By Jessie Zhang, Disability Justice Organizer
On March 5, 1995, Susana Remerata Blackwell and her two friends, Phoebe Orbiso Dizon and Veronica Laureta Johnson, went to King County Courthouse. While surviving domestic violence and seeking divorce from her abusive husband, Susana was supported by Phoebe and Veronica. Their murders prompted an outpouring of grief and long-lasting changes, including the formation of the API Women and Family Safety Center.
Today, API Chaya serves survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. Deaf and disabled people are disproportionately impacted by these forms of violence and face other abuse like medical abuse and financial abuse. On the other side of the same coin, survivors are becoming disabled by the lasting physical and emotional impact of trauma. In 2015, API Chaya launched the Disability Liberation Project to start a community dialogue on the intersection of disability and gender-based violence. The Disability Liberation Project highlights the value and brilliance of d/Deaf and disabled people while exploring the intersections of disability with domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, communities in Washington experienced collective grief, anxiety, loss, and trauma. Deaf and disabled people were among those most impacted in more ways than one. Suddenly, those who could not work, study, or socialize outside of their homes could attend virtual events that seemed to spring up everywhere. Working from home became the norm that rose out of desperate circumstances to keep the businesses running while people were told to stay home or shelter in place.
For some people with disabilities, the world opened up. They could work and study from home and participate in social activities with their friends, colleagues, and community members — all from the safety of their bed. For many people with disabilities, the world became fraught with violence. They were isolated at home, some with their abusers. They grew anxious when people did not wear masks or socially distance. Some became severely ill with long COVID and some could not recover. The hospitals started incorporating crisis triages in their plans, deprioritizing people with disabilities in crisis care.
Thus, it was in 2021 during the pandemic that the Disability Justice Pod was founded at API Chaya. The Disability Justice Pod, or DJ Pod for short, started as a virtual space for d/Deaf and disabled community members to break isolation, support one another, share stories and skills, and develop an understanding of disability justice. Susana was not alone; she and her unborn baby were supported by Phoebe and Veronica who selflessly provided their time and loving presence to be with her through a traumatic time. 28 years later, Susana’s story still resonates with survivors and supporters. The DJ Pod fosters a sense of community amid a shared understanding and experience of ableism. Through weekly dialogues, people process challenging times, navigate grief, and embark on healing journeys — all within the framework of disability justice that emphasizes wholeness, interdependence, and liberation. Every person brings a new perspective, experience, and story. Already, the space that the community members have cultivated in the Disability Justice Pod has felt sacred and hopeful for a brighter future.