-voiced Black Disabled Activist

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
James Baldwin

Image of the author in profile, an Afro-Latina disabled woman
with gray natural hair,  looking sadly at something in
the distance. Image rendering Prizma credit K. Cevik
Unless you are one of us,  a person carrying the label of being disabled while Black, you cannot possibly understand the visceral nature of moving through space with a target on your backs, and knowing your body is in constant jeopardy because you are both Black and disabled. It isn't the same if you are disabled with racial privilege. It isn't the same if you are another intersectional combination. Because there are those hundreds of years of struggle to prove we weren't chattel while simultaneously trying to prove that as disabled people we have a right exist as well.

There continues to be experimentation and involuntary sterilization and redlining and all the systemic racist ableism in between. So it broke my heart to see Dr. Perry's article Police killings: the price of being disabled and black in America even though I’ve included it below, not because it wasn't well written, nor because he didn't interview and cite Black disabled activists, but because he continues to benefit from our suffering and tragedy by having the privilege to be able to gain platforms for his writing while being neither disabled nor African American, having an education unrelated to disability rights or critical race studies, and operating from a position of privilege that a majority of Black disabled activists cannot.

That is the very definition of white privilege.

Nor could we possibly produce this thoroughly researched an article with this turnaround. Not with the meatspace struggles of surviving with the labels we carry that each day demands. Add to that those who have responsibility for families without equal access to services and supports, and there is not even a level field for competition.

This article may have been well-written but this was our story to tell and we were not granted the opportunity to tell it without appropriative white narration, and in a time of oppressive white supremacy, it feels extremely wrong that a white cis male with no background in disability or critical race studies should both write this and brag about gaining a payday for his writing about us without us, particularly since in the past he claimed to be an ally. He now defines himself as "accountable."

At a time when we have been handed a verdict that makes it open hunting season on myself and my disabled racial peers, unreasonable or not, it hurts me that we again end up nothing more than photographs and quoted content in our own story, analyzed, explained and narrated by an author (however kind and making an effort to present the topic to a global audience) who is neither our race nor disabled.  It is too much like profiting from our suffering. My mind understands the good intentions but my heart says good intentions pave the road to white patronizing patriarchy. Perhaps it is my fey mood and only now getting to read this thoroughly. But that, however wrong to others it may be, is how I feel.

Feel free to tell me how you feel about this article. I’ll come back to it when I’m less sad.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Birthday Letter: Parenting Autism In The Age of Trump

I wrote this for my son on his birthday last December. It was painful and personal, and I withheld it for this many months without publishing it because it hurt so much to write it.
My son, surveys his backyard kingdom, holding
his iPad AAC device and wearing a sky blue t-shirt
that reads "Noncompliance is a social skill" available
@RealSocialskills photo © Kerima Cevik
 I was in doubt of many things after some post-election ugliness had visited our town, a sign of worse things to come. I remain concerned for his future and ours.

Happy Birthday Son,

In the 14 years since your birth, I have been forced to witness and experience some pretty sad and disturbing things. We are living in some very polarized, hate filled times. How will I be able to talk about this transition to your teens you are making that changes everything? But I must. Not because it will help you manage the legacy of trauma that is a part of from our racial heritage, but because talking about this is the only path to exorcising it from our futures.

You are 14 now, and I am not simply afraid. I am terrified.

Like your uncles and forefathers, you are big. It isn't just a matter of weight. You are a massive, tall, handsome 14-year-old. Not particularly large or small for our people. But your soft mustache and curly hair are making you look older. Then there is the look of awareness in your eyes. That is the thing that petrifies me. It is the look of understanding that might lead a policeman to misunderstand when you can't respond, to reach for a gun should you reach for your speech device, to shoot should you stand there trying to process why this police officer is shouting and conclude there must be danger and try to run away. No amount of police training or training of you on how to be a compliant brown body will change the statistics. The very high risk is that you, nonwhite and disabled, might meet catastrophe one day.

