“We Are Family, Caretakers, Leaders; We are not Disposable.” Interview with Dessa Cosma of Detroit Disability Power

Dessa Cosma ED of Detroit Disability Power sits in front of bright mural painted on brick wall
“Saying ‘nobody panic. It’s just those [older or disabled] people’ was super problematic, not only because many of us are those people and we have a right to health care and all of the other things needed to survive, but also because we are loved by many people. We are the family members of people. We are the caretakers of people. We are the teachers of people. We are the leaders of other people. We’re not disposable.” – Dessa Cosma, Detroit Disability Power

Dear Catalyst Community,

Last week it was my deep honor to get to talk with 2019 Braden alum Dessa Cosma. Check out the transcript and video below where Dessa lifts up inspiring organizing in Detroit and beyond and offers powerful insights on rejecting disposability politics.

Dessa is the Executive Director of Detroit Disability Power, an organization founded to help bridge the gap between organizing in the disability community and other social justice organizing. Dessa was recently appointed by the governor of Michigan to the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.

(Please excuse the poor video quality–it wasn’t a good internet day, but it is powerful to hear Dessa in her own words).

With love and solidarity,

Donna Willmott on behalf of Catalyst Project


Donna Willmott: Welcome Dessa! Let’s jump right into the moment we’re in.The COVID 19 pandemic has revealed so much about whose lives are considered disposable in this society. Can you talk about disposability politics in the midst of this crisis?

Dessa Cosma: One of the first things that happened as this pandemic swept the nation was the conversation around who would be hardest hit by this. There was a jump to a conversation of “it’s just going to be older people and people who are already sick.”

By framing it this way–for some people subtle, for some people very blatant–there was the idea that it was okay if older people, sick people, disabled people are taken out by this thing because those folks are weaker, those folks are less important, those people are less vital in our communities – that was the subtext. 

Saying “nobody panic. It’s just those people” was super problematic, not only because many of us are those people and we have a right to health care and all of the other things needed to survive, but also because we are loved by many people. We are the family members of people. We are the caretakers of people. We are the teachers of people. We are the leaders of other people. We’re not disposable. 

A friend and I were having a conversation and she said “just imagine if we lost all of our elders. What a tragedy if we lost all of them or just a big chunk of them went missing because of all of this.” And it was sad how countercultural care for elders felt in that moment. It felt like older people, sick people, disabled people were this “necessary” casualty of the pandemic or this expected casualty of the pandemic.

In a certain kind of thinking — a utilitarian, capitalist, individualist mindset that we have in the US so often — that logic does make sense. In that framework people who are less able to have their labor commodified are more disposable. I just disagree with that value system. I think it’s really wrong. As a disability organizer, a person with a disability, the first thing we started doing, we began pushing back on this narrative that it’s okay to sacrifice some people for other people.

In many states there were medical protocols and rationing guidelines that specifically discriminated against people with certain types of disabilities. That’s illegal. I think it’s immoral. It’s certainly ableist.

Thankfully there have been legal fights against that. But in many states like Michigan where I live, the guidance is actually still pretty vague. And so when a disabled person or a person with chronic illness in Michigan reads the medical protocols, we all get nervous, thinking “would I get treatment? If I went into the hospital would I be one of the people who got a ventilator?” We’ve been advocating here for an executive order that clearly states that civil rights are non-negotiable even in a crisis. 

DW: In addition to advocating for policy changes, what kind of on the ground efforts are being made to make sure that people know what they’re able to fight for? 

DC: It’s been actually really awesome the way the disability community across the country has come together to educate each other and others about what rights we do have in the face of these kinds of disposability policies. Every day there’s an awesome webinar or panel from brilliant and intersectional disability justice thinkers about how we can organize and what the laws are and how we can take care of each other even outside the role of government.

I’ve been really impressed about the ways those conversations are about disability but in relation to other identities that people have — as low income people or people of color or immigrants or incarcerated people. Just really tying these issues together, knowing that people are facing disposability policies from multiple angles and sometimes many at the same time.

Locally, a group of about 110 social justice organizations from around the state signed onto a pretty radical letter to the state government about our demands on this time. Everything from a moratorium on evictions, to a rent strike, to making sure no one has their utilities or water shut off, all sorts of things. These are groups that often know each other in pockets but have never come together to kind of work together on a campaign. It’s been really positive.

Right now we’re working together to make sure that our state doesn’t re-open prematurely. You may have seen these right wing protests that happened in Michigan last week that were really disturbing and demanding that the government open up for the sake of business. We are one of the hardest hit states. Detroit in particular, where I live is one of the hardest hit cities. To reopen the state right now would be so irresponsible and so dangerous–particularly for people with underlying health issues or for people who are more vulnerable to sickness and death. But really it’s irresponsible to everyone. 

It’s very frustrating to me that these folks who have been protesting in Lansing and wanting to reopen the state don’t seem to understand how connected we are and don’t seem to care that there have been 2,500 people in Michigan dying in the last month and over 30,000 people sick.

This group of 110 social justice organizations has been pushing back to our legislature with a campaign telling them not to reopen the state. We’re focusing that in many different ways: for the sake of incarcerated people, for the sake of low income people, for the sake of disabled people, for the sake of workers. 

