Talila Lewis, founder of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf, spoke about the mass incarceration of disabled individuals at the fourth installment of the Lecture and Performance Series on Disability Monday.

The event featured a presentation on the discrimination and hardship faced by disabled people in prison, but it also focused on the many issues raised by mass incarceration, the privatization of prisons and criminalization of society in relation to race, immigration detention, and undue process of law and wrongful conviction. It included a screening of the Al-Jazeera documentary “Deaf in Prison.”

Around 40 Georgetown students, some of whom are activists in the field of disability rights, attended the event, as well as members of the outside community. Additionally, the event included two sign-language interpreters who translated the entire lecture for deaf members of the audience.

Disability rights activist Lydia Brown (COL ’15) organized the event and said that Lewis’s work has filled a necessary gap in the need for improved prisoner rights.

“Talila is the only person in the nation who has worked on multiple deaf wrongful conviction cases and advocated for hundreds of disabled and deaf prisoners,” Brown said. “[She created HEARD because] there was a gap in services and advocacy specifically for prisoner rights and especially for deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners who face extreme amounts of abuse, discrimination, and other access issues.”

Lewis spoke about the overall defectiveness of America’s incarceration system, which fails to ameliorate widespread issues within prisons.

“Mass incarceration is a system whereby we, instead of addressing group causes of concern and problems within society such as illiteracy, poverty, lack and improper allocation of resources in particular communities, and school discipline issues, subject them to criminalization,” Lewis said.

According to Lewis, people with disabilities are often excluded from discussions about prison systems.

“People who are in prison are, by and large, people of color,” Lewis said. “What we don’t have a discussion on when we talk about mass incarceration is the disproportionate number of people with disabilities in the justice system.”

Lewis emphasized the importance of looking at disability and mass incarceration with an unbiased perspective and encouraged all members of the audience to take steps to get involved.

“It is up to us, people who are free, to advocate on their behalf,” Lewis said. “It’s really invaluable to start having discussions about disability in every realm and walk of life.”

Thomas Massad (COL’17) attended the event, which he found out about through Facebook.

“I thought that it seemed like an interesting topic to cover,” Massad said. “It wasn’t something that I was specifically interested in, but I also know that Lydia does really interesting work and I just wanted to come out and support her.”

Massad said he appreciated that the discussion addressed a variety of topics under the umbrella of the mass incarceration.

“It was focused on a specific topic, but it by no means was limited to that topic and it really branched out into other areas beyond disabilities such as race and LGBTQ identity and addressed their intersectionality,” Massad said.

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