Those people who are supposed to provide therapies, supports, and services for you always ask me "How do you see your son in 10 years?" What the hell does that mean? I don't think in ten-year plans. I think in the only way we can think. I think in the universe of the breath. I inhale, wait, exhale that we are alive, in this moment, that we have survived harm another day in this now blatantly hyper violent world.

How I see you doesn't matter. How you see yourself matters. That stupid rhetorical query reeks of the presumption of your incompetence. The stench of the recalcitrant automatic mumbling of words that translate as "his cognition will remain static" and,"technology will not change the quality of your son's life." When in fact the largest improvements in the quality of your life did not come from the billions of dollars in autism research but in an idea that everyone thought was inane. The idea that became the iPad.

When I say they don't presume your competence I don't mean I want them to presume you are an autistic savant. It does not mean I expect you to wake up tomorrow with the ability to speak fluently and the ability to do 10-dimensional calculations in your head. The baseline gap between how the people who are supposed to be helping you view you and how you see yourself can be resolved by their simple adherence to the law. They need to accommodate you and stop asking me to tell them what you want when they actually don't care what you want or what I think about what you want.

One of my favorite photos of my son, age 5, in his wheels,
waiting for his ride to school. Image of a Latino presenting
male in a blue hooded coat, curly dark brown hair can be seen
just under the coat's hood. 
You are a teenager now. Remember that son.They must ask you to indicate a response to that aggravating query or any other question they have for you. This requires presenting the question in a communication structure that you are able to receive clearly, understand or try to grasp how you communicate and respect you enough to wait for and hear your response.  It isn't my life. It is yours. I cannot tell you how to be or where I want you to be in ten years.  Our goal as your parents is that no matter what happens, you survive, are safe, have lifelong community-based shelter, and that technology assists you to such a degree that you can live your autonomous life with minimally invasive supports or services.

They are supposed to be helping you and setting goals with you for you to meet.

They never speak of the elephant in the room, the fact that the world has shifted and we are now the objects of even greater hate than before. How does that fit into their transitioning youth plans? What are their ten-year plans for surviving that hatred, xenophobia,  that ableist racism?

How can you find your own way,  when everyone around you now works to diminish you?

Everyone will stand in your path and repeat what you can't do. You must will a path around that. Somehow, your father and I must survive this time of hate backlash and help you will that path. My son, you can do it. Find your own way and indicate to people what you want. Make your "voice", you will, heard. While we live, we will stand by your right to your agency in your own life. All you have to do is not give up.

Respect yourself no matter what others do or say to you, around you, or about you. Shake the insults off the way you shed water when you shoot upward in the pool or brush rain from your face.  Water is only good doing its job, cleansing or nourishing our bodies, our lands, our communities. Insults are like water. They are only useful doing their job. They don't reveal truths. They alert us that we are in the presence of those who would do us harm and that is their only purpose.  Remember the warning, and put either physical or mental space between those elements and you.

I want to see you here in ten years, vibrant as you are now, thriving. I want to see you happy, unafraid, unhurt.

I am usually not afraid of much at all. Thank goodness, I have lived a wonderful life. I've had several brushes with death, and therefore my soul is prepared. But I fear the rise in hate when it was already bad prior to the installation of the present administration. The weakest most spineless creatures have gained courage and they are out in force, saying the disabled should be euthanized, using black and brown bodies for target practice, shouting Muslims should be in camps. Keeping people from using public toilets as they once did my people.  And this time, I have not been able to abate this rising terror.

Your very name makes you a target. That fact is sadly ironic since you were named for a staunch secularist. You have no idea what this is all about. You are innocent of any understanding of what this means but your name, your great grandfather's name, may cause you to come to harm, and that has frozen me in fear.

And yet we must endure. We must continue to show compassion, mercy, and humanity. Not because the dream has been deferred beyond all recall, or because I believe love can cure all. But because it is our human right to live safely in our own homeland. We are Americans, my son. This is our home as much as any citizen's. We have a right to live here in peace.

Your opinion of yourself can elevate or devastate you.

