10 Questions

From neurodiversity awareness to autism activism, this disability justice advocate fights for the rights of the marginalized

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Photo of Lydia X. Z. Brown by Adam Glanzman.

Autistic, Asian, nonbinary. Advocate, activist, organizer. Writer, speaker, educator, lawyer. Lydia X.Z. Brown is all of those things but also this: a force of nature. Brown wrote and introduced legislation on developmental disabilities training for law enforcement in Massachusetts, co-founded the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective and co-organized a protest outside the Food and Drug Administration campus in Maryland against the use of electric shock aversives for behavioral modification on autistic and other developmentally disabled people.

Brown, who prefers the pronoun “they,” has written for scholarly publications and co-edited an anthology of writing by autistic people of color. They serve as co-chair of the ABA Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice’s Disability Rights and Elder Affairs Committee. Brown also serves as the co-director of a project on algorithmic fairness and disability rights at Georgetown University Law Center and as an adjunct lecturer of disability studies. They have been honored by the Obama White House, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and Pacific Standard magazine, which named Brown a Top Thinker Under 30 in the social and behavioral sciences. Brown turns 27 this summer.

When we were scheduling this conversation, one of the proposed times didn’t work because you said you would be visiting a jail. Do you have an incarcerated client?

No, I am not currently practicing, though I am hoping to take on some pro bono cases soon. I was there with a senior staff member of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, speaking together with imprisoned people there in a class on neurodiversity and disability justice.

You did practice law, though, while you were a Justice Catalyst fellow at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, right? Tell me about that.

In that position, I was directly representing Maryland students with disabilities who were experiencing varying types of school pushout, disproportionate discipline and criminalization.

You founded and now help direct the Fund for Community Reparations for Autistic People of Color’s Interdependence, Survival, and Empowerment. What does the fund do, and how is it financed?

In June 2018, I received an award from the American Association of People with Disabilities that came with funding, so I used that money to seed the fund. We combined that money with about $1,500, which were the proceeds from the anthology All the Weight of Our Dreams. In the first two months, all that money was gone. Since then, funds have come primarily from community members—from small amounts donated by people who themselves are likely to be unemployed, underemployed or precariously employed. [Grant recipients] use the money for rent, missed utility payments, therapy, meds, tuition, books, escaping abuse, an outfit to wear to a job interview—literally anything imaginable. It’s great that there’s a place for people to ask for money for their needs, but it’s horrifying that people in our community are constantly in crisis.

Is it gratifying to be able to provide such critical assistance in times of crisis?

I wouldn’t say it’s gratifying. I don’t take pleasure in other people’s suffering. The fact that this fund exists is evidence that our society is f—– beyond repair, and that is about as polite as I can be about that.

Did you grow up knowing you were autistic, or was it something that you were diagnosed with later?

I always knew I was weird compared to other kids, but I wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until I was 13. A lot of people conceptualize autism as a linear spectrum going from high-functioning to low-functioning, but that’s unscientific and unhelpful, because it doesn’t reflect our reality. Autism is a constellation of many experiences. Every individual autistic person has different limitations and abilities that fluctuate throughout our lives.

How did that diagnosis become part of your journey to disability justice activism?

I first became connected with the autistic community in high school after being told for many years that autistic people were broken and needed to be fixed. When I was a young adult, I found out there was a whole community of autistic adults who were proud of who they were and found this to be integral to who they were—they didn’t believe they were inherently defective. The prevailing narrative in our society is that disability is bad, and it should be hidden or made to disappear. The quest for autistic people is one for civil rights and social justice, and that was incredibly empowering for me and how I started to connect with cross-movement and cross-community activism.

Did you always know law school would be the next stage in your activism?

I am not one of those people who always wanted to go to law school. If you’d asked me up to my sophomore year of college, I would have said, “Over my dead body.” But what I realized was that I had done an enormous amount of work in a number of spheres—policy, cultural work, direct action, direct support, advocacy—but the only thing I really couldn’t do was the kind of work a lawyer is able to do. I mean anything from a scary lawyer letter to long-term legal work like developing a class action. That work can be supported or galvanized by people who are not lawyers, but I knew it would be helpful to have that credential and that toolset to bring to my communities.

As a nonbinary person, have you ever experienced any prejudice or ignorance about your gender?

Once, when I was a student practitioner, I was in front of a judge in court, and he couldn’t figure out whether to call me sir or ma’am, so he switched between them. I just tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. Because I was a student, I didn’t feel comfortable saying something in open court to a judge. This is just one of many incidents stemming from people’s harmful and inaccurate assumptions about gender. For the record, the gender-neutral alternative to Mr. or Ms. is Mx. [pronounced “mix”], but one of the great things about being in the legal profession is that it’s perfectly appropriate in many contexts to be referred to as “attorney” or “counselor.” It’s gender-neutral—you’re never wrong!

You have achieved so much in your life—you’re a lawyer, you’ve won myriad awards, you have an amazing job and you recently got married. Do you ever feel like you are a role model for the younger generation of people across the autistic, nonbinary and Asian American communities?

I know I have accomplished many things, but the reality is, this is one of the insidious ways that ableism works in our society. Ableism tells us we are only valuable in society if we can achieve specific things like having a relationship, a degree or a job. I shouldn’t be admired or respected because of a job or my education or my relationship status. I should be judged by my personality, my character and whether I have done right by people.

I get that your achievements are the types that society typically values, but you don’t think your journey is inspiring?

It’s a very common narrative in our society that disabled people succeed despite disability when really, we succeed despite ableism. There are plenty of disabled people who are just as thoughtful, determined and committed as me who did not achieve the same things because of ableism, racism or classism. I am very privileged to be doing the things I want to do with my life, and many people don’t have that privilege.

This article was originally published in the April/May 2020 issue under the headline, “Able to Lead: From neurodiversity awareness to autism activism, this disability justice advocate fights for the rights of the marginalized.”

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