Welcome to the second installment of NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. NPI staff journeyed to Steel City this past week to participate in the nation’s largest annual gathering of progressive activists.
As part of our conference coverage, we’re bringing you a series of conversations with key movement leaders and elected officials.
In this installment of NPI@NN, we’re honored to be joined by Cori Frazer, Executive Director at the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy. Press play below to listen to the audio, or read the transcript below.
Read the transcript
(Note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity)
CAYA: Welcome to NPI at Netroots Nation ‘22, a special limited podcast series from the Northwest Progressive Institute recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! I’m your host, Caya Berndt. We are so glad to have you with us again. For this installment, we are excited to be joined by Cori Frazer from the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy.
Welcome to the podcast, Cori!
CORI: Thank you Caya.
CAYA: Would you mind starting by telling our listeners… tell us about who you are and what you do?
CORI: I’m Cori Frazer; my pronouns are they/them. I am a multiply disabled, non-binary licensed social worker here in Pennsylvania. I am the co-founder and executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy.
I do a lot of work both locally, statewide, and nationally, to address disparities faced by people with disabilities, particularly neurodivergent people, but we have worked with any disabled person who needs basically any kind of support. If we can figure out how to do it, we try and make it happen.
I also do consulting work, justice work, and work with researchers and school districts. However we can use mutual aid and critical and radical social work, and justice frameworks to make the world a more survivable place for disabled folks, we try to do it.
CAYA: What led you into your own advocacy journey? How did you get started on this path?
CORI: I often say the first action that I led was a Day of Silence back in maybe 2007 or 2008 in my rural conservative high school. I was a queer kid, I came out when I was like sixteen, and in a place where people weren’t queer, that’s obviously never…
CAYA: That’s never a fun time.
CORI: So, you know. I figured it out because things weren’t right. And I don’t like it when things aren’t okay and people are being hurt.
And I kind of… I moved away. I moved to Pittsburgh for college and got involved with work with Planned Parenthood. My first year of college was also the year that Occupy happened here in Pittsburgh. I was very involved with campus women’s organization at college. I still identified as a girl. I did a lot of work, sort of around sexual assault on campuses… and I don’t know, a lot of different issues that came up in my life around trans rights.
When the University of Pittsburgh was being sued for expelling a trans student for using the wrong locker room, and they had this policy where trans folks were supposed to present their birth certificate to use the bathroom, like…. I don’t know. My lived experience led me to be involved in a lot of things.
And then, right after college, I was diagnosed with autism.
I really wasn’t in a position to work in the mainstream workforce. It wasn’t something, with my disability, that I was really able to handle.
And coming at that from the same kind of perspective, thinking about power and oppression, I started working with the autistic self-advocacy network to do work here, and as they moved away from a chapter model, I moved into leading my own organization. Well, I say mine, but it’s ours. Our community’s organization to really give autistic people self-determination and a voice here in Pittsburgh.
CAYA: You were part of a panel here at Netroots — it was called “Dobbs and Roe: Queer, Gender-Expansive Visions for Abortion Care.” And in it, you talked about some of the ways that the reproductive rights movement and abortion rights have left disabled people behind. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that has shown up in your work?
CORI: So, La’Tasha Mayes was also part of the panel, and La’Tasha brought up the Hyde Amendment, as well as some of the legislation in Pennsylvania where Republicans in the general assembly have tried to codify that same kind of Hyde Amendment, [where] Medicaid dollars can’t pay for abortion care.
While I think it’s important to recognize that most disabled people get Medicaid, a large piece of that program is there specifically because corporate insurance generally doesn’t care or cover a lot of those things, in terms of like, attendant care, the kinds of services like…community and rehabilitation, and those sorts of things, which means that right out of the gate, abortion care is not accessible because Social Security benefits that disabled people hopefully get, and not everybody gets because it is a really sort of unjust and difficult system to navigate. Like it’s only, I think, around $800 a month?
So just like, financially, abortion becomes out of reach.
CAYA: That’s not very much to live on at all.
CORI: It’s not! There is no place in the state that you can get an apartment for that, let alone live. So, financially abortion becomes out of reach.
But then there’s also… we’ve seen specifically targeted attacks on abortion from the perspective of disability where the Republicans in the Legislature introduced bills to make abortion illegal in the case where a fetus is prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome. So the termination of fetal Down syndrome is an issue, right? We see there are fewer people with Down syndrome being born than there ever have. In some countries, there are zero.
And this is a justice issue, because people with Down Syndrome are people, and the conversation about the worth of these people’s lives and their right to live in the community and have full lives is really…. however people with Down syndrome are also people with rights, and most people with Down syndrome, if they choose to parent, their baby will have Down syndrome.
And if they don’t choose to parent and become pregnant, they should also have the right to abortion. So we can’t use disability and developmental disabilities, like Down syndrome, and kind of this concern trolling, to limit that.
It’s an important conversation where many people who get the prenatal diagnosis, the doctor might never even offer them any information about what it means to raise a person with Down syndrome, what it means for that potential child’s life, and they just go straight to termination.
That’s a problem. Limiting the autonomy of the people carrying the pregnancies doesn’t solve our society’s ability to actually value the lives of disabled people. Especially, and we didn’t talk about this, but in Pennsylvania, our services for people with developmental disabilities to live fully in the community, we have a waiting list of over 12,000 people.