I hope you know by now that you are loved. We have worked very hard to make that clear your entire life. There is no question that you are a wanted and welcomed member of our family. There was great joy when you and I survived your birth. But what is more important, and what I want you to take forward into the rest of your life is that you are respected here. When society is structured to discriminate against you because of your racial, ethnic, and neurological heritage, remember we are here, in your heart, we are your haven.

Remember I am not or was ever ashamed to be in this black body. I am proud to wear the visible genetic legacy of my ancestors. Each time another person gets away with murder, it is society's shame not ours. That is not the fault of our skin color or any divergence in us. That is the burden of those who facilitate and enable the harm that is escalating against us.  It is important that you never be ashamed of who you are, and have patience and understanding of yourself as you are.

Don't stop communicating however you can.

If you cannot use verbal speech that doesn't matter. What matters is that when a means to communicate is presented to you, you take full advantage of it and use it to make your voice heard. I know it isn't easy. Being oppressed means that attempts will be made to instill the feeling in you that you are less than your peers, that you are lacking, that you don't, or can't. Don't ingest that poisonous rhetoric. How others see you is something you can build with your own will. Your will is prodigious. That is your strength and your genius. That indomitable will that never gives up the goal you set for yourself. Go after communicating son.  Make yourself heard. They can't speak for you if you have a voice that exists whether it comes through your vocal chords or not.

Don't allow anyone or anything to goad you into anger. Inciting anger is a trap that creates an excuse to harm you.

Mu with his second iPad AAC, wearing sunglasses,
trying to decide he really wants to leave the house. Yes, blue is
his favorite color; he's wearing his blue polo and gray
shorts. ©Kerima Cevik
This is a label that is forced on us, and we must not allow others to try and enslave us through this lie. We are not inappropriately angry people. It is not wrong to be angry about injustice, about harm, and about wrongs sanctioned by those who claim to wish to protect society and defend it. Anger in and of itself serves a purpose as long as it doesn't drive your actions. But anger should not be a badge forced upon us. Do not allow it son! You have the patience of Job. Remember to keep applying that patience to your life regardless of what people who may wish you ill try to do to push reactions from you. I know you can do this son! You are a great personality and I want everyone to know the depths of kindness and compassion you display. Remember what I said. What people try to label you is not what matters. Who you are and how you define yourself matters. Anger is meant to be a flash of emotion that passes like a lightning storm. You show us that the false stereotype of the silent, violent, autistic male is just that. Don't allow situations or people to gaslight you into accepting states of mind or states of being that are not in your nature.

Remind me and others that you are not a child.

All parents have to be reminded that their children are growing up and growing older. I will get nostalgic, I may waver. I may have the best of intentions but treating you like you aren't a teenager is wrong. It is your job to remind me. It is going to take more than your burgeoning mustache. You have to be courageous as you are son; and stand up for your right to increasingly have a say in your own life, even if that means standing up to me, your aging mother. That is your task my darling, to advocate for yourself. It is mine to get out of your way and allow you to do that as much as I can before I'm no longer here.

Never neglect yourself.

Care of self, remember Mu. The body you occupy is the only thing you have that is truly and uniquely yours for as long as you need it. It is your spaceship in this cruel, alien land. Take care of yourself and your home environment as much as you can. Take care of your mental health, your hygiene, your dental health. Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself you matter. Rest when you should. Health is something you can't regain once you've lost it. My life was at times very hard, and as you know, my health has suffered from this.

I am still terrified. Every day we step out of our front door. Into our backyard. I am afraid they will harm us. But I am also very proud of you. You are growing up.

I do love you with all my heart, my son. I don't know what the future holds for us. Things are looking very grim. But more than love, I respect you. Live the rest of your life knowing that if only me, your father and your sister respect you, that is more respect than most have all their lives and all the proof you need to respect yourself.

Have the happiest of birthdays Mustafa. May we all survive the next ten years.

