Racial Justice and Disability Disaster Response: Recognizing Root Causes and the Cost of Chronic Crisis
Justice Shorter in conversation with Julia Watts Belser
Justice Shorter (she/her) is the Disaster Protection Advisor at the National Disability Rights Network, where she provides expert training and technical assistance for the Protection & Advocacy system on disaster protection, fire safety, emergency management, and humanitarian crises/conflicts. Justice served as a Disability Integration Advisor with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, and she has deployed to disaster areas across the United States and its territories. A passionate advocate for inclusive international development and humanitarian assistance, Justice has worked on community development, humanitarian affairs, youth empowerment, and post-conflict reconciliation in South Africa, Uganda, and Rwanda.
Julia: Justice, one of the things I find so important about your work is the way you recognize emergency response as absolutely inseparable from broader questions of racial justice, economic justice, and disability justice. This is such a crucial insight – that we have to recognize and respond to the way inequality intensifies people’s vulnerability to disaster. Could you tell us more about how you understand those connections?
Justice: Everything that’s a problem for America is a crisis for people with disabilities, and it’s an absolute tragedy for Black, Indigenous, people of color with disabilities.
That’s because of social injustice and historic inequity. It’s harder to prepare for a hurricane on the horizon when you’re literally dealing with the storms of your everyday life. You’re dealing with hazardous conditions day-to-day. Maybe it’s mold. Maybe you’re living in a dilapidated property that the owner refuses to maintain.
I’ll give you a personal example. For months, in my apartment building, there were squirrels literally eating through the insulation. The landlord didn’t do anything, the property owner didn’t care. So I’m paying more to keep my heat running constantly, to try to stay warm. But the worst thing was the sound. Those critters were running around in the crawl space right above my unit. To hear rodents running around above your head constantly? Imagine what that does to you mentally, what that does in terms of putting you on edge.
Whenever you’re dealing with these kinds of chronic, slow-onset crises, it makes you less able to handle a sudden crisis.
Julia: That’s such an awful story. The sound of those squirrels eating through your insulation is such a visceral way to think about the impact of structural inequality, the way all these compounding systems like racism, ableism, and economic injustice end up tearing through the resources that can cushion us from hardship. That story makes plain what people mean when they say, “It’s expensive to be poor in America.” You’re literally paying more to keep warm, because of a landlord’s indifference and neglect.
There’s a powerful resonance here with disability experience. I’m thinking about the way that cities and counties have so often gutted the services disabled people need to survive, the in-home support services that make it possible for people with disabilities or older adults to live independently, at home and in their own community. Whether that’s someone who helps you cook and clean, or a person who helps you get safely in and out of bed in the morning – the ability to hire someone to provide this kind of personal care and assistance is crucial for many disabled folks, and for elderly folks as well.
Justice: Exactly. If a person doesn’t have home and community-based services, they’re left to fend for themselves. Maybe they’re cooking meals when they’re not feeling up to it, or they’re having to strain to get the job done. So they’re at higher risk of burns or injuries, not to mention cooking fires. When people don’t have the in-home support they need, then they have to figure things out on their own. It’s a matter of necessity. It’s not a choice. It’s eat or starve.
And when something goes wrong? When Ms. Robinson falls and can’t get up off the floor? It’s first responders who get called. Now, no one likes this. Fire departments must respond to a multitude of emergency events in addition to these calls, which can quickly become critical if left unanswered. And people with disabilities only receive one-time support. That means they might end up in the very same situation a week or two later.
When we look at a case like this, we have to ask about the systematic, structural realities that created it. In the emergency world, we call that a causal chain analysis. We don’t just stop at the surface level problem. We walk the situation all the way back to the root causes.
When I look at that cooking fire, I think: This is the reason why we need better funding for home-based support services. We need to make sure that people have every opportunity to live safely and fully within their communities.
Julia: Disability activists have been fighting hard for this kind of support for decades. The numbers are clear: Home and community based services offer better outcomes, at a fraction of the cost of nursing home care. But so often, policies and practices still end up pushing our people into institutions.
One of the things we don’t talk about enough is the way that a crisis or natural disaster can exacerbate institutionalization. If disabled people evacuate after a hurricane or a flood, we’re at particular risk of ending up in a nursing home – because our country doesn’t have better systems in place to provide us with support and assistance.
Justice: That doesn’t just happen after a large-scale crisis. It happens to disabled people of color every day. If first responders receive repeated calls about the same person, there’s a chance adult protective services might get involved. There’s a risk the person might be forced into an institutional setting. They could be placed in a nursing home or a group home and told they can no longer live alone.
