Sometimes it’s love and light, sometimes it’s love and light that ass up! In this episode, we’re joined by founder, inventor, and curator Adero Knott to discuss accessibility, disability, technology, and the ableist joke Chris Rock made that got him slapped at the Oscars.
What’s the Word? Accessibility. We define the term, explain how we prioritize accessibility, discuss its connection to disability justice, and talk about norms and how they harm all of us.
What We’re Reading. “Engineered Inequity” in Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin. Technology is often offered as the solution for racism, ableism and all the other ills of society. But what about when robots do racism better than humans? Through Benjamin’s book, we discuss the way technology can amplify the effects of historical and contemporary biases and discriminatory practices.
What in the World?! In this segment, we speak with founder, inventor, and curator Adero Knott about accessibility and its affective dimensions, how ableism is built into society, toxic masculinity, erasure of our Black “heroes'” disabilities, Tyre Sampson, why disability justice must be anti-capitalist, and the all important question du jour: Would we want our baes to do the same as Will Smith?!
Support Adero’s work at AK Prosthetics on IG, and follow her on Instagram!
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Season 2 Episode 13
Co-Hosts: Brendane Tynes and Alyssa James
Guest: Adero Knott
Title: No Body is Normal
Total Length: 01:27:19
[00:00:00] [Music plays]
[00:00:22] [Music fades down]
[00:00:22] Brendane: Hey y’all! Welcome back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we tackle topics of interest to Black folx through the lens of academic scholarship and colorful insight. I’m Brendane and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
[00:00:35] Alyssa: Hi everyone! This is Alyssa and I use she/her pronouns as well. Today we’ll be talking about disability, accessibility, race, technology, and of course, last night’s Oscars slap heard ‘round the world. We are lucky to be joined by Adero Knott, who is an artist, consultant, and prosthetics maker, and she’ll be joining us for the final segment, What in the World?! So be sure to tune in. Until then.
[00:01:03] BT: Well, we’re excited to have someone who is out there in the world and a practitioner, and possibly, I think, for the first time on the podcast, but it won’t be the last, for sure. And as always, we want to shout out our supporters. So thank you to our patrons, our PayPal donors, and our communities on social media. We had another hater come up on our Apple Podcast reviews and leave a low rating, so if y’all—like, we would actually really appreciate it if y’all could just leave us a five-star rating and review if you are a new listener. We read our reviews periodically. They really do keep us going. So please don’t feel like it’s a waste of your time.
[00:01:43] AJ: Yeah, definitely. And every so often, we get a hater that pops up, but for every hater, we have 100 supporters—probably 1000 supporters, to be honest. And that’s what really matters. And one of the things that I wanted to explain today is why we push donations and subscriptions to Patreon. And it’s because we don’t want to be begging brands for sponsorships and advertising shit to you every 10 minutes on our episodes, right? Like, you know, we rely on all of you to pay our transcriptionists, to cover costs like the website and social media, and to offer honoraria to the guests who really take a lot of time and care to prepare for the episodes and spend time with us. So, if you would like to become a patron, where you can access ZD conversations, recordings of talks, a book of the semester, or an invite to our semesterly hangouts, head to patreon.com/zorasdaughters.
[00:02:43] BT: Exactly. If y’all are not aware, let us let you know we do not get paid to do this, honey, so—
[00:02:49] AJ: Yes.
[00:02:50] BT: Do you really want us to be out here trying to sell y’all hair vitamins that neither one of us use or flat tummy tea, which is really just a laxative in liquid form? Like, I don’t think so, right, I—but, without—-
[00:03:04] AJ: They’re anti-Black anyways [laughs].
[00:03:06] BT: Anti-Black anyways [laughs]. Biotin is anti-Black [laughter]. I’m just kidding, I don’t know. But anyway, so let’s get into the episode. Alyssa, what’s our word for today?
[00:03:20] [Interstitial music]
[00:03:22] AJ: Our word for today is accessibility. And in the simplest of terms, accessibility is providing the means and/or opportunity to use something or to enter a place or space. This means designing products, devices, services, vehicles, or environments so that the most people can use them in the most possible situations, regardless of physical or mental ability, socioeconomic status, or other kinds of situational disabilities. Accessibility can look like using alt text so people with screen readers can hear what an image represents, wheelchair ramps at stores, or even ensuring that there’s enough contrast on your posters for those with a color vision handicap.
[00:04:07] BT: And we actually got asked this question during one of our talks recently, like, how do we here at ZD think about accessibility? And so, we broke it down to think about accessibility in three intersecting ways. So, we are thinking about language, we’re thinking about accommodation and/or adaptation of material, and also the availability of us and how you hear us. So, we wanna meet people where they are, but we’re just not trying to leave them there, which is actually, in my opinion, should be the goal of all good political education work. And we do this by using accessible language and explaining concepts and adapting the systems that we use to share our work so that it can be accessed. So we have our transcripts on our website, we hire ASL [American Sign Language] interpreters for our events, and we ensure that the meat of our content is open source and visible on a variety of platforms. You can find us on Instagram, you can find us on Twitter, you can find us on our website, and possibly future platforms. But we’ll see. Wink. We’ll see.
[00:05:13] AJ: Nod.
[00:05:13] BT: Nod [laughs]. And all of our events thus far have been free. So that is a big part of accessibility, right, is actually the coin. And most of them have been at times where working people can attend and learn something. So, we have our events in the evenings, we might have some on the weekend, because we want more than just folks who live on a graduate school schedule to come see us. And we make it a point to be responsive to our listeners on social media. So that idea of access, right—how do we push people’s learning or engage with folks and build that community. And we are also very choosy about who we invite on podcast because we want to appeal to a wide range of Black listeners and interests. And so these are just a few examples of how we prioritize accessibility here at Zora’s Daughters.
[00:06:09] AJ: Exactly. I think it’s important to know that accessibility has a lot of different pillars, we can say. So, it’s not just about, “Oh, I’m going to make sure that, you know, there’s a wheelchair ramp or I’m going to make sure that we have alt text.” There are a lot of different points of accessibility. However, when we talk about accessibility, particularly in this episode, we’re at the same time signaling disability. So, in the disability justice movement, the harms that activists bring attention to is the norm. And the norm is a principle that allows people to create structures that are disabling. So, when we build curbs without ramps or jobs that refuse to allow working from home or seats that are not large enough to accommodate different bodies, we assume that there is a particular person who will be using them. And so in this world, there are those who are disabled by the idea that there is a neutral normative body from which—which we all deviate, actually. I was gonna say certain bodies deviate, but we all deviate from it, because the norm doesn’t exist [laughs]. Reference to Mean Girls. Anyways [laughter]. And math class. Okay, and so we all do or we will eventually deviate from this norm. And so that’s how we get “disabled” as a political category versus “a person with a disability” as a description. And so that’s why the first principle of a disability justice framework, according to Patty Berne, is intersectionality. As Conspire for Change explains, “Disability justice recognizes the intersecting legacies of white supremacy, colonial capitalism, gendered oppression, and ableism in understanding how people’s bodies and minds are labeled ‘deviant,’ ‘unproductive,’ ‘disposable,’ and/or ‘invalid’.”