Love, always,

The v-neck shirt is designed by Ruti Regan and available in limited edition lots at
Photographs are posted with permission of the subject

Thursday, June 29, 2017

#AutisticWhileBlack: Justice For Marcus Abrams

Marcus Abrams after his encounter with police.
Image of the face of an African American male
with injuries to his face Credit City Pages
On Monday, August 31, 2015,  17-year-old Marcus Abrams, legally blind and autistic, was the victim of a catastrophic encounter with Metro Transit police in Minnesota.  Marcus, now accused of punching an off-duty police officer working security at a nightclub, is being scheduled for a competency hearing. He brought suit against the officer who was dismissed from the force and Abrams won a small settlement. Yet here is what the City Pages first reported about what happened back in 2015:

"Tuesday night after Black Lives Matter St. Paul wrapped up its protest of Gov. Mark Dayton, the group gathered in front of the governor’s mansion to hear sisters Jacqueline Vaughn and Neenah Caldwell recount a harrowing interaction between their 17-year-old brother and police.
Vaughn told the crowd that on Monday evening her brother, Marcus Abrams, who is legally blind and autistic, "was coming home from the State Fair and off of Lexington and University was beaten brutally by the police. He was beaten so bad he was in a seizure and declared dead for 15 minutes." She added that police accused her brother of being under the influence.
According to Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla, police were driving by the Lexington station at about 7 p.m. that day when they saw Abrams on the light rail tracks, “a dangerous situation for anybody.” Officers asked Abrams to get off the tracks, so the teen jumped back on the platform. Officers then began to question him.
What happened afterward is under review. Video footage of the station is not yet available to the public and Padilla isn’t ready to confirm exactly what led officers to take Abrams to the ground. He said the teen suffered a split lip, though if Abrams also went into a seizure, it would have been beyond the officers’ ability to recognize it definitively.
Padilla said officers eventually called medics and took Abrams to the hospital, where they discussed what happened with his mother. Abrams’ mother said she intended to file a complaint, though has not done so as of Wednesday afternoon.
“After the mother notified us of the teen’s challenges and issues, we determined that he should go home with his mother rather than the juvenile detention center,” Padilla says.
On Tuesday, Vaughn said it was a witness who called an ambulance to take her brother to the hospital."
60 #BLM protestors marching to the Governor's office. Credit
City pages.
Marcus, now 19, suffered a seizure from the beating and was declared dead for fifteen minutes. Please explain how someone legally blind goes from being beaten to having to face charges of attacking an off-duty policeman and now facing a competency hearing? The rapid deterioration and perversion of this case force back haunting memories of the case of Neli Latson. Beyond tactile issues and issues of gait and sensory concerns that have very little to do with competency but are part of an Autism diagnosis, as someone who was blind for a time there is nothing more invasive than being touched without one's consent. It is terrifying regardless of the degree of disability to have some random hands laid on you by people who you may not be able to see well enough to identify. 

Note the lines I highlighted. 1. Abrams followed instructions but was later subjected to such a beating that he had a seizure. 2. The officers' ability to recognize a man having a seizure was said to probably be beyond their abilities. 3. It was a witness who called an ambulance to take Marcus to the hospital. Video footage was not released to the public. It would be revealed later that Marcus was placed in a chokehold preceding the beating.

I don't know if there is video footage from this latest accusation of assault where he was also tasered.
I can't imagine what a taser does to someone with a seizure disorder.

The story of Marcus Abrams is parallel to the story of Reginald "Neli" Latson. After four years of everyone sitting on their hands and Neli suffering the permanent effects of being placed in solitary confinement,  people came together to help Neli's attorneys and they at least freed him from one hell, that of the criminal justice system, but he is still being held in confinement within a facility in the mental health system when he should never have been in either place.

Will we sit on our hands and watch another young man, blind and autistic while black, have his life destroyed like Neli's? Someone has to act now. Someone needs to reach out to #BLM in Minnesota, to his mother and sisters, to his attorney. This time, let's do something before he is irrevocably harmed. 

Let's see how well the white activists who usurped the voices all too familiar with the narrative of the black disabled victims of catastrophic encounters with police step up to the plate now and fight for those whose victimization and subsequent unjust criminalization they've profited from. This is where the bill, for individuals who treat the black disabled body like data to be collected for discourse and display and the human victims of horrific harm like revenue streams and potential training, speaking, and writing for pay fodder can learn what true advocacy means. Marcu Adams should not be stripped of his civil rights and committed to a mental institution. Time to save a life about to be destroyed. 


