by Amber Davis, PhD, MSW, LCSW-C
Research Associate, Johns Hopkins University Disability Research Center
As an intersectional researcher I am committed to understanding the ways that intersectionality shows up and causes challenges for neurodiverse Black/African Americans and their families, with an emphasis on the experiences of the Black autism community. In doing this work, it is a Big Task to be pioneering capturing race-autism intersectionality and resultant harms (i.e., additive hardships, chronic discrimination and cumulative trauma), quantitatively and qualitatively. Understanding psychosocial mechanisms for risk of Black autistic adults is a critical component to my program of research. In being steeped in this work and in the spirit of evolving as a scientist, a personal + ethical challenge I have been faced with in the past year as an early-stage researcher is to not stop there even when so many researchers seem comfortable and complacent with doing only this…
For the masses in the disability space (e.g., institutions, centers that focus on disability centers, state, and federal agencies) intersectionality is a convenient buzz word. However, who will truly care about Black autistic persons (and other persons of color who are developmentally different) who are cornered in life due to the detrimental impacts of intersectional oppression? It is cautionary to say that the critical mass fails if there are no actionable steps that translate to caring about the lived experiences of persons of color with disabilities beyond the mere use of the buzz word ‘intersectionality’. Ron Walters, a prolific political scientist, might ask: What does ‘throwing around’ the word intersectionality got to do with the liberation of Black persons with disabilities.
Promoting flourishing, resiliency, empowerment and strengths-building of Black persons with disabilities are synonymous and a much-needed companion to an intersectionality stance. An adage is “African Americans have to work twice as hard to get half as fair”, which is in and of itself unjust and reason for societal transformation. If we apply the same principle to the lived experiences of Black persons with disabilities, then the saying could equate to “African Americans with disabilities have to work quadruple as hard to get a quarter as fair” (quote created by author). To think in these terms brings into focus the issue and elevates the duality of injustice. Racial and disability justice cannot be disaggregated from the lives of Black persons with disabilities and as a society we can do more to ensure that intersectionality is not just a buzzword in disability spaces but a word that prompts attentiveness to the promotion of liberation and safety for persons who have historically had multiple strikes against them across the life course.
A liberating way forward for organizations that attempt to do this work is to acknowledge the existence of race-disability intersectionality and embrace the nuanced realities of Black persons with disabilities. Further, when the term intersectionality is thrown out, then pivoting to solution focused approaches to structurally dismantling ableism and racism coupled with intentional approaches to empower and protect persons of color with disabilities from harm are sensitive, multidimensional approaches, which are healthy extensions to intersectionality. Evolving in our thinking and practices is critical to the liberation of all persons with disabilities as the safety, belonging, and quality of life of Black persons with disabilities has been either ignored for too long or hyped up in recent times in ways that do not guarantee true liberation.
Amber Davis is an early career researcher whose research is on the intersections of race, disability and trauma. She is a Research Associate with the Johns Hopkins Disability Research Center. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and is certified in providing Trauma focused-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) to youth with and without developmental disabilities.
For more information on the intersection of race and disability, check out our recent webinar with Ola Ojewumi.
 Davis, A., Solomon, M., & Belcher, H. (2022). Examination of race and autism intersectionality among African American/Black young adults. Autism in Adulthood, 4(4), 306-314.
 Smith, R. C., Johnson, C., & Newby, R. G. (Eds.). (2014). What Has this Got to Do with the Liberation of Black People?: The Impact of Ronald W. Walters on African American Thought and Leadership. SUNY Press.