DWSo many of us are feeling emphatically that we don’t want to go back to normal. The old normal was really problematic; we want something really different to come out of this. We need a really bold agenda that will bring us closer to the world we want, a world built on justice and equity. What you’re pointing to is so important, the need for intersectional cross-movement approaches that really deepen those bonds of solidarity. 

Could you talk a little bit more from your organizing experience in Detroit about the racial disparities before the pandemic and how it’s been exacerbated in this period of time?

DC: Detroit is a city that is upwards of 85% African American and has a long history of Black leadership and civil rights work. We also unfortunately have a long history of segregation and disinvestment by the state.

Detroit went through bankruptcy about 7 years ago and the depth of poverty here that has been caused by disinvestment and racism is really intense. We have had 100,000 people without running water over the last few years. It’s really hard to stop the spread of a disease if you don’t have running water in that many households.

The combination of lack of resources, stable housing, lack of utilities, lack of health care means we really were primed for something like this to hit really hard. Additionally, the folks who are essential workers here in Detroit, the bus drivers, the police officers, grocery store workers–those are mostly African American people. The very people who are keeping our society going and putting themselves at risk are then getting Covid and some of them are dying. 

And right around the time that we started to really clearly see the racial disparity is when a lot of white conservative folks started to say it was time to go back to work. It just makes it so clear who they think is valuable and who they think are their people and who they think is expendable.

DWI’m wondering if you’ve seen any other organizing efforts that have inspired you in this pandemic?

DC: Two things that come to mind. We just hit the 6th anniversary of the Flint water being switched over to the system that ended up sickening and killing lots of people. There’s been organizing for a long time and it’s unfathomable to me that the powers that be have been unable to say that water is a human right. And yet when this pandemic hit there was an executive order that was pushed for by these same water activists to ensure that all of the water was turned back on. So while the jury is still out if the state is following through on that, that was years of organizing that was able to culminate in the crisis to basically force the state to acknowledge that water is necessary for all people.

And secondly, I’ve been inspired by work done by prison abolitionists to get people out of jail and prison, that has been really remarkable to see. Reminding people who weren’t already aware of the humanity of people who are incarcerated and how vulnerable they are in these times, but also the ability to actually get people out. It shows that it can be done if there’s willpower to do it and that’s been also really inspiring.

[Dessa lifted up Detroit Justice Center and Michigan Liberation as two organizations that have been working hard on these issues.]

DW: Are there particular ways that people who are in solidarity with the disability community can show up at this moment?  

DC: This sounds like not a very big action, but I think it’s important. When there’s a conversation that’s going on about reopening our state or economy and there’s a tone to the conversation that it’s only vulnerable people who are at risk or it’s only elderly or sick people at risk, really pushing back on them and asking them what they think it means. I spent a lot of time at the beginning of this trying to think about non-disabled people and what they were picturing, who they were picturing when they were thinking about this necessary disposable population.

Like, were they picturing their grandmother? Were they picturing their disabled neighbor? Were they picturing their friend on dialysis? Who is this unnamed group of people who it’s okay for them to get sick and die so the rest of us can get back with our lives?

It’s really important that people understand what their health care rationing protocols are where they live and who decided who gets a ventilator or who gets treatment, or even who gets a test.  Looking into that and starting conversations about it.

As we’re seeing states roll out plans for greater testing and for being in this for the long haul which it looks like we will be, really pressuring people who have decision making power, to have proactively disability inclusive plans. Right now we’re still fighting to make sure there’s closed captioning and American Sign Language on all the press conferences from the health department.  We need to go beyond that to a place where the governors and the teams they’re rolling out are actually consulting with the disability communities to see what are the things that we need that may be different than what other people need. But, if we’re not considered in those plans, it’s a guarantee that we’ll fall through the cracks, particularly in a crisis, because we fall through the cracks even on a good day a lot of the time.

People with disabilities have been having to navigate an ablelist culture forever and it’s hard. We’ve gained a lot of really important skills from having to do that and those are skills that are particularly useful right now.

Really understanding interdependence, really knowing how to ask for help, being flexible and adaptable, being patient, being problem solvers.Those are things required of disabled people all the time because things are designed without us in mind. And in this time of the pandemic, everyone is being required to be creative problem solvers, and patient and adaptable and flexible.

DW: Any other closing thoughts? 

DC: Please send your positive energy to Detroit. We’ve got amazing people here and a lot of folks are struggling. And we’re doing everything we can to take care of each other.

DW: Thank you so much, Dessa. And thank you so much for your leadership and everything that you bring to these movements.


PS – UPDATE from Dessa and Detroit Disability Power – important WIN in Michigan: “After weeks of intensive organizing, we are excited and relieved to announce that Michiganders with Disabilities have greater protection from discrimination if/when healthcare is rationed during the COVID-19 crisis. Yesterday, Governor Whitmer signed an executive order to affirm anti-discrimination policies and ensure that health care providers develop equitable access to care protocols. This is 100% a result of the intentional, strategic, and persistent organizing done by many disability organizations and activists around the state.

“Detroit Disability Power staff and supporters have been working tirelessly to ensure equitable care delivery. We have authored and co-authored several letters to top officials in the Governor’s office calling for an executive order, had almost 900 supporters send individual emails echoing these requests, published an op-ed and garnered media attention on the issue, and brought up the importance of protecting disability community during this crisis to anyone who would listen. This was a team effort.”