#SaveMarcusAbrams, #Blind and #AutistcWhileBlack

The Case of Marcus Abrams
The Case of Neli Latson
Reginald Latson's case points to a major scandal in US prisons:

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

#AutisticWhileBlack: What Happened To Kennedi High?

In the midst of the national media attention on D.C.'s missing African American girls, one young woman. Kennedi High, 16, Autistic and African American, left her High School in North Baltimore upon school dismissal on March 8, 2017, and disappeared for six days. She was located by the Baltimore Police and returned to her family, but the mysteries of how she disappeared, what befell her while she was gone, and who was responsible remain.

Kennedi has no history of running from home and would never stay out overnight. After talking with Kennedi, her mother is convinced she was the victim of human trafficking. The police initially dismissed the idea but are now investigating.

Autism organizations, disability rights organizations, parents of autistic youth, autistic activists, in short, every stakeholder in the autism conversation should be following this case and demanding answers.

They aren't.

1. Kennedi described to her mother being passed to different men each day in six different locations. She is quite clear on what happened to her.  Police consider her diagnosis first and therefore have a presumption of her incompetence. They did not take her account of events seriously until her mother repeated Kennedi's statements to the press and remained adamant that she believed her daughter was victimized and harmed.

2. Kennedi supposedly left voluntarily with someone she met on the Internet. Kennedi doesn't own a cell phone.  How did she meet this individual? This is critically important. Was someone allowing her to use their phone? Is someone from her school or community complicit in what happened to her?

 Right now, the therapeutic standard in Maryland for 'treatment' of autistic people from early intervention onward focuses on behavioral compliance applying ABA first and foremost. Years of this resulted in teens who comply with the demands of any authority figure. In short, we are allowing our children to mature into easy prey for predators by acquiescing to their submission to a compliance reward structure that can be perverted and abused to harm them. We are so caught up in extinguishing behaviors in our offspring that we erase their ability to say no or defend themselves. This system of autism behavioral management doesn't teach recognizing and avoiding predators, bullies, and abusive people. This has to change.

3. Particularly for autistic families of color, the demand placed on us to allow our autistic children to be made passive and compliant to all is enforced viscously. If autistic male students are labeled "combative" or "aggressive" by any authority figure who simply doesn't feel like dealing with them they are immediately criminalized and suspended or expelled from public school. It is not unusual for schools to call the police to arrest students for school-related minor infractions. All of these potential risks that their children might be disenfranchised from school activities, aftercare, and community participation pressure parents of autistic students of color to accept extreme compliance in their children as "therapy" and "improvement," and "success" of ABA intervention.

4. Everyone in the autism conversation needs to step up now and follow the investigation of the case of Kennedi High. She deserves to be believed and heard. The lack of comment, interest, and mention of her case in our community is typical of the erasure of autistic people of color that I constantly write about, to no avail. What happened to her needs to be investigated and resolved and those responsible for kidnapping and harming her need to be arrested and punished. I am calling this a kidnapping because she was taught to comply and therefore her ability to object was stripped from her.

Focus on finding solutions to the cyclic victimization of intersectional autistic populations in general and African-American autistics, in particular, is largely absent from the annual month-long awareness and acceptance events of Autism Month. The entire purpose of #AutisticWhileBlack was an attempt to spotlight issues like this one and people from our own community who are victimized yet pass quickly by our newsfeeds, a single soundbite that blips out of sight and out of community thoughts. Meanwhile, bloody online battles are being waged on the merits of blue hair dye, causation, and puzzle piece lapel pins.

Autism month is meant to be for and about the lives and needs of autistic people of all ages and demographics.

Make Kennedi matter. She's alive, and she'll need help recovering from this. Someone has to care. Where are the autism organizations who are supposed to be fighting for her? The fact that I must continually remind our community to not erase our victimized youth is beyond unacceptable.


