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UW’s Dr. Sami Schalk digs into unexplored intersections in new book, Black Disability Politics


As a women’s studies major at Miami University, Sami Schalk needed an elective to round out her schedule. A course called “Women and Disabilities” fit her schedule.

“I had never thought really about disability critically before,” she told Madison365 in an interview last week. “I had never considered much about it at all. And it just absolutely blew my mind, the class blew my mind. And I got really invested in learning more about disability studies.”

So invested, in fact, that she went on to earn a PhD in gender studies from Indiana University — focusing on disability studies in her dissertation — and join the faculty at the University of Wisconsin in 2017.

“I came to UW because of the strength of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department, and because they already had folks working in disability studies,” she said. “That was really exciting for me, as a disability studies scholar, to know that I would be able to come here, and teach classes in disability studies.”

Throughout her career as a disabilities studies scholar, and as a Black woman, she noticed some disconnects.

“As an undergraduate student, I noticed that the things that I was reading in my disability studies classes were pretty white,” she said. “Even if they talked about race, it was often white scholars and race was pretty limited in the texts that we were reading. And then I was taking these women’s studies classes, in particular, a Black feminist theory class, where I saw disability showing up in some of the things we were talking about. Black women writing about experiences with lupus, experiences with medical racism. That had to do with disability, but no one was talking about disability in the way that I saw happening in disability studies. So pretty early on I became interested in, ‘why is this happening? How do I bring these things together?’”

Now a tenured associate professor at UW, Dr. Schalk recently put the finishing touches on her second book, Black Disability Politics, set to be published by Duke University Press on October 31.

The book will be on sale at bookstores nationwide, but also available for free download at the end of the month.

The book explores the intersection of Black liberation movements and the disability rights movement through historical examples: namely, the Black Panther Party’s involvement in a long sit-in for disability rights in San Francisco in the 1970s and the National Black Women’s Health Project’s activism on health and wellness equity in the 1980s. It also looks at current movements like the Movement for Black Lives through the eyes of 11 activists Schalk interviewed for the book.

Schalk said many movements overlap and help support each other’s work.

“What I hope my book does is kind of illuminate one corner of the connections,” she said. “I’m illuminating the connections here between Black Liberation work and Disability Justice work. And those movements also overlap with all these other movements. And I hope that other people come in and highlight how those areas particularly come together.”

One clear-cut example is the Black Panther Party’s support of what became known as the “504 sit-ins,” protests by disabled people demanding the approval of Section 504 of the 1973 Disability Rights Act, which would eventually outlaw discrimination against disabled people. Protests happened all over the country, including in San Francisco, where the Black Panther Party was headquartered. The BPP provided not only moral support but food and other material support for the disabled people occupying a government building for nearly a month. Additionally, the Black Panther, the party’s newspaper, carried a number of articles about the protests, which were distributed in the newspaper nationally to Black Panther Party members.

“(The BPP) were part of this coalition of folks, of radical, progressive, liberation-oriented groups that got together to support one another,” Schalk said. “And the paper is significant, because it had the most coverage of this protest that had national distribution. It set up Black folks to understand disability rights as integral to larger liberation work and understanding disabled people as an oppressed people.”

One thing Schalk noted in her research, especially in conversation with Black disabled activists, is that the definition of “disabled,” and who identifies as “disabled,” might need some reconsideration.

“Within Disability Justice work, we’re not basing our understanding of disability identity on the legal parameters of who gets SSI or gets benefits from the state. Our understanding of disabilities is not defined by the state or the medical establishment, but in the ways that bodymind differences are marginalized, and devalued, and our world and not accommodated,” she said.

She said she didn’t identify as a disabled person for most of her life, despite dealing with anxiety, depression and chronic pain.

“I do identify as a disabled person, but I have not always, even though I’ve had disabilities for a very long time,” she said. “And honestly researching this book was one of the reasons that I started to claim disability more explicitly and more prominently.”

Thinking specifically about Black disabled people, Schalk said it’s important to consider the origin of those disabilities.

“When we think about how Black folks tend to become disabled, it is less likely that folks are disabled at birth, or by some sort of genetic condition, but it’s often because of forms of violence,” she said. In fact, a section of the book examines the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha police officer in August 2020 and the fact that he was paralyzed from the waist down. But it’s not all about guns, she said.

“I use ‘violence’ very broadly,” she said. “It’s state neglect, medical racism. So we know that Black folks with diabetes are more likely to have a foot or limb amputated than white folks with diabetes because of lack of access to quality care, early detection, things like that.”

Black disability politics is an area of scholarship not very well-explored, but Schalk hope this book serves as an invitation to other scholars and activists.

“I wanted to just be part of the beginning of a conversation,” she said. “There’s no way for me to handle this. On my own, I don’t have the expertise to do that. What I want to do is to establish (that) this is a thing that has a history that we’ve been doing, that we can learn from, come help me do that.”

Schalk said the “politics” in the title refers to social movements and activism more than elected politics or government policy.

“I’m not a policy person … I’m a theory person and I’m a researcher. I can create an early knowledge base that hopefully we can collectively build off of. It’s about building that collective knowledge,” she said.

Schalk said she’s already thinking about her next project, which will take a look at quite a different topic.

“The pandemic really changed the course of my academic life, I don’t know that I will ever go back to quite the same traditional academic writing,” she said. Her next project will look into “pleasure activism” and the creation of “pleasure spaces” – dance parties, clubs, hobby groups and so on –  for multiply marginalized people.“Folks who make spaces for Black women, for queer and trans people of color, and interviewing them about the intent behind the spaces, how they make the spaces safe for folks, and trying to understand how these kinds of spaces are also beneficial to our world and our politics,” she said.

Black Disability Politics can be ordered from Duke University Press now and will be available for free download after October 31.