I spend a lot of time educating first responders, trying to help people understand how dangerous that call can be–
Julia: It takes away people’s autonomy. It takes away their agency.
Justice: Exactly. And from an emergency management perspective? It’s important to remember that nursing homes and group homes are often unsafe places. Many institutions are not fully staffed at night. But that’s exactly when fires are most likely to happen. And, of course, I don’t have to tell you what COVID did in nursing homes and group homes.
Julia: Marcie Roth at the World Institute on Disability calls it “a disability genocide.”¹
Justice: When we’re talking about the risk people face in institutions, we also need to think about people in jails and prisons, because many of them have a disability or mental health considerations. Rather than providing comprehensive mental health care for everyone, cities often respond to people in mental health crisis by relying on the prison system. They wait until a crime has been committed, and then they just put folks in prison. It’s either that or they end up in the hospital, because no other mental health supports are available.
Abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls this “organized abandonment.”² It’s what happens when the state uses increased policing and increased criminalization to cover up the cracks in our social infrastructure. We’re seeing more and more jails, prisons, and police taking on roles that should belong to social services and mental health care. More and more resources get devoted to policing and prisons, and that means community services, safe housing, reliable jobs, access to healthy food — all these resources start to disappear from our communities. In this kind of situation, it’s not just individuals in institutions who get forgotten and left without sufficient support or protections. Entire communities get abandoned.
Julia: Justice, that’s such a powerful recognition, thank you.
We’ve been talking about how important it is to recognize the way ableism, racism, poverty, and other kinds of structural violence mean disabled people face more intense risks of harm – both on an everyday basis and especially in crisis situations,
But I want to turn to another aspect of your work, the way you lift up the expertise and the insights that disabled people have for navigating crisis. All too often, that gets overlooked.
Justice: Black, Indigenous, people of color with disabilities have been doing this work for decades. Some of us don’t have an organization attached to our name, some of us don’t have a formal affiliation, but the work that we have done has literally saved each other’s lives.
Mr. David across the street may not be an academic, he may not be a researcher, he may not be involved with a particular organization, but he damn sure knows how to help the disabled people on his block, because he’s been doing it for the last 13 years.
So often, government officials and charitable organizations say that they want to center Black voices, but then they come in with a checklist of things they deem most important, as well as a long list of conditions we need to fulfill in order to receive support.
I want organizations led by people of color with disabilities to get the resources and the support they need to be able to just do the work – in the ways that they deem right. And the best way to provide that aid is direct monetary transfer, because people can then make their own decisions about how to invest that money. They can determine their own priorities, not just for getting beyond the current crisis, but also in terms of their long-term recovery.
Julia: That feels so important, because it gives power and agency to the communities who’ve been most directly affected by disaster. Disabled people of color need to be the ones who shape how that recovery unfolds and who determine what it’s going to look like.
Justice: One of the things we have to ask is: Who determines the metrics of success? What does that look like for communities? A government official might have an entirely different definition of recovery after a disaster than what I prioritize as a blind Black woman.
Success looks different to me. Success looks like community members back in their homes. Success looks like our churches are open. Success looks like walking to the corner store again. No debris in the area, so people using walkers and wheelchairs can maneuver safely. If you’re an official looking at a spreadsheet or judging by the numbers, you see success in an entirely different way.
Julia: When you work with fire departments and first responders, you encourage them to build connections with local disability communities, to build partnerships with disability organizations and with disabled people in their own neighborhoods.
Justice: Exactly. Instead of sitting there trying to hypothesize about what it’s like to be blind, you could just bring me in and have me navigate the building. Have me test out the alarm system. Ask me questions. “How does this work for you? Is that intuitive for you?”
Bring folks in as the experts that they are and recognize the value of our lived experiences.
Julia: That’s so crucial. And I feel like it’s also really important that you’re talking about recognizing many different experts, many different kinds of lived experiences. Disability isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience.
Justice: Sometimes people think I have all of the disability answers! I once had a firefighter ask me, “Where should we be looking for individuals with autism, when they wander?” Now I live in DC. He’s somewhere in the northeast, in Connecticut maybe. I don’t know anything about the area where he lives! I said to him, “There are some basic things I can tell you, that folks often congregate near bodies of water, because the sound and sight of water can be quite calming. But you’ve got to talk with Autistic people in your area. They can tell you so much more. Have you gone with them? Have you invited them to ride along with you and point out different areas in the community that might be good spots to look for kids?”
