Founder and Conference Co-Organizer
Dr. Baiyina W. Muhammad
My initial engagement with Black disabled communities is rooted in an early childhood experience. My mother worked as a laundress for North Jersey Developmental Center (NJDC) and as a grassroots community organizer in Paterson, New Jersey. While working at NJDC, she formed a bond with several young Black women institutionalized at the center. One such person was Pattie Leake, a young adult Black woman who lived with an intellectual disability. Interacting with Pattie helped to sharpen my mother's views about the necessity of de-institutionalization, inspiring her to help Pattie depart from NJDC and live as a capable, informed citizen. My mother believed that Pattie and other Black disabled people deserved to live a life more fully, and it would not be achieved while living inside an institution.
Furthermore, my mother regularly emphasized that humanity extends beyond a person's ability and is all-encompassing. She attempted to adopt Pattie but was denied because our humble home was not deemed suitable. My parents had six children, and the state determined that we did not have enough space for one more. However, the court's rejection did not deter my mother; later, she established off-campus weekend home visits for Pattie to stay with us. When Pattie came to our home, my mom placed me in charge of her care. As such, I became her little sister. We went to the park together, we worked on self-help skills, and I baked her birthday cake every year that she was with us. Eventually, my mother was able to find Pattie a home with a Black family that lived in another town, thus, ending our weekends together. I was a pre-teen then and ill-equipped with the language to adequately articulate my curiosity about what life was like for a Black disabled young woman. Still, the experience of being in community with Pattie left an impression on me, which materialized later in my adult life.
When I became a mother to four sons, two of whom would later be diagnosed with autism and other co-occurring conditions, I had already been introduced to the lived experience of Black disabled people because of Pattie. Becoming a mother just added another layer to that commitment to struggle with and for Black people. Raising two disabled sons has made me keenly aware of the dual challenge of being Black and disabled. I had to learn how to navigate systems that were not designed to serve the needs of my Black sons across an array of structures, including healthcare, childcare, public education, recreation, housing, employment, and transportation. I also began to see the connection between the practice of anti-Black racism and ableism. Viewed together, I began to recognize how systemic inequities created a web of disenfranchisement for my children to become self-determined individuals as well as a unique set of challenges that impact other Black parents and caregivers. Thus, the idea of establishing the North Carolina Black Disabilities Network became the catalyst for my plan to make an impact at a larger structural level.
For me, the pursuit of advanced training was not solely for professional gain but also for personal motivation. In 2015, I completed post-graduate work earning the Autism Certificate through the Department of Special Education at East Carolina University. While completing the certificate program at ECU, I served a year-long fellowship in Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disorders (LEND) at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at UNC-Chapel Hill. The fellowship allowed me to sharpen my leadership skills while gaining greater insight into the connection between race, disabilities, and public policy. Being a LEND fellow was a transformative experience because of the program’s unique interdisciplinary focus on clinical and community-based services to disabled people and their families. The training is structured to bring together a wide range of academic disciplines and includes parents and self-advocates. As a result, my understanding of the nuances surrounding the vast range of intellectual and developmental disabilities, state-level services, and the integration of family and community needs grew tremendously. I left the LEND fellowship even more committed to amplifying the voices and experiences of Black disabled people working to assert their humanity in a society that has historically rendered them invisible.
Currently, I am near completion of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at North Carolina State University (MALS), which provides the option to self-design a concentration fostered in developing an interdisciplinary, multi-pronged approach to dealing with real-world issues. The MALS program allows me to bring together my passion and interests in the interconnectedness of race and disability. I believe further academic knowledge and training, coupled with the two decades of experience I have as an activist-mother, have prepared me to create and lead the North Carolina Black Disabilities Network that will bring together others committed to improving the life experiences of Black disabled people and supporting the people who love them.
The North Carolina Black Disabilities Network is critical because, to date, it is the first of its kind to exist in the southeast. It seeks to bring the issues of better services, access, and implementation together in a way that will allow stakeholders to gain new perspectives and to build Black futures that leave no one behind, especially those who are Black and disabled.
Presently, I am an associate professor of history at North Carolina Central University. I teach courses on global Black experiences, Black women's history, and special topics courses that explore race, class, and gender. In addition to teaching students at NCCU, I have taught at N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. I also serve as a member of several community organizations. I am prepared, committed, and passionate about leading this charge to center the needs and to improve the experiences of Black disabled citizens in NC. I am grateful for your support.