Many of those people will not get services in the community in their lifetimes. We have seen lawsuits because people who have been completely acquitted of charges, and who have developmental disabilities, have been held in jail for months because there are not services or placements for them in the community.
And the answer to this cannot be removing reproductive rights. It has to be valuing the lives of living people with disabilities.
CAYA: So it almost seems like they’re taking this issue and using it to advance their agenda, when that really isn’t the issue at all, it’s that they’re not valuing these lives in the first place and not investing in them right now.
CORI: Correct. We are not tools for rhetorical arguments. We’re humans.
CAYA: That’s really powerful. And I think one of the things that came up for me during the discussion, we touched on this as well, is that denying the bodily autonomy of people with disabilities is really, really dangerous because those are people who are really, really vulnerable to things like sexual assault.
I think that you had said that there was a pretty big percentage of disabled people who were at risk for that sort of thing, right?
CORI: Yeah. The Arc did a study a few years ago now, and the results were that… and they only looked at binary genders here, but they said that 80% of women with developmental disabilities would be sexually abused five or more times by the time they turned eighteen, and 60% of men with developmental disabilities. First of all, we have to address this. We have to address why are vulnerable people with developmental disabilities being put in these situations.
And part of that is sexual education, and the refusal to acknowledge people’s competence as human beings and giving people the ability to be sexual.
Because people with developmental disabilities, and I say this as an autistic person, have the same range of sexuality and asexuality as everyone else.
If you don’t have access to safe sexuality, you are at much higher risk of being sexually victimized. Likewise with sex education, we know that sex education is a protective factor in sexual abuse, but we exclude people in life skills classrooms, people in segregated education, people with significant disabilities from sex education, and we’re just putting people at more risk.
We put people at more risk and we are also, at the same time, limiting people’s ability to make an informed choice about a resulting pregnancy, if that were to happen. If we limit people’s access to abortion… there have been cases… there have been several in Canada, but I’ve seen one even here in Pittsburgh, where a young woman, with intellectual disability badly wanted to parent her son, but she needed support right now.
I don’t believe there is any state in the United States that considers parenting an “activity of daily living” or an “instrumental activity of daily living.”
That means that Medicaid waivers don’t cover the support to do that. Which means when people with significant disabilities who need that level of support have children, they are either put in kinship care with a family member or they’re removed and put in foster care. When they have loving parents who just need the support to care for them, like at the same, it’s very frustrating that we have this twofold thing here where disabled people are neither allowed to end an unwanted pregnancy or keep a wanted child.
CAYA: It’s almost like once you have a disability, physical or mental, the default perception of you is “incapable.”
CORI: Correct. That’s a conversation I think that we have a lot, about how disabled people are either seen as being so non-disabled as to be abled or to be neurotypical and able-bodied, or so disabled as to be incapable [of] doing anything. And the reality is, disabled or non-disabled, we all fall somewhere different on that spectrum every day, and very, very rarely on either end of it.
CAYA: That’s really, really valuable because it’s because everything’s a spectrum and by putting people as able, not able, incapable, not capable, it just leaves these huge gaps in care where maybe some people just need a little bit of support and that’s it. That’s all they need to live those rich, fulfilling lives.
CORI: Or a lot of support.
CAYA: Or a lot of support!
CORI: Humans, you know, that is part of our legacy as these interesting animals, is that there is evidence, going back tens of thousands of years, of us caring for each other, and making room for bodies that work differently.
But we’re not doing that because it costs money.
CAYA: We are approaching time here, so a couple of final questions for you. What more could advocates and activists, and especially people in the Democratic Party… what more could they be doing to reach out and include disabled people in these conversations?
CORI: So one of the things… this piece varies by state, but here in Pennsylvania there are two classes of people who can’t vote. They are people currently incarcerated for a felony — currently — and people who, during guardianship proceedings, have had their right to vote specifically removed by a judge.
This happens very, very rarely. I have not actually encountered a case of this. That means the vast majority, including people, under guardianship and people who live in institutions can vote. So there’s this whole block of people that nobody’s talking to because they assume we are incapable or assumed to be incapable of making decisions, of having hard conversations, of being interested.
So I think if we’re talking about Democrats, maybe we could engage Democratic, disabled people. We also need to talk about Medicaid waivers and home and community-based services. And, first of all, making adequate budget allocations, to these services; the second, actually making sure that these social safety nets meet people’s needs. Like in Pennsylvania, we don’t have full service dental.
Dental benefits basically cover cleanings and extractions, which then limits people’s ability to get gainful employment. It means people are more reliant on painkillers, which means people are generally more disabled by pain.
So we have actually think about the unintended consequences of the austerity measures that the Democrats have bought into, as well as actually protecting disabled people’s rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act is older than I am, and I’m thirty-one. It is still not fully enforced anywhere. And it doesn’t have any meaningful teeth because, like civil rights legislation that is enforced by litigation by marginalized people… it’s almost pointless, almost.
We need protections for disabled people that have some kind of teeth, some kind of ability to protect the right to be fully engaged and access the world.
CAYA: Thank you very much. That was Cori Frazer. I will include the website for the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy in our post on the Cascadia Advocate. Stay tuned for more upcoming features on Netroots Nation 2022!
For NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.