I naively viewed my daughter's quirks tied to her disability as a shield for her against racism or police brutality. But after Elijah McClain's death, I am planning to have the difficult conversation not knowing how much she will understand.

By Adiba Nelson
July 07, 2020
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The author's daughter, right, with a friend.
Idalia Alicea

Eleven years ago, my daughter was diagnosed with bilateral schizencephaly and cerebral palsy, conditions that greatly impact her motor skills and her speech. For a moment, after hearing the doctor’s diagnosis, I thought about all the childhood experiences that were being taken from her—cheerleading, dance classes, sports.

Never once did I think about her life being taken away because the color of her skin paired with the unpredictability of her body movements would mean she was resisting arrest. Or that her way of communicating could be seen as a threat. Never once did it cross my mind that her need to bundle up more than the average person in cold weather would make her seem suspicious.

Then, last August, Elijah McClain was killed by police while walking home. He was wearing headphones and a black ski mask (to keep him warm due to him being anemic), and someone called the police stating that a “suspicious person” was in the neighborhood. When police reached him, he was unarmed and had not committed a crime, yet they tackled him, put him in a chokehold, and placed a knee in his back. The officers then called paramedics who injected him with ketamine upon arrival, and a few days later, he was dead.

Other Black children have been killed by police before Elijah, and I have wept every time. But, I thought my own child was safe. Police were not killing disabled Black kids, I thought. I naively viewed her disability as a shield. Sure, she is a Black girl, but she’s a disabled Black girl. They’ll be kind to her, I told myself. They’ll be patient with her. They’ll see her beautiful face, that twinkle in her eye, her sweet spirit and see that she is love personified. They’ll protect her.

But Elijah McClain was like my daughter—though it has not been formally confirmed that he had a disability, he was an introvert and a gentle soul. Like my daughter, he sometimes avoided physical contact. Like my daughter, Elijah was loving and kind and knew he was different. How naïve I have been. How naïve I am.                                                                                        

I have not had “the talk” with my daughter because I haven’t wanted to scare her, and I have no way of knowing just how much of what I have to say she’ll understand. This child of mine is the brightest light in whatever room she enters, and I wanted to keep it that way. But the world, these murders, life, is forcing my hand. In trying to preserve her life, I am inadvertently and selfishly withholding tools that can save her life. According to a 2016 report by the nonprofit disability inclusion organization the Ruderman Family Foundation, roughly half of all people killed by police have a disability, and those who are Black and disabled are at even greater risk

How do I have this talk without breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably in front of my highly empathic child? My child, who bursts into tears when there’s a sad scene in a movie and who yelled “no!” at the top of her lungs, burying her face in my arm when she caught a glimpse of the interaction between Rayshard Brooks and the police officer that ended his life on the news.

Even as a Black parent who is also an advocate for disability rights, equity, and inclusion, I’m at a loss for what to say. Asaia Fraser, co-author of the forthcoming children’s book On My Daddy’s Shoulders and paraprofessional who works with children with disabilities, says she had this exact conversation with her students last month when George Floyd was murdered.  

Fraser says when it comes to discussing police brutality and racism with neurodivergent children, honesty is the best policy. Do not sugarcoat the information, but do be mindful of children’s individual level of understanding, she says. “Understanding within disability is not a one-size-fits-all type of thing,” she says. “Tailor your talk to your child’s level of understanding, knowing that children, when spoken to on their level, understand more than we realize.”

According to Fraser, there’s also no single way to expect kids to respond. “You know your child best, so do what works for your child. If there is silence afterward, be okay with that silence,” she says. “It allows them time to process everything you’ve talked about. Be in a place where you feel well-grounded and your child will feel that too.” In Fraser’s experience, neurodivergent children express in their own way that they understand. They also already understand, for the most part, what it means to be different. 

It is a lot, this talk I have to have, but I will be truthful with my daughter. I will teach her how to advocate for herself, more than she already does, in a safe way. I’ll have this conversation with my own daughter knowing that there is truly no perfectly “safe way” for disabled Black people to interact with the police. Elijah McClain told officers that he’s “a mood Gemini,” doesn’t kill insects, doesn’t eat meat, is sorry for throwing up, and he forgives the officers—even as they were slowly killing him. He wasn’t my child, but he could have been. 

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