[00:08:05] BT: Exactly. You don’t even have to have a diagnosed disability or something that’s been recognized by the medical system in a way that is thought about hegemonically to experience ableism. If we just think, for example, about the way that society considers what literacy or intelligence is. We organize society around the ability to read and write, speaking in a particular way, which is inherently ableist because there are many modes of communication. And this relates specifically—I think especially—to anti-Blackness as Black people have historically and continue to be assumed to be intellectually deficient, right? That the first colonizers that stepped on to the continent saw the way that African people were living and said, “Oh, there must be something wrong. They don’t abide by the same system that we do. So there is some kind of intellectual, cultural, or mental deficiency here.” And that deficiency helped them justify chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was a savior project to keep us—or to help us grow into “civilized people,” but then that was determined to be impossible. But I’m not gonna go too far down that road. So when ableism [laughs]—when it links up with anti-Blackness, right, when the girls get together—which some folks, as an aside, just to say, some folks would argue that ableism is actually born from anti-Blackness or settler colonialism. But when they link up together it affects who is diagnosed with learning disabilities, who is diagnosed with certain types of mental illnesses, diabetes, etc., right? It’s not a coincidence that the highest rates of schizophrenia are diagnosed among Black cisgender men, right. There is something there. Disabled people are relegated to the realm of death, which we have seen through how this country has handled the panoramic [pandemic]. They basically said, “Welp, either you’re gonna live or you’re not,” right? And we know what the panoramic does to people who were “healthy” before they contract certain diseases. So, this is why it’s truly vital for us to employ a disability justice framework in all of our work, for as Patty Berne describes, “A Disability Justice framework understands all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We know that we are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. We understand that all bodies are caught in these bindings of ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation state and imperialism, and that we cannot separate them.” So ableism is “a global system that is incompatible with life,” and it must be dismantled alongside all other forms of oppression. And for me, that rub is when the accessibility measures are anti-Black in and of themselves. So that’s another complicating factor within disability justice.
[00:11:14] AJ: Oh, definitely. I mean, if you think about in Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, she describes the way that she was, you know, being pushed to wear a prosthesis after her mastectomy. So she refused to wear the “wad of lamb’s wool pressed into a pale pink breast-shaped pad.” And because of this refusal, she was chastised for harming cancer patient morale. They were like, “Mmmm, this doesn’t—you’re kinda ruining people’s day with your one breast, you know.” And it’s like this thing that they were pushing on her was pink. Obviously, Audre Lorde’s breasts weren’t pink. And so I think that that is, in and of itself, something quite telling. And it’s something that we, you know, will definitely bring up with Adero. But I think her refusal was, again, a way of refusing normative body standards, right? Something that Black women already exceed and are excluded from because of the ways that our bodies have been othered. And so the scolding she received, it can’t be separated from her Blackness. They were basically like, “How dare you be Black, a woman, and one-breasted in public?”
[00:12:28] BT: You know, why does—why is everyone else’s morale dependent on me following the rules, you know? That’s, I think, that thing, right, or the structure in society that is most normatizing—or normativizing—is that you how say it [laughs]?
[00:12:47] AJ: Normativizing.
[00:12:47] BT: Normativizing, right—is capitalism—I was like I’ve never seen this word before but [laughs]—and the demand for productive labor. And so accessibility and disability justice must be anti-capitalist and must value human life outside of capitalist relations. So the question is no longer what can you do, right, it’s who are you, how do you do these things? Less of a focus on productivity and more on focus of being. And so Ruha Benjamin has an interesting section about paying attention to the way we “overserve” certain groups of people as a counterpoint to the idea of the underserved. And in a world under capitalism, we create privileges for those most able to produce while we take life-giving resources from those who are not. And there is no way to reform this, right, there’s no way to have a better ableism. Even most accessibility measures are a form of reform in and of itself. And so as technology advances, what we’re seeing is we see these inequitable value systems grow and make life increasingly inaccessible for many people.
[00:14:05] AJ: I think that one of the ways that we really saw that during the pandemic was that the moments where doctors and medical professionals had to make decisions about who to give ventilators to. Like, at the height of the pandemic, those resources were limited, and, generally, they would choose younger people, white people, people with middle to high incomes, people with families. Those were the people who were considered most valuable. They’re also going to, in their minds, live longer and therefore contribute more to society. Meanwhile, Black people, disabled people, older people, they were not given the same kinds of, as you said, life-giving resources in a very literal sense. They weren’t given the same kinds of life-giving interventions.
[00:15:00] BT: Right. And so then when you see the numbers on the other end, which is, you know, Black people dying at three times the rate of other people due to the coronavirus, it was then made into some kind of inherent thing, right—”Well, you Black people have different types of immune blah, blah, blah”— when it’s actually a lot of confounding factors, right? Ableist—anti-Black, ableist factors into why white people were able to outlive everyone else.
[00:15:33] AJ: Those are the people who had access to those resources, those measures, and those interventions were technological. And so I think that’s, you know, a nice little segue into What We’re Reading today.
[00:15:46] BT: Yeah!
[00:15:46] AJ: So Brendane, what are we reading?
[00:15:48] [Interstitial music]
[00:15:50] BT: So we are reading the chapter “Engineered Inequity” in Race After Technology: Abolitionists Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin. Would you like to tell us who she is?
[00:16:03] AJ: Oh, of course, of course. Ruha Benjamin is a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, founding director of the IDA B. WELLS Just Data Lab, and author of two books, People’s Science and Race After Technology, and editor of Captivating Technology. She is currently working on a fourth book, Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want. Benjamin writes, teaches, and speaks widely about the relationship between innovation and inequity, knowledge and power, race and citizenship, health and justice. So this chapter that we’re reading, it’s part of this entire book. And just to give you a brief—the briefest of summaries of the book. In the text, Benjamin works to decode the powerful assumptions and values embedded in the material and digital architecture of our world. When it comes to technology, inequity is coded into the systems both amplifying racial discrimination and giving rise to new forms of it that we are less able to recognize and hold accountable. And as a broad gloss, this is what she calls The New Jim Code, which is, of course, a play on Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book, The New Jim Crow.
[00:17:17] BT: Yes. And so this chapter begins with an introduction to the first international beauty contest judged by artificial intelligence in 2016, which I had no idea this thing happened or existed, so it was very [laughs]—good to learn about it. Yeah, I’m like 2016, my life was in the trash, so I didn’t need to know nothing outside of what was going on in my life [laughs]. Honestly, truly. But there were strict guidelines for the participants, right. They were not allowed to wear glasses, they could not wear makeup, they couldn’t have a beard. And there were other guidelines as well. And the artificial intelligence judged their photos based upon seemingly neutral health and beauty standards. So they judged whether they had wrinkles, because if you have wrinkles, then apparently you’re ugly. They judged, you know, face symmetry, they judge for, “beautiful skin color”—whatever that means—age, ethnicity, and other parameters. And so Benjamin, clearly asks, right, “What could possibly go wrong with that?” And we all sit and roll eyes, right? So you all can probably guess who won this beauty pageant and whose faces were deemed undesirable. And the algorithm that determined beauty actually relied on pre-coded images that were marked beautiful or ugly. And so more images that had white folks or lighter-skinned folks on them were marked beautiful and more images with darker-skinned folks were marked ugly. And so they only had all but six of the winners of the beauty contests were white. And basically, what happened was that the human bias—around skin tone, around beauty, around age, etc.—became encoded in this non-human technology, which further entrenches societal norms in this supposedly unbiased platform.
[00:19:11] AJ: Benjamin uses this example to open up a discourse about whether robots and by extension artificial intelligence can be racist. She says, “Racist robots, as I invoke them here, represent a much broader process: social bias embedded in technical artifacts, the allure of objectivity without public accountability. Race as a form of technology—the sorting, establishment, and enforcement of racial hierarchies with real consequences—is embodied in robots, which are often presented as simultaneously akin to humans but different and at times superior in terms of efficiency and regulation of bias.” So basically, racist robots can do racist bias better than humans depending on how they’re programmed. What this does is automate inequity while disguising bias. The Jim Crow sign has been replaced by the credit score, the automated application for an apartment, which I have done, the facial recognition technology that determines whether you’re a “criminal” or not, the school tracking technology that says a child will never grow out of remedial classes etc.