The Story of Kennedi High, #AutisticWhileBlack

Friday, March 31, 2017

Against the Erasure of LaVonnya Gardner

Image of LaVonnya Gardner's AAC board with the written
 and PEC symbol sentence "I use AAC everyday and I Love it"
written on the display panel above the PEC images and wordsin orange, pink, red, green, and light blue squares. Credit
LaVonnya Gardner, Twitter. 
 Black, deafblind autistic activist LaVonnya Gardner died suddenly in late August of last year. She was someone I was proud to call a friend.

Her death was particularly heartbreaking to me and mine. To understand what LaVonnya simply existing meant to me and my son Mustafa, you have to realize a few important details. LaVonnya understood what being blind meant, so we had that common ground because I was once blind for a time and it was assumed I would wear a prosthetic left eye and be blind permanently. LaVonnya understood what it meant to a Black disabled parent to an autistic child in the DMV (the District, Maryland, and Virginia) because she was the mother of an autistic daughter. LaVonnya understood what it meant to be a nonspeaking autistic who used AAC to communicate because she was a nonspeaking autistic adult who used AAC to communicate. LaVonnya knew what it meant to navigate the world as a Black nonspeaking autistic adult, and she had good, practical advice for my autistic nonspeaking son about survival as a Black autistic male in a hostile world.

She built a library of YouTube videos and AAC related social media posts, knowing her own import to nonspeaking autistic Black youth. She, activist Lydia Brown, and others were the founders of The Washington Disabled Students Collective. My hope was that her body of work would live on should she pass away and that she might also leave the legacy of her intellectual property for her daughter and others it might help.

We had an agreement to meet in the Smithsonian gardens with our kids in the Spring. You really don't understand the impact someone has on your life until they are suddenly gone.

LaVonnya Gardner.  image of a Black woman with long braided hair
wearing a pink blouse credit LaVonnya Gardner
I realized in February that the Amplify Autistic Voices project, which I had decided to end, had LaVonnya speaking about herself in her own words. I stopped my plans to delete the blog. I could not erase her. After her death, a relative she did not get on with insisted a name she left behind to move away from an abusive past was her name. That person disregarded her final wishes and tried to collect money from LaVonnya's grieving friends and colleagues. Dozens of her instructional and advocacy videos are erased from her YouTube channel, and only two videos on her Beautiful Unicorn channel remain.

LaVonnya helped many parents and autistic children, both independently and in support groups. She had a patience with parents that I sometimes do not have. She was an activist who stepped up as much as her health allowed. She was excited and looked forward to working with my son and spending quality time with him because they were so similar. I cannot begin to express what the loss of her AAC instruction videos means for those who can't call or message her anymore.

If you have any photos, videos, digital content of LaVonnya's please post it on her memorial Facebook page. I don't know anyone else like her, and I doubt I ever will.

LaVonnya Gardner was my son's role model. She was the living proof that nonspeaking deafblind persons could live, love, produce and parent disabled children, live autonomously, and speak up for themselves.

She was a beautiful Unicorn who should not be erased or forgotten. Help me make certain she's remembered.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Justice for the Dietrich, Idaho Assault Victim, Neurodivergent and Black

Mr. and Mrs. McDaniel with four of their 20 adopted children
©Washington Post/Getty Images
I'm going to mention a violent rape. I will try to be as brief as possible but please don't read on if this topic will upset you. 

I learned today that I can be disgusted, angry, and horrified all at once.

The victim, 18, psychiatric disability community member, one of 20 adoptees to the McDaniel family whose parents are white and live in an area with a predominantly white school, was abused by his own football teammates over a period of months and no one in the school administration or coaching staff acted to stop it. the victim was eventually lured into a locker room by three assailants where his teammates beat him and raped him violently with a coat hanger. 

