When Lydia Brown asked audience members if they understand what disability rights are and if they know the difference between disability rights and disability justice only about six or seven people out of the 42 present raised their hands.
Brown then asked the audience what words they associate with these topics. Some associated mental health with “broken,” “diseased” and “hidden” and associated disability with “ableism,” “accommodation,” and “systemic justice.”
Brown asked these questions because of their background as an disability rights activist, writer and public speaker who is on the Autism spectrum. Brown has worked as a policy analyst for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network — a national disability rights organization led by autistic people, which serves students with disabilities throughout the Washington, D.C., area.
The event — organized by Chinese American Student Association, Asian Student Alliance and Students for Disability Advocacy — took place in the William Pitt Union Lower Lounge Sunday. Brown, who identifies as gender non-binary, focused on the topics of disability and discrimination at the mental health advocacy workshop.
“Disability is this concept that we have all encountered at some point. We have witnessed it, we have lived it, we’ve experienced it, we shame it, attempting to hide it as if it doesn’t exist,” Brown said.
Throughout the presentation, Brown emphasized the idea that everyone deserves to be loved and that someone’s worth should not depend on what a person can or cannot do.
“The premise of my idea is that all of us are actually valuable, that we deserve to exist, that we deserve to love and to be loved and to be cared for, and our worth does not depend on whether we can or can’t do work,” Brown said.
They asked the audience how everyone heard of this event, and if they heard of this event because they knew Brown. Brown said people who don’t have the ability to access the internet or people who are not involved with the organizing clubs might not know about the event or be able to have the discussion of what disability means.
“You have the privilege and the resources of social capital. So the question is what can we do moving forward to make sure that more people can have this conversation on disability and mental health, not just people connected to these organizations that know about this talk,” Brown said.
Christine Chau, a junior biology major and one of the organizers of the event, wanted Brown to speak to Pitt students to bring more awareness of mental health and social justice. She also wanted someone who could connect with a variety of students.
“We wanted to have a speaker represent a wide majority of different populations, and we wanted this to be an open space for people who aren’t represented,” Chau said.
Rosalynd Burke, a sophomore nursing major, said she appreciated Brown’s presentation, especially because it gave a new perspective on how some people are mistreated in society.
“I learned that different people have different strengths and abilities. Just because you may look a certain way, it doesn’t mean you don’t have abilities to do certain tasks,” Burke said.
This was the kind of understanding Brown wanted the audience to gain. They wanted to promote a better understanding of what people with disabilities experience in society.
“Disability justice for me is very much getting to a world in which it’s not that I deserve to exist, but I deserve to be loved and to be cared for,” Brown said. “And I hope that is a rule you would like to have also.”