[00:20:23] BT: And we’re taught, right, to trust technology because it is supposedly detached from the human body, detached from human error, and thus unable to be biased or imperfect. Robots are tools, they’re designed to be less emotional and more efficient than humans. And they are thus better equipped to complete tasks that human beings cannot be bothered to complete or actually do not have the capacity to complete, which actually sounds kind of familiar, right? So if you’re listening and you’re thinking “Hmm, these intended uses for robots sound kind of like how people was usin’ slaves and chattel slavery,” then you would be absolutely correct. The Slavic word “robota” means servitude and hardship, so the word robot directly stems from a word that means servitude and hardship. And Benjamin—what I found to be really interesting was she brings in these archival sources that actually illustrate how robots were imagined to be the replacements for enslaved Africans. And we’re not exaggerating. So one of—[laughs] one of the ads that she features in the chapter says, “In 1863, Abe Lincoln freed the slaves. But by 1965, slavery will be back!”—and you know, that date is kinda—it’s kinda hittin’—”And we’ll all have our personal slaves again, only this time we won’t fight a civil war over them”—which, they admitted the Civil War was about slaves back then, so—”Slavery will be here to stay…Don’t be alarmed. We mean robot ‘slaves.’ Let’s take a peek into the future.” And so the ad shows, like, robots actually helping this white man get dressed to go to work, I’m assuming, or get dressed just to live his life, right. And it would seem that the entire premise behind the creation of artificial intelligence and robots actually finds its roots in chattel slavery, which, you know, what a shocker! I’m shocked. You’re shocked. We’re all shocked. But what this does actually is undermine any argument that technological advancement, one, would benefit everyone, right—white, black, purple, green—lemme [laughs]—purple, green, blue, right—and two, right, that technological advancement is neutral and/or objective.
[00:22:51] AJ: Right, it’s really disturbing in how similar and how it is the same. But then again, if you think about it, every white dystopian novel reimagines slavery in another way. So whether it’s robots, whether it’s handmaids, and I think that just kinda speaks to what’s going on in the white unconscious, and all of their unhealed ancestral trauma. But anyways. Anyways! [Laughter] I wanna draw attention to this question of neutrality or objectivity. You know, it’s similar to the norm that we talked about in the last segment. We’re told that algorithms and computers cannot be biased because they are objective and purely data driven. Benjamin shows us the different ways that algorithms and technology are biased, because the humans who create them are biased. And the data that they collect are also biased. People think that numbers and statistics are objective, but they actually have very little meaning without context and interpretation. So if an algorithm is making decisions on mortgage applications and taking into account things like zip codes, then what can actually happen is the amplification of these effects of historical discrimination like redlining. So if you live in a low-income neighborhood that is low income because your ancestors or the people who lived there in the past were redlined and you’re now applying for a mortgage and you live in that zip code, and it’s like, oh, you’re automatically assumed to be low income, because of the average income of that neighborhood, then the racism and discrimination is built into the algorithm, into the system. So she writes that “These default settings, once fashioned… [project] an allure of objectivity that makes it difficult to hold anyone accountable.” One of the things we need to be more careful about is putting blind faith into technology. I think race itself is a technology in the sense that it is the application of scientific knowledge designed to manipulate the human environment. So it’s a technology of domination and this becomes embedded in other technologies we design.
[00:25:06] BT: Exactly. So even when programmers create technology with racial, gendered, and or class differences in mind, the technology actually automates anti-Blackness, misogyny, and classism. But what technology also does [is] it kind of facilitates a certain type of detachment where, as you’ve mentioned, Alyssa, right, racist outcomes seem to come from “nowhere.” So as Benjamin states, “The issue is not simply that innovation and inequity can go hand in hand but that a view of technology as value-free means that we are less likely to question the New Jim Code in the way we would the unjust laws of a previous era, assuming in the process that our hands are clean.” So someone might say, “Well, isn’t the solution then to have a Black person doing these things or a disabled person doing these things or a trans person doing these things or etc.?” I would like to offer, in the light of everything that’s—all the conversations we’re having about representation these days, right—is that even if the programmer is Black or disabled or trans, right, automated anti-Blackness, ableism, transphobia can still be perpetuated in her programming, right? So who’s to say that this Black person, right, has the power to create change from inside of the programming company, right—whatever, I don’t know what those—[laughs] the computer science world, you know, that’s beyond me, right? Who has the power to create change from inside the computer science world, right? Who says that her identities as Black, as woman, as trans, as disabled, as whatever identity she may hold, would actually allow her to be able to create the change that needs to be seen? And so again, these representational politics, it’s not giving what it’s supposed to have gave, but—I’m gonna come back to my point, right—unless we uproot the problem that is anti-Blackness, that is cisheteropatriarchy, that is capitalism, ableism, classism, all of these different forms of oppression, we will continue to deal with the effects of racist technology. We will continue to deal with racism.
[00:27:28] AJ: Right. So a mundane example of this: have you ever had trouble starting the automatic hand dryers in the bathrooms? If you’re saying yes, I’m saying, “Me too.” We need a hashtag for it. [Laughter] So first of all. First of all. First of all: those things are nasty. So you shouldn’t use them anyways. I don’t use them. I usually just, like, air-dry my hands, because they actually blow the fecal matter from the toilet plumes onto your hands. And if you’re like, “What is that?” just Google it and you will forever be disturbed. But more relevant to our conversation is that these automated machines don’t recognize darker-skinned hands. The machines sense the amount of light that is reflected from your hands and since melanin absorbs light, the machines cannot sense melanated hands. And if you wanna know more about melanin, you all should check out Dr. Tina Lasisi on Instagram and TikTok. Just a little plug for our friend [laughs]. But the question is why would anyone create handwashing technology that excludes majority of people on this earth? One can only blame racism. Of course, that’s not the racism of calling someone the N-word in public, right? You know, it’s not engineers sitting in a room cackling about the dirty-handed Negros, right? It’s a systemic issue that travels from who is designing to who is testing the technology. Another example of racist technology that Benjamin highlights is the social credit system. These systems determine a person’s ability to access housing and services based on their score. They reinforce normative definitions of “good” behavior by “rewarding” certain behaviors that’s valued in white supremacist, capitalist society. So, “There is the ableist logic which labels people who spend a lot of time at home as ‘unproductive,’ whether they play video games or deal with a chronic illness; the conflation of economic productivity and upright citizenship is ubiquitous across many societies.”
[00:29:30] BT: So these social score systems—for those of you who have seen Black Mirror, she talks about that episode of Black Mirror called “Nosedive” where this white woman, basically her social score takes a nosedive because she is not abiding by these normative definitions of good behavior. And what these systems do is they actually create new methods of social control and these new methods of social control take arbitrary features, like skin color and social score, and then they naturalize them. So let me break that down, right. Brendane, what are you saying, right? So let’s say this social score system has a similar scale to the credit score system, right? Like the, you know, the lowest scale end is in the 400s and the highest, it’s, like, what, 820 or something like that. So a person who “works hard,” right, in a capitalist system, meaning they overwork themselves most likely, right, dresses a certain way, lives in that good zip code that Alyssa was talking about earlier, right, conducts themselves positively according to a societal belief system, right, might have, like, an 800 social score, right? That social score allows them to have access to better insurance, better housing, better loans, VIP service at restaurants or clubs or wherever people get VIP service at—airports, I don’t know. And then, though, what happens is that person will be perceived as naturally better because they have these things. So, then it becomes this kind of feedback loop that reinforces itself. So, because this person has these better things, they must be a better person, so that’s why they deserve to have these better things, right? And this is functionally how racism under capitalism works. The technology of the social score, of these social systems actually only makes it more efficient and more totalizing, in my opinion. So instead of people being able to say, “Oh, they have this one-off example of not experiencing racism this one time,” technology allows it to be much more efficient, and much more totalizing. So people who do not have that 800 social score could have a lower score for a variety of reasons, right. Maybe you cannot work hard because you are disabled, right? Maybe you cannot dress a certain way because you grew up in a family where you cannot afford these clothes, right? So their social score would then force them to have a lower quality of life. And they will not be able to access as many resources as those who have the higher score. So then that kind of reinforces the cycle of “Well, you have a lower quality of life because you’re not as good of a person. So, then you deserve to have these bad things.” Because this system is seemingly tied to these “objective” social score measures, little can and will be done to improve it, which is why I said we just gotta—just gotta let it go. Let it go.
[00:32:31] AJ: I mean, we already kind of have the flip side of that with social media, you know, the number of followers you have seems to be related to how good, how beautiful, how smart of a person you are. How many likes you get is related to that. And we’ve seen situations where there are people who, because they have a certain number of followers, anything that they say must be true, right? They can do no wrong. So just because they have tens of thousands of followers, which we all know that that just don’t make no sense, okay.
[00:33:06] BT: That don’t make no sense to me.
[00: 33:07] AJ: Just don’t make no sense. So to be clear, we do not approve of the social score system because it’s basically a technological upgrade of what we already see in society today. And you know that at Zora’s Daughters, Brendane, Alyssa, as individuals, we are all about building a world in which everyone receives what they need, regardless of status. Which I think brings us beautifully to our next segment, which is what!?
[00:33:37] BT: What!?
[00:33:38] AJ: What in the—
[00:33:39] BT: What?!
[00:33:40] AJ: What in the world—
[00:33:41 ]BT: —is going on?
[00:33:42] AJ: What’s going on?
[00:33:43] BT: What?!
[00:33:45] [Interstitial music]
[00:33:47] BT: So, hello Adero! Looking beautiful. She’s with us now. For those of you who don’t know, you better get to know. Adero J. Knott is an AdaptiveTech Entrepreneur, disability access consultant, and artist. She is a congenital below-elbow amputee, the prosthetics designer and founder of AK Prosthetics, a robotics startup making customized prosthetics and adaptive wearables accessible and inclusive. Adero is a classically trained violinist and composer and a curator and artist who debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago curating “Disability and Perspective.” Accessibility and intersectional identities are at the heart of her curatorial practice. She has been featured in Forbes, Chicago Sun Times, and American Inno for her innovative work in the community of Chicago. She is an ADA 25 Advancing Leadership Fellow of 2020 awardee, a SoGal Foundation Black Founders Grantee of 2020, and an Evanston Art Center Curatorial Fellow of 2020-2021. So welcome to the Zoom studio, Adero!
[00:34:58] AK: Thank you.
[00:34:59] AJ: Welcome, welcome!
[00:35:01] BT: Yes!
[00:35:01] AJ: We are so excited to have you as—since we did our work together with The Luminary, we were like, “We have to have Adero on the podcast.” And here you are so we are delighted to have you.
[00:35:14] AK: Thank you. I appreciate both of you bringing me on and discussing my work and really talking about disability, especially with me being disabled and being a disabled Black woman, and all that encompasses that. So I’m really thrilled to be here and to discuss this with you and for everyone to hear it.
[00:35:34] AJ: Yeah. All right, so we’ll get started with our first question, our grounding question. At the beginning of the episode in our What’s the Word? segment, we started to unpack the term accessibility. And so in your work as a curator, as a founder, and an inventor, you talk about your goals being making the world more accessible and inclusive. So we would like to know what does accessibility mean to you?
[00:35:56] AK: Yes. So accessibility means the quality of being able to be reached or entered, the quality of being easy to obtain or use. When I think of accessibility, I consider, “Do I have access to this space? Is this a space or place that is accepting of me? Is it a place that will understand me? Is this a place as accessible and easy for others to reach universally?” Taking into account disabled people in our accessibility needs, accessibility denotes a requirement for universal design and forethought. So when I think of accessibility, it feels quite present for me because when I think about the pandemic that we are still living through and in, the divide between who has access and who doesn’t is ever more clear. Because while Americans and nations of the world are still trying to get back to this “norm”—where you can just go outside anywhere you want and not wear a mask—immunocompromised people, immunocompromised, disabled people, do not have this privilege to do that. And so we’re still fighting with organizers, with the government, about disabled lives matter. And so there are spaces that continue to be inaccessible. There are job and work environments that continue to be inaccessible, and the list goes on. And you can apply that to really any industry or any space.
[00:37:31] AJ: I’m so glad that you brought up the pandemic and the norm, because we talked about how the norm and the idea of there being a normative body or normative type of person is the harm in disability justice, right? And. I mean, in the world—broadly, in this oppressive world that we live in. And it reminded me of what you said on a podcast that you were on, right, you said everyone is going to become disabled and it’s not if but when. And I think that that is something that is especially visible right now, as you were saying, with the COVID-19 pandemic. And if we think about the particularly ablest discourse that pervaded the vaccination and the masking campaigns, and right now, this whole back to normal campaign that all of these countries and cities are having. You know, just the whole pandemic, to be honest. Could you talk about some of the ways that ableism is built into our society that people don’t see?
[00:38:30] AK: Yes. We live in a world that celebrates youth and longevity. Aging and disability are at the opposite end of the spectrum in relation to youth and longevity. People know they’re going to die. People know they’re going to age. But do they want to? Do they accept it? And the answer is no. We would rather be ignorant to the fact that everyone will become disabled, a car crash, or even just through aging, to the point where an elderly person who needs a cane, but refuses to utilize a cane because of the negative connotation that’s associated with being visibly disabled. We have people who are disabled that you don’t even know are disabled and often attempt to hide their disability because of the stigma associated with being disabled. I don’t have the privilege to hide my disability, nor do I want to, but I also recognize that there are invisible disabilities. And so people have to change their perspective on what is disability. What does disability look like? Because there’s no look. There’s no one size fits all look to disability. Our society is ageist. Our society is ableist. Our society is racist. And you see that played out in all realms and in all situations. Our society also dictates who has the privilege to age and be disabled, and that privilege is often given to white men or men in general. Our society congratulates men for aging, while our society ridicules and demeans women for aging. Our society deems disability and inconvenience, a hindrance, when it’s just natural. It’s just how we are. And we deserve to just be. To be human and to live out these human experiences.
[00:40:41] BT: Yeah, so there are multiple things that you’ve shared that I’m like, “Oooh, yes. And yes and yes and yes!” I think I wanna go back to something that you said in your definition of accessibility where it was really interesting to hear that kind of—what I would say an affective feeling, right, like the feeling of “Do I belong here?” right. And so while someone can have a sign on the door that says, “All are welcome,” right, ableism can make it so that, yes, all are welcome, everyone can be present in the room, but who feels like they belong there, right? Just by the policies, by what’s been done, what’s been said, you can automatically exclude groups of people. And so I really value that element that you brought to the definition of accessibility that I think is really important and something that I’m going to think more about as well. And then your mentioning of ageism and this kind of revulsion and/or fear of death as being something that underlines or—that underlies how we approach aging and disability. And I think that is such a poignant point, because a lot of what capitalism does is it sells us this fiction that death is actually something that is escapable. Death belongs to particular groups of people, right? So it belongs to Black people. Death belongs to disabled people. Death belongs to fat people, right? Death belongs to women—some women, right? But then for others, because death is over here, it actually isn’t your portion, right? So that’s the fiction that I think white supremacy, anti-Blackness, ableism, ageism, as you’ve mentioned, kind of sells us is that death is actually the property or belongs to all these other people and as long as it stays over there, then it’s not gon affect me. And so a lot of the really impactful work in disability justice movements have been to say, you know, “We don’t have to relegate disabled people to death through this fear of death. We can actually create life and embrace life in all of these ways. And it actually can be something that frees us from these white supremacist and capitalist logics that we can’t seem to move away from.” And so disability justice is so important. And so I just wanted to underscore what you’ve said and thank you so much for that. I think, now, we’re having a particularly salient conversation today, considering what happened last night at the Oscars—and, you know, I’m always one for the tea as a Gemini. I’m always like, “ So what’s good?”—where an interesting—well, not—I hate the word “interesting,” lemme not say that—it was a fascinating moment, right? We have a comedian, a Black man comedian—who’s allowed to get old, who’s allowed to have gray hair, right—on stage who made a documentary about Black woman’s hair and feels the need to comment on Jada Pinkett Smith’s look. And in defense of her, her husband—regardless of how you feel about their relationship—her husband got up and said, “Not today,” pop pop, and said, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth,” right? And so what that conversation has done in many circles, right—many people are focusing on the actual physical act, right, condemning it or supporting it, whatever. And there are a group of people who are “feminists” or, you know, whatever, who are projecting that Jada might feel sad about this, etc., etc. I don’t know how Jada feels about it. I only know how I feel about it. And there are other people who are using this moment to shine a light on alopecia as a disability and what it is and what it means to actually stand up for disabled people publicly. And so this is a silly question, but we’re—you know, we’re gonna have a serious conversation about this, y’all. But my first question right out the gate—because when I saw it happening, I was like, “Yo, if my nigga don’t get up and pop—and slap somebody in the face for me on my behalf, then we not together no more!” I don’t care, we not together no more. So I would just, you know, pose this question [to] the two of you. Would you expect that or want that from a partner?
[00:45:06] AK: I personally experience what Jada Pinkett experienced last night frequently. I literally just went to a Black establishment about a week ago—it was a nice, like, club and had live music and it’s a Black establishment, it’s Black-owned—where I feel like I was verbally assaulted by the security guard, because I do have alopecia, and it is a genetic condition that I inherited from my grandmother. And I got it during the pandemic. I had hair up until February of 2020. And when I went to this club, the security guard looked at me—and I had an afro wig at that time—and looked at my ID—okay, the hair is not matching—and he asked me, “Is this all your real hair?” So I ignored that question. He gave me my ID back. I went inside. And as I was talking to the receptionist, the security guard continues this verbal assault and says, “Oh, well, I guess not.” And I don’t owe anybody an explanation on my appearance.
[00:46:31] BT: No, period.
[00:46:32] AK: I don’t have to become vulnerable and be like, “Oh, well, it’s a wig,” like, and say I have alopecia so he feels better about the situation. Like, what Chris Rock did to Jada Pinkett was unwarranted, uninvited, and it was violent. It was just as violent as Will Smith smacking him. And so it was violence against violence. So what I want from my partner—and we have these conversations all the time, because dating me and being with me means that you have to protect me. I don’t have the privilege that he has been a biracial, light-skinned man versus me being a disabled—visibly disabled, dark-skinned Black woman. And so we’ve been in several situations where he’s had to step up and really push past the discomfort of being seen as an angry Black man. But would you rather it be you be seen as an angry Black man or me be seen as an angry Black woman because I’m tired. I don’t want to have to be in a relationship where I don’t expect for my Black partner, this man, to protect me. If you’re not going to protect me, then what’s the point of me being in this relationship?
[00:47:53] BT: We was just talking about—what’s the point?!
[00:47:55] AJ: That’s exactly what we said [laughs]—
[00:47:56] BT: What’s the point? What’s the point!
[00:47:57] AJ: —before we started recording!
[00:48:00] BT: What is the point? And I want to, like, address—first of all, I’m so sorry that that security guard committed that act of violence against you. I’m so sorry that that happened. And I’m delighted to hear that you have a partner who is willing to protect you and is able to protect you. And I think what gets lost in the shuffle of these conversations is that if you have the privilege and the power to protect somebody, why not do it by any means necessary? And I think that gets lost in the shuffle of, “Well, it doesn’t look good.” Or, you know, “We should be non-violent. They should have had a conversation.” And it’s like, you know—
[00:48:44] AJ: A lot of respectability politics.
[00:48:46] BT: A lot of respectability politics and it’s like, when it comes—if somebody is out here talking shit about me and—like, why should I have to defend myself? And I hear this all the time coming from trans people when it comes to pronouns, and even just their existence, right?—”Why is it that I can be in relationships with ‘allies,’ right, who are able to see that this hurts me and they still expect for me to experience this violence and get up and defend myself?” So I think that—yeah. Alyssa, Imma let you answer before I get on my—before I get on my [laughs]—
[00:49:25] AJ: Before you get on your [crosstalk]—I mean, one of the things that I love about our podcast is that we can, well, basically say whatever we want, but also name the things as violence that are violent. Because people don’t see what Chris Rock did and said about Jada Pinkett Smith as violence nor as something that was worth becoming physically violent for. And I’m like—at first I was like, “Is this toxic masculinity?”— that was on the one hand. And then on my Jamaican hand, I was like, [in Jamaican patois] “Nah, but who yuh tink yuh ah ramp wid?”
[00:50:01] AK: Period!
[00:50:01] AJ: [Laughs] You don’t—someone said, “Sometimes it’s love and light that ass up” on Twitter and I was like, “You know, sometimes people just need to know.” But anyways, to come back to this question of violence, right? There have been a few major responses. One is, why is this violence? Of course, the famous Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has taken this very odd rebranding turn Brendane called out [laughs].
[00:50:34] BT: I said it!
[00:50:35] AJ: And she tweeted, you know, how is this a disability, Jada Pinkett being bald, Jada Pinkett having alopecia. And then, of course, she deleted that tweet and tweeted a new one that said “sincere question.” Or “How is this a disability? Sincere question.” And of course, when people gave her sincere answers, she deleted that tweet and now nobody can become informed about this. Another response that I have seen is people comparing it to the joke that Regina Hall made about LeBron James and his hair loss. Male pattern baldness is not the same thing, right? And men aren’t judged or punished for their appearance in the same ways as women, and especially Black women. And because of that history and that context, that is what makes it violent. Anyways, I just answered my question, but, you know, I would welcome you adding [laughs]—adding more to that idea of what makes this violence and how is it [crosstalk]—
I mean, would you—but you didn’t answer my question. Would you expect…boo, bae to pull up?
She said yes! She said yes without saying yes [laughs].
No, I’m saying you! My question is for both of you!
Yes, yes I would. Honestly, there is nothing—there’s nothing more attractive. I’m not gonna lie. Like, I’m not saying you need to be someone who’s just getting into fights just because of whatever. But I know that when my man has stood up for me in the past—whoever I was dating—I was just like, “Oh, yeah. He could get it.” [Laughs]
[00:52:10] AK: And Jada definitely gave it to him that night for sure.
[00:52:13] BT: I mean, you know—
[00:52:15] AJ: [Laughs] What did you—what did you retweet, Brendane? [Laughs]
[00:52:19] BT: You know, so the gays out here be speculating, like, you know. You know, that she—that Jada give him that good strap was the tweet I retweeted, which I would believe. Anyway, let me make too fine of a point on that. But I would believe so. Honestly, would love to hear about it. That’s all I’m gonna say about it. So I think that like [laughs]—
[00:52:53] AJ: The scream I scrumt.
[00:52:55] BT: [Laughter] But love to hear about it. Yeah, I think, too, Alyssa, something that you said actually makes sense, the—or something that I want to touch on, which is the toxic masculinity piece, which is something that I saw a Black man comment on who—he does a lot of like anti-violence trainings for Black men. So these are men who are already abusive to the women or children in their lives. And something that was really interesting was seeing people respond to that and say, you know, “One day, he’s hitting a man. The next day, he’s gonna hit a woman.” And that to me really shows—right, right! Like, you’re— Adero’s shaking her head. Like, no. Most people don’t understand how abuse works, right? It’s not all of a sudden, someone hits a man and then now he’s gonna be abusive to everyone else in his life. That actually is fear-mongering that’s based in, like, white supremacist understandings of violence and, really, confrontation right? White people are non-confrontational, that’s part of white supremacist culture.
[00:54:02] AK: Right.
[00:54:03] BT: But that’s not part of our ancestral way that we do things, right. Black people confront you. And if that involves me hitting you because I’ve already set a boundary with you—do not talk about my wife, do not talk about my partner—and you cross that boundary, then I’m going to address that. So that’s not toxic masculinity, that is reinforcing your boundaries. Or, you know, protecting your partner. But that was also part of the conversation of, like, is this toxic masculinity? Is this just going to just balloon into everyone experiencing violence? But most men—most cisgender men who hit women do not actually, in fact, hit other men. They don’t actually—most of them don’t.
[00:54:52] AK: Because they know better.
[00:54:53] BT: Because they know.
[00:54:54] AK:: Yeah, the Black woman is an easier target.
[00:54:57 ]BT: They know better. Men are very afraid of each other. Men are very afraid of each other. So even this conversation of “Well, why didn’t Will just pull Chris aside and talk to him man to man, and, you know, Denzel [Washington] had to step in and Tyler Perry”—[laughs]—”had to step in and say a few things.” And it’s like— [laughs] did you see that tweet where somebody was like, “Did he talk in his Madea voice or did he talk in his [unclear]?”
[00:55:20] AK:: Okay! [Laughter] [Crosstalk]
[00:55:23] BT: What would Madea do? Madea would’ve hauled off and slapped somebody, so let’s be real about it. But yeah, like, these ideas that classy men have certain types of behaviors are all actually rooted in this kind of white supremacist understanding of how we should move. And it’s very anti-Black. So I’m glad you brought up this toxic masculinity thing. It’s toxic masculinity, in my opinion, if Will got up there and said, “How dare you embarrass me in front of all of these people, blah, blah, blah. Imma smack the shit outta you.” It was, “Don’t talk about my wife.” This is—Chris Rock has called on Jada multiple times. The first time was in 2016, he made a public joke about her. They probably addressed it behind closed doors. And he knew what he was doing when he brought that shit up again. And he didn’t know that he was about to get smacked. But in my opinion, you know, I’m for it. I’m all for it. And he was protecting someone in a more vulnerable position, right? That can never—I don’t think that could ever be construed as toxic—protecting someone who’s vulnerable. I don’t think that should ever be misconstrued as toxic.
[00:56:40] AK:: I do have something to say about this, though. And it really hurt me to my core, because, of course, the Oscars are so white. And they’re such few Black people represented there. Or even in that room. And some—the conversations that I have with my partner about—we often have conversations about toxic masculinity. And the fact that men like to bond over harming women. And for Chris Rock, it was like, “Oh, this is a chance for me to get in with the white men here. Ah ha ha! I hate women, too. Yeah, I’m part of the club.” And that’s really how it felt. And I’m just like, Black men are supposed to protect Black women. And it was so triggering because Black [unclear] or who identify as femme are experiencing a genocide right now. And for him to make fun of her. This is a disease. Alopecia is a disease. I’m not gonna be able to take biotin pills and all these oils and supplements to grow my hair back. This is an autoimmune disease where your body attacks hair follicles. It thinks that it shouldn’t be there so it attacks hair follicles. And people have no idea about how brave Jada Pinkett was to go on national television—and she’s already talked about this—but how brave it was for her to go on national television—and even global, because this is global now—and to be like, “I love myself. I look beautiful in this dress. I am here as a guest. I wasn’t here to win an award. I’m a guest.” And for her to be violently attacked by Chris Rock was appalling. And honestly, when is enough enough?
[00:58:39] BT: When is enough enough? When is enough enough? And I thought it was protect Black girls? I thought it was protect Black women? Oh, okay. Oh, y’all want people to have conversations about it? Oh y’all want people to talk about it? But yeah, I think that is such an excellent point, Adero. Yeah, I think, too, is what this does, though, is it does open up an opportunity for us to have a more public conversation about disability, Blackness, gender, specifically, you know, womanhood and how all of these things come together. And I think there is, like, a lot of fear. There’s a lot of projection. As you were saying, for Chris Rock, part of the motivation whether it’s stated or not, right, is this “Oh, I know attacking Black women is going to get me access to this kind of upper echelon circle,” right? And so when it comes to enacting ableism, when it comes to actually treating disabled people horribly, we see that happening for people as kind of a way to elevate themselves, as you’ve mentioned. And so we think about this invisibilization, though, of disability that happens for Black people. We talk about it—we talked about it today, we talk about all the time. And if we think about the fact that Emmett Till had a disability—he had a speech disability, he stuttered. Harriet Tubman was also disabled. She had epilepsy, narcolepsy, and visual impairment. Audre Lorde—and we can name so many more of our heroes or who were and who are disabled. And what happens, though, is as they kind of move up to this hero status, right, the parts about their disabilities are often erased from their stories. And so what do you think are the effects of this erasure and, like, what toll does it take on you, on the work that you do? Yeah, I would love to hear about that.
[01:00:38] AK:: That is a really great question and I’m happy to answer that. So the disabilities of many of our heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Audre Lorde are often erased is because [unclear]. Audre Lorde and myself are the same. We are Black disabled women. We live in a society where they want to pigeonhole your identities. Society deemed that Harriet Tubman and Audrey Lorde being Black and being Black women superseded them being disabled Black women. Having an intersectional identity where I am a Black disabled woman causes friction for each individual identity. So for the longest time, I didn’t even consider myself to be disabled because of the internalized ableism that I have experienced throughout my life. When people see me, they may not even notice that I have one hand. The first thing they notice is I am a dark-skinned Black woman. So they usually see me as a threat or criminal just for having a dark complexion. Then they’ll notice I am disabled and the connotation associated with disability is usually meekness or pity. Meek and pity are totally at opposite ends of the spectrum from being a threat or aggressive. Then I’m also a woman, and we understand the patriarchal world we live in. For me, I personally take great pride that disabled Black women such as Harriet Tubman and Audre Lorde were able to exist, to be, and to achieve great things despite their disability. And also due to their disability. Being disabled is a superpower. It generates innovation, and the ability to empathize and provide framework that can benefit everyone. I also recognize that being a Black woman and being disabled can be conflicting, especially when we live in a world where Black women are forced into the strong Black woman archetype. Once I realized to myself that I was disabled—the realization occurred literally two years ago—I realized how harmful and violent the strong Black woman archetype is to Black women, and especially disabled Black women. I rebuke the strong Black woman archetype. I am not a machine, and I will rest.
[01:03:39] AJ: Ayyyy snaps. [Snaps fingers]
[01:03:39] BT: Period.
[01:03:42] AJ: Snaps for that. There’s—there are, like, so many things I want to take you up on in what you said. But I do want to say thank you for being so open and, you know, open with us about your experiences, because it just really makes, you know, these episodes that we have with guests so special. I mean, I wanna talk about your prosthetics work, because one of the things that that came up this week as well in the world was Tyre Sampson, who was the young man who basically fell from a ride in Florida and died. And I think one of the things is—one thing that showed us is that the deadly effects of a world that isn’t designed for different kinds of bodies. That is a way in which bodies that are different, bodies that are outside of the norm, are made to be invisible. And earlier in the episode, we read Ruha Benjamin and she writes that technology can be something that makes Black people invisible “just when we need to be seen the most.” So I think it speaks to the way that society is disabling, that people are disabled by the way that we choose to structure the world. And that often affects Black people the most, that this is one of those things that speaks to the way that anti-Blackness and ableism are intertwined, and the assumption of disability that follows the Black body. So I wondered if that’s something that factors into your artistic or technological work? And if so, how?
[01:05:15] AK: Yeah, so since I work in adaptive technology, my work is based on not believing that one size fits all. My prosthetic arm is made for me, it fits me, and no one else can utilize it. We live in a world that wants to focus on fast production, that wants to focus on automation, and designers creating solutions based on what’s best for the “average person,” instead of what’s best for the individual or individuals. The average person is considered a white man. And designers across different industries use the white man as reference, especially when it comes to automated technology and artificial intelligence. My most polarizing experience was at a ski resort, where I’m already a minority and quite aware of that, while attempting to wash my hands—hand—and the faucet would not register that my hand was there. I repeatedly tried—yes! I repeatedly tried to move my hand and different angles. Even joining my hand with my prosthetic hand thinking that my disability of having one hand was also preventing me from accessing the water to wash my hands. Next thing I know, a white woman tells me “Oh, it was the water faucet.” I was dumbfounded! Like, the gall! But I told her, “I know how to use it.”
[01:06:56] BT: Oh, silly! Oh silly Black woman, you don’t know how to turn on a damn faucet. Let me show you! [Laughs]
[01:07:03] AJ: You obviously don’t wash your hands with that skin complexion. Jeez, you should use Dove [laughs].
[01:07:11] AK: But there was so much nuance that she was unaware of. The reason why the water faucet didn’t register my hand is because when they designed this device, the beta testers were white and more than likely had two hands. Now the whole purpose of the water faucet being automated and designed to detect when a hand is there is supposed to make it easier for an individual to wash their hands. However, without incorporating a universal design approach, without ensuring that the testers are diverse and indicative of society, then we have situations like my experience at that ski resort, where I almost felt embarrassed because a white woman assumed I didn’t know how to use an automated faucet.
[01:08:04] BT: Right! When it’s like, “But why did they need to make it easier for you to wash your hands?” Somebody quickly. Somebody quickly answer the question without—
[01:08:10] AK: I can answer that, I can answer that. So again, with me being disabled, and having that disabled perspective, that is beneficial. Let’s say I can’t reach and turn it, you know, it could be any reason as to why I can’t, you know.
[01:08:23] BT: Oh, I was—yes, absolutely. I think my question was more of a dig in the sense of, like, a lot of times automation—people don’t consider that automation are things [that] are made easier for disabled people, right? I think that people think automation is convenience, because time is money in a capitalist structure. So yes, thank you so much for actually pointing to that point and to me, actually, not even really thinking that in my dig towards the people that I know, when I go to the bathroom in public, don’t be washing their hands. And that’s—
[01:08:59] AK: Yeah.
[01:09:00] BT: You know, but thank you. Thank you so much for that, actually. That was—
[01:09:04] AJ: The number of times I have just seen someone just put their put their hands under the water, turn it over one time, and then flick their—[laughs] flick their fingers and walk out of the bathroom. And I’m like that is not washing your hands.
[01:09:19] BT: Not washing your hands. And I think to build on your point, Adero, something that I noticed online that was happening—I guess, what, two summers ago—where folks were really freaking out about the fact that people in grocery stores were cutting up fruits and vegetables and putting them in plastic containers, right, because it was not eco-friendly, etc. And how a lot of disabled people had to come online and say, “This is for us. Just because you all are disturbed or whatever, you know, all of a sudden y’all care about the Earth, whatever, whatever, this actually makes life easier for us.” And so I think a lot of times what also gets associated with innovations for folks who are disabled is kind of a laziness or something where they think that people are being lazy when it’s actually ableism. And so I think that is, like, a very important point for us to, like, stamp down on. I think something else that you brought up that we wanted to—and this will probably round us—round out our discussion—is thinking about the intersection between disability and Blackness and what that actually does when we’re in any spaces with non-Black people, right, and the ways that we are criminalized. Like, you talked about that when people encounter you, they might not even notice that you have one hand. They might—first thing they might think is that you might be a criminal. And we see this happening over and over and over again when we see Black—we’ve seen Black folks, Black disabled folks and their interactions with the police, and how disabled Black folks are killed at much higher rates than non-disabled Black folks in their interactions with the police, particularly those who have mental illnesses. Or those who might have certain types of physical disabilities. And so there is Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, there’s Natasha McKenna in Virginia, Elijah McClain in Colorado are just a few of the names of Black people, Black disabled people who have faced gratuitous violence because of the state’s carceral response to disability. And this is something that we have to really take into account into our praxis, right. And I’m wondering for you in particular, when you’re thinking of your life as a disabled, dark-skinned Black woman who’s a baddie, who rests, who lives and who is doing all these great things with your prosthetics company and, like, bringing all these innovations into the world, how does that also factor into your praxis?
[01:12:07] AK: The goals of my curatorial and artistic work is to announce to the world that making disability access a forethought is beneficial for everyone. I don’t believe that when organizers or when curators create spaces for people that they envision that the space will only provide access for some people. I believe that if they truly understood from the perspective of a disabled person, if they knew what it was like to be in a wheelchair, if they knew what it was like to have epilepsy, if they knew what it was like to be a part of the deaf community, that they would create a budget and put disability access front and center. My desire is to curate places where everyone can enjoy art. We all have a right to art. We all have a right to witness human expression through art. And it’s unfair that we are still striving for this right. I also believe that artists can create work that can be universally experienced. I often consider how people with vision disabilities experience fine art, something too delicate to touch. But if we as artists created work that everyone can experience in their own way, like incorporating touch, sound, smell, it would really take art and industry to the next level. There are so many ways for artists to innovate and lead the charge in creating art that is universally accessible. When it comes to the racial aspect and when it comes to prosthetics, that’s really why I started the company. Like, even my current prosthetic device does not match my skin tone. And when my prosthetist made the prosthetic—and they used to do everything in house where they would take your measurements, they would build out the prosthetic and produce it in house. Now they’re outsourcing. And when they outsourced it, they didn’t even ask me like, “Oh, like, ‘Let’s get your skin tone. Do you want this to be your skin tone?’“
[01:14:06] AJ: What’s your Fenty number? [Laughter]
[01:14:08] AK: Right! Right. And so my dream and goal is to really put the amputee and the patient front and center and to ensure that we are designing something that they actually want. Some people might not want their skin tone. They might want a Gucci print. And we can do that, you know, whatever you want.
[01:14:32] AJ: Ayyye!
[01:14:34] AK: We can do that. And I know you guys mentioned, you know, the TLC show that’s going to premiere called Body Parts. And I feel like this ties in with that. And I saw, like, you know, like, a clip of it and to see, like, what it’s about. And it’s about the work of Allison Vest. She’s an anaplastologist, and that’s a person that, you know, creates cosmesis. And cosmesis are these aesthetically pleasing prosthetics but they don’t have a functional—they’re not functional. And I think the work that Allison Vest is doing is great. It’s all about what the patient wants and desires. I think the prosthetics are important, but also functionality—for me, personally, I wouldn’t want a prosthetic hand that wasn’t functional, but it looks like me, so I fit in with society, so, like, no one’s gonna clock me. However, is it really adding value to my life? Is it really improving my quality of life if it’s not functional? So that is what I think as an individual, as an amputee, and this is my experience, but not all amputees think this way. So again, it all goes back to the individual and based on what the patient or amputee wants. So they want to wear cosmesis, which are aesthetically pleasing, but not functional, then I support that. I’m with that and I’m for that. I’m for everyone to have their own individual choice. One of the greatest issues [is] that we don’t have choice. Just like how my arm doesn’t match my skin tone, no one’s concerned about me having a choice in the matter because I’m disabled. It’s like just take what you can get. And I want to provide an excellent experience for the consumer, for the patient, for myself, because I’m also the consumer, in where they take full control in the device that they want to use to where they can pick the color, it matches, you know, their dimensions, like it’s made for them, you know. And when we go back to that incident where that child, you know, dropped his death from that ride, that was all based on, you know, some type of fatphobia, because really, if you’re over 350 pounds, or if you’re over a certain weight, you can’t even get on these rides. And so that just takes away from a lot of people having access to even enjoying amusement parks and things like that. So there’s really room for improvement in all realms and I hope that that particular amusement park, I hope that the designers will really take that into consideration to make sure that [Audio skips]—really a design ethics issue. Like, why are we designing things that everyone can’t use? Why are we designing spaces that everyone doesn’t have access to? Why are we designing streets and sidewalks that not everyone has access to? It’s in everything. If you really look at it critically, it’s everywhere in accessibility.