I want them to make those local connections. I want to help them build up relationships with people in their own community. Working directly with people with disabilities is always going to be your golden ticket.
Julia: That kind of sustained, meaningful collaboration feels absolutely vital, but it’s so rare in practice.
Justice: Disabled people are always being erased from the narrative. We are consistently being stuffed into stereotypes. We are viewed as people in a perpetual state of vulnerability. We’re not seen as protectors. We’re not seen as responders. We’re not seen as the dreamers, and we’re not seen as the doers, so we’re not seen as the decision makers. We’re not seen as the folks who have a real and significant impact on what long-term recovery can be.
Every now and again, we do get recognized as storytellers. Those stories have power. There is power in the things that we have lived through and in the ways we have lived through them. But that power has to be transformed into actual decision making authority. Because otherwise it becomes a very extractive endeavor.
When organizations set up listening sessions, or when they host community meetings, they take our stories. Maybe they use them for a report or for some sort of bulletin. But is that going to have the most optimal impact for you, the storyteller? For the community that you live in? I think not. We have to make sure that the storytellers are also the decision makers.
Julia: That’s such an important caution. It isn’t enough to just hear people’s voices. It’s about shifting the power dynamics so that the people who are most directly affected by crisis situations have the resources to make decisions on behalf of their communities.
But power dynamics don’t shift easily. I wonder if we can talk more about the kind of work it takes to make change on the ground. How has that played out for you, in your work as an advocate for fire safety?
Justice: A few years ago, I noticed that there weren’t fire extinguishers in my apartment building. I walked through the building and I put my hands on the wall, but I couldn’t feel one anywhere. So I asked my neighbor, and she said, “No. There’s none.” So I took it on myself to do the advocacy to get a fire extinguisher in every single unit in this building.
I think that story speaks to the importance of having somebody with a disability living in your community. Because we’ve had to learn to advocate as a means of survival. I’m not going to be the quickest one out of this building, so I want all the tools at my disposal. I want the fire extinguishers. I want the smoke alarms working. I want to do whatever I can to buy myself a bit more time, to give myself the best fighting chance. The difference between a problem and a crisis is time.
Julia: That’s such a powerful story, in part because it really flips the usual way people think about disability in crisis. It’s your own disability experience – your own advocacy skills – that end up enhancing the safety of your entire building.
Justice: Exactly. But there’s also something else I want to name. While disabled people bring essential skills to our communities, we shouldn’t have to “earn” our safety. As people with disabilities, we don’t always need to be doing something to validate our existence or our presence.
The other day, I was listening to the book Black Joy by Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts, and I was struck by a question she asked. She said, “What if God doesn’t want to use you? What if God just wants to be with you?”³
It stopped me in my tracks. It’s so easy to get caught in that trap of trying to prove yourself worthy. Maybe if I show how useful I am, they’ll believe that I deserve to live. Maybe if I talk to enough people, they’ll remember that I’m in this building and someone will help me get out.
But that’s a false premise. You don’t have to earn your rescue. People with disabilities don’t need to do something to validate our existence. We can just be. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be a part of these conversations. But even if we’re not, we still deserve to be safe. We still deserve to be treated with dignity. We still deserve to get the assistance that we need.
² To learn more about abolition and organized abandonment, see Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s podcast with The Intercept. June 10, 2020: https://theintercept.com/2020/06/10/ruth-wilson-gilmore-makes-the-case-for-abolition/, or read Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. (University of California Press, 2007). On the implications for health care, see Zahra H. Khan, Yoshiko Iwai, and Sayantani DasGupta, “Abolitionist Reimaginings of Health.” AMA Journal of Ethics. March 2022. https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/abolitionist-reimaginings-health/2022-03
³ Lewis-Giggetts attributes these questions to Cole Arthur Riley of Black Liturgies, who posted them on Instagram during Lent 2021. Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts, Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration. (Simon and Schuster, 2022), 122.
“Racial Justice and Disability Disaster Response: Recognizing Root Causes and the Cost of Chronic Crisis– Justice Shorter in conversation with Julia Watts Belser.” Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. July 1, 2022.
Curated and edited by Carrie McDonald, Olivia Noreke, Joanne Stirrup, Elisabeth Wachtel, and Julia Watts Belser
Photo Credit: Tina Pinedo
Image Description: A portrait of Justice Shorter, a Black woman wearing black sunglasses, smiling at the camera. She’s wearing a dark professional jacket, with a pale lavender dress shirt. She’s sitting in an urban courtyard with skyscrapers in the background.