5 Disability Justice Activists to Know This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

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Culture & Conversation Race

5 Disability Justice Activists to Know This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Tiffany Diane Tso

Disability justice centers the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, considering the intersections of all forms of oppression.

This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), Rewire.News is highlighting the ways Asian and Pacific Islander American communities have been at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement throughout its formation and today.

The rights of people with disabilities have come under added threat during the COVID-19 pandemic—public debates about rationing medical supplies like ventilators have ultimately determined who has the right to live or die.

This is just one reason to highlight the work of disability justice activists this APAHM.

Disability justice centers the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, considering intersecting forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, or sizeism.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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By sharing resources and creating interdependent networks of access and care, disability justice activists fight for their rights to not only survive but also to thrive in a world without barriers. These rights—from paid sick leave at work to more accessible public spaces—benefit everybody. And yet, their activism often goes unrecognized.

That is why Rewire.News is profiling some of the revolutionary Asian and Pacific American organizers, educators, artists, and writers in the disability justice movement.

Stacey Milbern

The disability justice community lost a fierce advocate last Tuesday: Stacey Milbern, a queer, disabled, Korean American activist who often went by her online moniker @cripchick, died on her 33rd birthday.

Milbern is regarded as a parent of the disability justice movement, which formed through a 2005 discussion between queer, disabled women of color activists, including Milbern. That year, she and a group of queer, disabled people of color cofounded the Disability Justice Culture Club (DJCC), a collaborative organizing space in Oakland, California.

Recently, the group rallied against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s power shutoffs in October 2019. Milbern, who had muscular dystrophy and used a ventilator to breathe, as well as an electric wheelchair, called out the company’s actions as neglectful and “criminal.” At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Bay Area, Milbern and the DJCC mobilized to provide mutual aid to the local disability and homeless communities in the form of “anti-coronavirus kits.” She also spoke out against the rationing of medical care during the crisis.

After her death, Milbern’s friends and collaborators created #StaceyTaughtUs and a syllabus that includes her writing and interviews to honor her lifetime of activism, community building, and revolutionary love and care.

“I want to leave a legacy of disabled people knowing we are powerful and beautiful because of who we are, not despite it.” –Stacey Milbern

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha 

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer, disabled, multiracial Sri Lankan writer, performance artist, educator, and organizer. She wrote one of the essential books on disability justice, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, which was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2018. Through her collection of essays, she centers, explores, and celebrates the movement.

Based in Oakland and Toronto, Piepzna-Samarasinha in 2006 cofounded the Asian Arts Freedom School, an arts-based activism program for Asian and Pacific Islander youth in Toronto. The same year, she cofounded and codirected Mangos With Chill, a performance tour and collective of queer and trans artists of color. Since 2009, Piepzna-Samarasinha has been a lead artist with Sins Invalid, a disability justice performance collective that originated in the Bay Area and tours nationally. Piepzna-Samarasinha has published multiple books and essays, and her writing has been featured in PBS News Hour, Poets.org, Bitch magazine, and more.

“If movements got it together about ableism, there is so much we could win—movement spaces where elders, parents, and sick and disabled folks (a huge amount of the planet) could be present—strength in numbers!” –Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Mia Mingus 

Mia Mingus is a writer, educator, and disability justice activist and organizer regarded as one of the movement’s originators and one of the founding members of the DJCC. A queer, disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee raised in the Caribbean, Mingus has been involved in transformative justice work for over 15 years and was a founding member of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC), which addresses child sexual abuse through a transformative justice framework—a way to respond to violence without involving incarceration or punishment by the state.

Mingus is a survivor and prison abolitionist who believes in justice beyond punishment and criminalization. She speaks publicly and provides tools and trainings on transformative justice across North America.

The National LGBTQ Task Force awarded Mingus with the Creating Change Award in 2008. In 2010, Mingus was named one of the Advocate’s Forty Under 40 list, and in 2013 she was honored as a “champion for change” by President Barack Obama. She spoke at the Queer & Asian Conference in 2013 and the Disability Intersectionality Summit in 2018.

“We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.” –Mia Mingus

Alice Wong

Based in San Francisco, Alice Wong is a disability rights activist who started the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to the creation and amplification of disability media and culture, in partnership with StoryCorps in 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Though it started as a one-year oral history project, Wong found a desire and need for people in her community to tell their stories. As of 2018, the project collected 140 oral histories.

Wong, who lives with a neurological disorder called spinal muscular atrophy, also partners with Disabled Writers, a resource that connects editors with disabled writers and journalists with disabled sources with a disability to help increase visibility to the disability community. She organizes #CripTheVote, an online movement to increase political engagement and activation within the disability community. In 2013, she was appointed to President Obama’s National Council on Disability, and is currently on the advisory board for APIDC, Asians and Pacific Islanders With Disabilities of California.

Her second edited book, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the Twenty-First Century, which includes personal essays by contemporary disabled writers, will be released by Penguin Random House in late June.

“I want to believe that the future is not just mine, but ours. When one of us falls through the cracks, we all suffer and lose something.” –Alice Wong

Kay Ulanday Barrett 

Kay Ulanday Barrett, also known by their social handle @brownroundboi, is a trans nonbinary Filipinx-American poet, performer, and activist based in New York and New Jersey. Their second book of poetry, More Than Organs, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in March and explores brown, queer, trans futures.

Barrett’s poetry and performance centers on queer, trans, Filipinx, and mixed-race identity, and disability. Their work has been featured in the New York Times, PBS News Hour, Academy of American Poets, Asian American Literary Review, and Bitch magazine, and they have performed on stages across the country and internationally. Barrett was a featured poet and performed at the United Nations’ first global LGBTQ summit, Gender Diversity Beyond Binaries, in 2019. They have served on boards, panels, and committees for the Transgender Law Center, the Disability Justice Collective, the Trans Justice Funding Project, and more.

“We have networks where we can replenish ourselves and each other. We’re creating the art, skills, strategies, with support from our ancestors to be the people who show up for a life that strives for liberation.” –Kay Ulanday Barrett