[01:17:42] BT: And the underlying thought to that is we create things in this way, because you are not supposed to access this, because you are not supposed to be here, you are not supposed to have this life, right? Like, ableism is death dealing. And we—I mean, the pandemic definitely puts it up front and center for those of us who want to be aware and be present to it, right? This is death-dealing work, whether it be death by exclusion from enjoying aspects of life, or literally, you are not able to access the things that you need. Or literally you’re interacting with police and they kill you. And so I think that is such a poignant point, right? We have to think about not just in the medical field, not just in “Okay, well, how do we make sure that you are able to, you know, be alive and do these things.” We need to actually make things across all boards, like, across all levels work for everyone. And that is the duty, right, that is the goal.
[01:18:46] AJ: Yeah, I think I also—I just want to underscore some of the things that you said, which, you know, when we’re thinking about our work towards liberation and justice, you are speaking to a kind of everyday intersectionality—so don’t want to conflate it with, you know, Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality—and, of course, what, you know, we always come back to—Brendane and I in our podcast—which is what the Combahee River Collective said, which is that none of us are free until the least of us are free. And if we’re not building spaces for anyone to be able to access and to be able to contribute to, and in fact, the least of us to lead, then it’s not liberatory and it’s not justice. And I think the other thing that you’re speaking to is just, like, is the idea that everyone’s life is valuable and worth something regardless of whether or not they’re productive in the capitalist sense of working yourself to death and making money for the man.
[01:19:53] AK: Yeah. I wanted to briefly just talk about what’s going on in Chicago right now—probably what’s going on everywhere. But all the asylums and—well not asylums because those are, you know, we’re outlawing those—but the institutionalization of these mental facilities that people need to have access to that they no longer have access to really contributes to the fact that most of the people who are in jail right now have disabilities. Our society is not privy at all to people who have intellectual disabilities or developmental disabilities. I mean, just look at Emmett Till. He had a lisp, but the person assumed he was whistling at her. We need to integrate more disabled people in society so they understand that this is how disabled people are and so we can build up acceptance—not tolerance—acceptance, and receive them. Because you never know, you can have a child who has a plethora of disabilities, and you’re going to feel like crap, if someone, you know, treats your child wrong. But you shouldn’t have to make that connection. It should just be that this is a person. These people need help. And right now in Chicago, since they shut down, you know, all of the mental institutions in places where, you know, people with these disabilities can have access to, they’re just homeless. And so they’re on the trains. And it’s not safe. It’s not safe for anyone. It’s not safe for them and it’s not safe for the general public. And I’m like, “We need to do something,” because we’re gonna have more and more people in jail. And basically, there’s this article titled, “Orange is the New Asylum: Incarceration for Individuals with Disabilities“ by Becky Crowe and Christine Drew. And it just really talks about how disability affects communities and groups of individuals with differently based on race, wealth, and geography. How BIPOC individuals will have a higher rate of disability versus white men. And some of those causes are due to environmental racism, zoning, and segregation of communities that forced BIPOC to live in communities with underfunded schools and other services due to racist taxation and near industrial sites. I mean, we even had that whole issue here. There’s a community called Pilsen where the Latino people were not having it, the Latinx people were not having it! Like, you know, you guys need to shut down these coal mines and stuff over here—or these steel mines, something like that—something that was causing all this pollution—because people were getting sick. But we’re still dealing with Flint. We’re still dealing with so many issues where they are basically causing us to become disabled, sooner than we need to become disabled, because we will become disabled, it’s just how—it’s not even about if, it’s about how and when now. How are we going to become disabled because that matters, too? If I just, you know, like I said, have alopecia, I’m disabled. Fine. But if it’s because this company is producing waste, who’s going to protect me, who’s going to protect people, who’s going to protect BIPOC people, who’s going to protect disabled BIPOC people from society and how it is right now? And it’s just—there’s a lot to think about critically when it comes to these things, you know?
[01:23:22] BT: Yeah. And I think you really are harping on just how disability justice is not just something that you tack on to these other kind of environmental fights, the race fight, etc. It is actually really a framework that is central. And so if we start there and say, “Okay, how do we open up life—the possibility of life to as many people as possible?”—and not just life as in you livin’, but, like, a good life, and meet people’s needs and see people as unique and valuable. What that can do and how that can transform our movements. And yeah, but you’re right, we’re still dealing with Flint, we’re still dealing with all of these other factors that really just create disabilities for populations of people.
[01:24:14] AJ: Well, I think that was a great way for us to wrap up. I think an important note for us to end on. So Adero can you tell our listeners where they can find you where they can support the super important work that you’re doing?
[01:24:29] AK: Of course! You guys can always—I mean, I’m kinda iffy with Instagram. I will make it public again, but I’m kinda iffy on my privacy. So you can—
[01:24:42] BT: Yo, yeah, yeah. Understood.
[01:24:42] AK: So you can follow me—
[01:24:44] AJ: So no need to do the Insta.
[01:24:46] AK: No, that’s fine. So you can follow me on Instagram @Aderoknott. And you also can follow my prosthetics company on Instagram, @akprostheticsforall. And you also can go to my website, akprosthetics.co. I just started a new business where I will be doing disability access consulting. So if you are an organization, if you are an art gallery—for instance, when I went to the Venice Biennale, I saw that the spaces weren’t accessible. I was like, “You guys could contract me out. I can come in, we can make sure the space is accessible.” So I’m focusing on making prosthetics and making sure the world can be as accessible as possible. And also I just want to shout out LaVant Consulting for overseeing disability access at the Oscars last night, because that’s huge for this Black woman—for this disabled Black woman to do that work on such a high level. So I want to give a shout out to her. So yeah, that’s where you can find me—akprosthetics.co, @Aderoknott, and @akprostheticsforall just to follow what I do, what I’m doing, what I plan to do.
[01:25:07] BT: We are so in awe of you and we are so thankful that you joined us.
[01:26:09] [Music fades up]
[01:26:09] AK: Thank you. I appreciate you both. Thank you for giving me the platform to just talk about this work because it’s really important.
[01:26:16] AJ: All right, thank you so much for being with us, Adero. That is our episode everyone! Thank you all for listening. This episode was produced by Alyssa James and Brendane Tynes and distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by a grant from the Arts and Science Graduate Council and donations from listeners like you who are listening.
[01:26:40] BT: Thank you all for the support. So if you liked this episode, please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. We would love to hear what you have to say about this episode, so be sure to follow us on Instagram @zorasdaughters and on Twitter @zoras_daughters. And for transcripts, syllabi, and information on how to cite us or to become a patron, visit our websites zorasdaughters.com.
[01:27:06] AJ: Yes, help us [block] the haters. [Laughter] Be kind to yourselves. Bye!
[01:27:13] BT: Bye!
[01:27:14] AK: Bye!
[01:27:19] [Music ends]
[End of Recording]