The McDaniels have an additional five children born to them. I'm not certain how they are able to manage the safety of disabled children of color in a family of 25 children. But there is something more urgent here and that is that Judge Randy Stoker handed down a sentence of 3 years probation to defendant John Howard the main perpetrator of the assault, at the behest of Prosecutor Hemmer. The prosecutor explained to the Judge that the assault was not a rape, hate crime, or any category of sexual assault, but in face a case of bullying, and let the rapist off without jail time. Of course, because Howard was allowed to plead to a charge that was not rape or a hate crime, he will not be a registered sex offender and will be free to assault other African American victims. Co-defendant Tanner Ward's charge of forcible penetration with a foreign object was reduced to a lesser charge and he is being tried as a juvenile. The court and prosecutor also decided Wards actions were not a hate crime. 

When is the disability community going to fight for justice for the Black disabled victims of ableist hate crimes? Are they not aggressively pursuing this because these victims are not white? This is a very sore point for me. I'm tired of seeing this happen time and again with victimized disabled youth of color.

Judge Stoker should be removed from the bench. I will be including links to the petitions calling for his removal at the end of this blog. Moreover, Prosecutor Hemmer, (who orchestrated the plea deals and reduction of charges, used the victim's disability as justification for why the final horrific assault should not be classified as a sexual assault or a hate crime) should be held accountable. David Perry explains this very clearly in his excellent article on the Dietrich assault in Pacific Standard which you can read here.

The victim never had a chance. He is the victim but being both disabled and Black in an all-white town with parents who cannot teach him about racism because they are white and do not experience it means he was unprepared and also emotionally violated by the judicial system, the school where he should have been safe, and the football team coaching staff who encouraged this abuse. According to the Superintendent of the schools' disclosure of the district's investigation, one teammate tried to stop the attack but was threaten with the same treatment if he interfered. No other classmates fought for him. This is what it means to be Black and disabled in America.

The question is, are there people in the wider world who believe that justice is the entitlement and human right of every citizen in every nation on this planet? Are there people who believe hate crimes are hate crimes when the victim is Black and disabled? 

If you are one of these good people,  please help me step up now and make this right. Because this is an abomination. And if this judgment stands, all disabled children could be next because disabled teens are easy targets and we are living in a time of inflated hate. 

If those families with white disabled loved ones believe that because their children aren't Black, they won't  be targeted next, they are in for a very unpleasant surprise. Once people know they can abuse disabled youth without serious repercussions they will escalate and not stop at Black disabled youth. Our children are just the first targets. They are never the last.

Speak out! Protest this verdict. Justice for the Dietrich, Idaho assault victim! Or sit silently now and wait until your loved ones are the newest targets and it is too late to fight.

My son is nonverbal. Had he been victimized in this sustained and escalated fashion, he could not have told us or defended himself. This is why I am so outraged and so horrified that months of sustained harm get a slap on the wrist. The victim of this sustained series of hate crimes will need therapy for the rest of his life. 

We must act to make this right or we have no purpose in advocacy nor can we call ourselves activists against violence to disabled youth. 

Resources and Calls To Action
(with thanks to some incredible activists for research, updates, and support)

The Terrifying Story of The Dietrich, Idaho Assault Victim

How a Prosecutor Decided That an Attack on a Disabled Black Kid Was Just Bullying
David Perry for Pacific Standard:

School Superintendent Investigation Report of Details in the Case Heavily Redacted by School District legal counsel:

John R.K. Howard was not charged with a hate for sex crime"

Co-defendant Tanner Ward not facing felony charges and case to be tried in juvenile court

Attorneys for McDaniel family petitioning court for unredacted documents. Willing to allow them in the public record to expose cover-up and actions of defendants in their civil case against School district:

Petitions about the McDaniel hate crimes in Dietrich, Idaho to sign and share: Petition: IDAHO JUDICIAL COUNCIL: Remove Judge Randy Stoker from the bench for decision in John Howard rape case Petition to DOJ:

For further public action:

Please direct public comment about this unfathomable injustice to:

Office of the Attorney General Lawrence Wasden
700 W. Jefferson Street
P.O. Box 83720
Boise, ID 83720-0010
Phone (208) 334-2400
Fax (208) 854-8071

Comments can also be submitted on  the official website here:

What else can you do?
Consider sending an email expressing your concern about the miscarriage of justice in this adjudication of this case. You can do so here: